Many people have a difficult time accepting the passing of loved ones. For example, after baseball Hall of Famer Ted Williams died, his son had his father's body and head placed (separately) in cryogenic suspension, so that future medical breakthroughs could restore him to life.
If you think that's grotesque, it's got nothing on the events in The Alice Seed by local playwright Michael Sepesy, now at Cleveland Public Theatre. In this world premiere, we observe some rural southerners dealing with family deaths. And thanks to a quietly elegant script and some intriguing staging techniques, this production is mesmerizing from beginning to end.
It's a southern-gothic tale by way of the horror story your counselor told you on your first overnight camping trip. And although the take-away ideas may seem predictable, the pure storytelling here is glorious.
Dolores and Judah are a married couple who recently lost their school-age daughter Alice to cancer. But every day, mom is led into the adjoining field by a force that feels and looks like Alice. Judah goes along with this odd behavior for a while, but eventually insists that his wife snap out of her mourning and go back to teaching school.
Approaching a crisis point, Dolores encounters a foreboding apparition, makes a desperate deal and comes away with a seed that she plants in the field. Lo and behold, out of the ground appear the outstretched arms of Alice. Or is it?
This phenomenon is observed by Paul, a neighbor who recently lost his wife. Soon, he is pestering Dolores for a similar seed, so he can grow his Sarah back to life. But when such a seed isn't forthcoming, his ghastly Plan B leads to tragedy.
Sepesy navigates these highly theatrical but potentially rocky waters with skill, using humor and just enough poetry to give the piece a chilling yet oddly evocative tone. The script is enhanced by Trad Burns' fantasy-forest set, accented by scrims that appear, fly away and are backlit to reflect the play's ever-changing moods.
Director Alison Garrigan leads her cast through these spooky proceedings with consummate skill. As Dolores, Jackie Cummins is every inch the bereft mother, lost in her sorrow but also sparking with fury when defending her daughter. Mark Mayo makes Judah an interesting study in dueling character traits, behaving both reprehensibly and with a wounded sense of honor.
Michael Andrews-Hinders has a flat affect that works for Paul, and Joseph Milan handles his small role as a doctor well. Nadia Tarnawsky and Bobby Williams contribute snatches of country-western and bluegrass tunes, along with miscellaneous sighs, thumps and chimes that add to the mystical illusion.
The meaning of The Alice Seed is as simple as the embroidered saying on a pillow Dolores might buy at a flea market: "A mother's love knows no bounds." But the magic here is in the telling, and it is entrancing.
SIX MONTHS ago, CPT presented No Child, a one-person show written by Nilaja Sun and performed by Nina Domingue. This story of a "teacher/artist" in a fictional New York City high school was good then. But it is excellent now, in its encore presentation.
Named after the last Bush administration's largely catastrophic No Child Left Behind program, the play centers on the teacher, a stand-in for the playwright herself, who leads a 10th-grade class through the production of a play about Australian convicts.
The prison references aren't lost on the students, who initially rebel but are soon swayed by their visiting teacher — who almost quits in frustration but hangs in until the end.
It's a storyline that comes perilously close to the familiar arc of heroic, inspirational-teacher movies like Stand and Deliver. But it is saved by Lisa Ortenzi's crisp direction and Domingue's performance. Crafting precisely etched characterizations, Domingue switches in a flash from the teacher to surly student Shondrika to bashful student Phillip.
Those are just three of the 16 people Domingue inhabits, and in this production, she has shaved off some of the broader, easy-to-peg traits. As a result, there are fewer easy laughs but deeper realizations of character and truth.
For example, the school's longtime janitor is the narrator and, due to a less forced comic approach, he comes off as a touching individual. When he proudly states that, "Those windows and chalkboards are clean 'cause I'm still here," it speaks to a pride that goes far beyond simple slogans.
It won't surprise anyone that the students' play is finally a success. But there are some sobering moments of reality within this dream that keep No Child grounded and often gripping.