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Stage Review: Sun shines on Penn Theater's 'Water'

Friday, September 12, 2003

By Christopher Rawson, Post-Gazette Drama Critic

One of the chief appeals of "When the Water Turns Clear" by Mark Clayton Southers at the small Penn Theater is the layered freshness of the whole event. The first play by Southers, who's already written eight plays in fewer years, "Water Turns Clear" has an affirmative simplicity and a transparent good will, qualities matched by a capable and committed (if never very polished) production.


'When the Water Turns Clear'

WHERE: Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company, The Penn Theater, 4809 Penn Ave., Garfield.

WHEN: Through Sept. 28. Fri. 8 p.m.; Sat. 3 and 8 p.m.; Sun. 6 p.m.

TICKETS: $17.50; $12.50 students/seniors. 412-441-2213.


Both play and production center on Southers, doing quintuple duty as founder (of the Penn Theater), artistic director (of Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre), playwright, set designer and lead actor -- just about every leadership role possible except director, a function capably handled by Ginger Lawrence.

This concentration of many roles in one person might make "Water Turns Clear" seem a vanity production, but it doesn't feel so, because of its warm, communal presence. And community is one of the themes it celebrates.

Set in 1997, the story focuses on Jesse Jennings III, clerk and manager of a small Hill District dry goods store owned by the elderly Mr. B, who is white. Jesse's father worked there before him, and his uncle, Reese, hangs out there still, carefully never doing enough work to jeopardize the disability payments he receives for a leg injury. Jesse's son, Andre, spends a lot of time there, too, because his mother, Jesse's wife, recently died.

This largely stable if somnolent corner of the world is threatened by a changing community, by Mr. B's impending retirement and by L.J., Reese's son and Jesse's younger cousin. L.J. is unemployed, railing at the racism he feels has kept him down. He has a point, but his noisy self-justification is undercut by the quiet contrast of hardworking Jesse. L.J. is a hotheaded catastrophe waiting to happen, but he's also a sensitive poet. Will his talent and obvious affection for his family redeem him?

Jesse, meanwhile, is too shy to ask Andre's pretty teacher for a date and slow to ask Mr. B to sell him the store. And there's a danger he might buy into one of L.J.'s harebrained schemes.

Southers sets such a warm, sunny tone, it's fairly predictable how things will work out. But he also introduces a tragic alternative to add drama. Still, the plot is less interesting than the portrait of this three-generation male world, with its stories and squabbles and underlying affection.

The role the shop plays is a constant theme. This combination hardware and mom-and-pop convenience store is an important resource, but it's in danger of being put out of business by the large discount supply houses, just as the independent craftsmen who used to buy supplies there are being put out of work by larger firms. Unfortunately, Mr. B's set-piece recitation about all this is inserted in an awkward clump. Southers sometimes knows he wants to get something into the play -- such as evidence of Jesse's care for his son -- but he doesn't always know how to do it.

Nor does Southers make Mr. B's unseen, villainous son very believable. A lot of the play's seams show. But he's more successful in dealing with racism, as in a confrontation between L.J. and Mr. B. He's good at exploring family tensions and bonds, letting us see more than the characters articulate. And he provides L.J. and young Andre with some compelling poetry.

As Jesse, Southers has a teddy bear warmth. Though sometimes unfocused, his acting has a modest naturalism that matches Jesse's decency. Jay Jones' L.J. provides an electric contrast -- the more experienced Jones has the jittery energy Southers lacks. L.J. could be a caricature, but Jones shows us the impulsive, effusive man beneath the whine.

As the older generation, Wali Jamal realizes Reese's comic relief with a sturdy presence. Southers sees Reese's flaws but teaches us to like him anyway. And Harry O'Toole adds experience as Mr. B, rightly keeping us guessing whether he's too self-obsessed to do the right thing for his employees.

In a cast of likable actors, the most likable is the bright-eyed Carter Redwood as Andre. Though sometimes too soft-spoken, he has a natural ease and a smile that lights up the whole room. Benjamin Blakee and Marcia Jones play comic friends and Kimberly Harris sparkles as the attractive love-interest.

As further evidence that Southers has something going for him on Penn Avenue, last Saturday's audience included family groups and friends from out of town, eager to applaud a positive image of a hardworking young man who recognizes he can build on the past and aspire to a solid life for himself and his child. It's a simple message. It skirts many intractable social problems, but in the friendly hands of these actors, it encourages hope.

Christopher Rawson can be reached at or 412-263-1666.

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