Produced by Rep Stage
By: Debbie Minter Jackson
If you have put off making that trek up to Rep Stage in Howard County, smiling sweetly yet looking the other way each time they are recognized for excellence and achievements over the years, because, well, it’s just too damn far away, then grab your Mapquest navigator, bum a ride if necessary, just find a way to get there any way you can. Don’t let a few miles and tricky campus turns cause you to miss the outstanding Stones in His Pockets, playfully directed by Lee Mikeska Gardner and featuring the inimitable Bruce Nelson and Michael Stebbins in roles they were born to play. With lightening quick precision, these two versatile actors portray a cast of characters in this humorous yet poignant tale by Irish story teller Marie Johns. With subtle changes in mannerisms and a prop or two, Nelson and Stebbins stretch and bend imagination into believing you’ve actually seen the entire village of extras, cast and crew on the misty Irish countryside, witnessed the Hollywood machine churning out celluloid reality and felt the anguish of those trampled in its path. They’re a sight to behold and well worth the trek to the nether regions of Howard County.
The play opens with Charlie trying to wheedle an extra helping of pudding by insisting that it’s for a friend, and is of course denied. In just a few strokes, playwright Jones has set up the premise of tension- the longing for sustenance, the attempt to save face in the midst of humiliation, and Hollywood control wielding, even down to the rationed number of puddings, themes that resound throughout the entire play. The story line finds Charlie and Jake navigating the waters of being extras on a set, and even learning from the “last living extra on John Wayne’s – The Quiet Man.” The stakes are high-the pay scale of 40 quid a day is nothing to shake a stick at. Even Jake who has been to America and had his share of being knocked around there, returned to the village grateful to work for his 40 quid. Favored by the clueless ingénue, Caroline Giovanni, complete with entourage, body guards, dressers and “handlers,” he starts to wonder if the attention of the starlet is worth the price afterall.
This well crafted play gets across the strong sense of family connection, the role of the village in self-esteem, and the steady obliteration of natural settings and cultures by media’s mass-market version of reality. Stones in his pockets refers to a down and almost out young man who tried unsuccessfully to grab his claim to fame and become an extra. When instead he was rebuffed, scorned and thrown off the set in front of the entire village, the shame proved to be too much for him to bear. A farmer recalled seeing him walk into the sea, return briefly to shore only to go back into the water. In a poignant piece of storytelling and breathtaking imagery, we learn that he returned to fill his pockets with stones, which became the premise for the second act and ultimate resolution of the play.
The set designer created a lush Irish countryside, complete with cobblestone embankment, which the lighting designer Melanie Clark made look mossy green in spots. The sound design by Chas Marsh was such an essential element that it may as well have been a third character pivotal to orchestrating each scene, from relaying a mass of teeming extras on a set to the intimate portrayal of a dialog between two characters performed by one of the actors-such magical moments where light and sound cues instantaneously blend with the kaleidoscopic change in characters must be seen to be believed. And of course there is the heart-melding music-nothing strikes the strings like those Irish tunes, even the soaring Americanized versions used for the melodramatic movie scenes, or gets the heart pumping like the notorious jigs which crescendo to a fevered wild dancing fling of a finale.
Now I can stop kicking myself for having missed the production with Bronson Pinchot, and Jake Quinn several years ago at the Kennedy Center. While I’m sure they did a fine job, I can’t imagine them being much better than the treasure that awaits you up Interstate 29 at Rep Stage.
Showtimes (at the Smith Theater on the campus of Howard Community College) are Fridays at 8pm Saturdays at 2:30pm and 8pm, and Sundays at 2:30pm and 7:30pm, with an additional Thursday 7:30 pm show on October 5. Tickets ($12-20) may be purchased by calling the Box Office at 410-772-4900 or online at http://www.repstage.org/. The campus is located at 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia, MD.