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This review by Joan Crespi was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on April 14, 1999. All rights reserved

Review: `A Sunbeam’

John Henry Redwood is the acclaimed author of the award-winning

play "The Old Settler," an excellent and wrenching play, his

seventh. "The Old Settler" premiered at McCarter Theater in

1997. Redwood is also the author of "A Sunbeam," playing at

Bristol Riverside Theater, through April 18, which received the 1988

McDonald’s Literary Achievement Award for Best Play. Heralded by such

credentials, "A Sunbeam" provokes high expectations. Where

does it fall short?

Not in the acting. Micki Grant, playwright and actress, who recently

toured as Sadie Delaney in "Having Our Say," is fine as the

genteel, working class, dignified mother, Celia Gilchrist. Her husband,

Maceo Gilchrist, first appears like a cool, sneaky, adulterous cat,

but he has, it turns out, stayed 40 years with a woman he knew from

the beginning didn’t love him. Thomas Martell Brimm makes this difficult

role of the weak, passive, emasculated Maceo almost believable. And

Paul Bates is superb as the mentally retarded Sol, muttering, jiggling,

and chest-beating. He is stubborn, funny, loud, uncontrollable. Allison

Eikeren is ideal as the lovely, comely Lt. Lynda Knox (who the retarded

Sol calls "girl friend!").

The production is likewise fine. The single set, by Bart Healy, tells

the play’s story: home versus institution. A plain and modest kitchen-dining

room is framed on three sides by institutional walls of bulbous stone,

and there’s a jutting piece of iron fence. The play is about is a

mother’s obsession with her big, fat, babbling, bouncing baby of a

man for whom she has sacrificed everything, the mentally retarded

child who is the sole focus of her life. She wants him out of the

institution and at home with her.

So what is lacking? "A Sunbeam" is Redwood’s second play,

and, while it has ebullient life and funny lines, it bears flaws of

an early play. The play starts out with a fine scene between Sol,

behind the institution’s iron fence, and the bribe-soliciting guard

peddling dirty pictures, Melvin McDaniels, played by Jeff Obafemi

Carr. Celia arrives to visit, prompting Sol’s excited cries of "Mummy!

Mummy!" and she brings him food. Wanting to bring Sol home, she

argues with the institution’s doctor, Dr. Sylvia Lefcourt (convincingly

realized by Jo Twiss) who is strongly opposed to Sol’s leaving the

institution.

At home Celia tells Maceo she’s bringing Sol home for the weekend

and asks him not to upset Sol. (Maceo, whom Sol excitedly calls "Daddy,"

has never visited Sol in the institution and wanted him dead.) Lynda,

a close family friend, appears, in army uniform, but she’s leaving

the service. She’s been solicitous to Sol and is Celia’s hope for

the future, before she announces she’s getting married and moving

to California. Maceo is also planning to leave — for a last chance

at happiness, for a woman who will give him sex, which Celia has denied

him. But she’ll yield if he will be nice to Sol. Maceo refuses her

sacrifice.

Celia and Lynda do bring Sol home. At the son’s small 40th birthday

party Celia finds the dirty pictures Sol took from McDaniels. Her

fury causes Sol to fall on the floor in a stunningly acted seizure.

Maceo, carrying suitcases, goes toward the door to leave, then doesn’t.

Finally he does, and Lynda runs after him, leaving Celia and Sol alone

onstage.

The question of who will visit Sol after his mother dies and the devoted

Lynda moves away certainly helps determine the play’s ending. Celia,

visibly suffering from heart trouble and popping nitros, imagines

Sol’s life without her, his disappointment when she doesn’t appear

for visits, his abuse by inmates or guards when she’s not around to

pay them off. Celia also fears that, since Sol has hurt himself during

his seizure, the doctor will refuse to let him come home again.

Yet Redwood’s script is burdened with too many complications and surprises.

Can Lynda’s once leaving Sol alone be blamed for his seizures? And

Maceo decides not to go to his new woman, who offers him sex, because

he says he doesn’t want to do to her what he did to Celia. Unbelievable.

It’s what Celia did to him. And the play has problems of motivation.

Why does Celia berate Maceo for his lack of interest in Sol when she

knows he’s not Sol’s father? And would Celia launch into a paean about

a former lover?

Dirty pictures hidden in a cigar box is not enough to provide suspense

for so much of the play. Despite able direction by BRT’s producing

director, Susan D. Atkinson, the play is sometimes slow.

Footnote: All characters but the doctor are black, but their wants

and needs are independent of color or race.

Why is Sol’s life valuable? "Jesus wants me for a sunbeam,"

Celia prods her son Sol (or "sun") to sing. But so does his

mother. And it is her dogged passion that drives this play.

— Joan Crespi

A Sunbeam, Bristol Riverside Theater, Bristol, 215-785-0100.

Performances continue through Sunday, April 18. $27.


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