When I say that the chameleon Tim Getman has revealed yet another unexpected side of himself, I’m not just referring to the drastic change in hairstyle. For Cherry Smoke, he’s sporting a head buzzed to the scalp – a look that goes well with the lock-jawed sneer on his face through much of this moody and fitfully affecting tragic drama by James McManus. But the reinvention isn’t just cosmetic. As a troubled boxer in small-town Pennsylvania, Getman wraps each of his Iines in a wolfish grin, using every muscle it takes to keep hot aggression, brazen pride, and a fatalistic sense of humor pumping though each scene. That he’s matched by such good co-stars only makes the ensuing battles over heart, mind and guts more arresting.
Getman is Fish, a young man out of water. Faced with few long-term options and barely more money than the change in his pocket, Fish makes a living making a killing on the local amateur boxing circuit. The irony runs as thick as blood around here; with a life of poverty closing in and daily hunger choking off hope, success in the ring is just as much a road to survival as it is a deadly threat.
His childhood playmate and perennial girlfriend Cherry (a lovely Julia Proctor, with sad eyes and a cracked smile) is torn by her love for a man with such deeply self-inflicted wounds. If Fish’s one true passion – not to mention his sole source of money – is boxing, can he ever be asked to live without it? Isn’t life supposed to be a fight? Cherry finds herself left at the wayside as a result, but lacks the words to express her confusion and deep disappointment.
Not so for Fish’s brother Duffy (Cliff Williams III), who also serves duty as ringside coach and cut man. Watching the two boys toss mock-casual life advice at each other during warm-ups and sparring matches is no less of a sport; Duffy can’t throw a fist for squat, but he’s blessed with a head screwed on straight instead, and it’s in his wistful monologues about family and manhood – the most poignant and rewarding bits of character development in the play – that we fully grasp the meaning of collateral damage. No one – neither goodhearted Cherry, Duffy, nor Duffy’s wife Bug (a wonderful Jjana Valentiner) – can break free of their compassion for a damaged and dangerous man, and their hopes that he may one day become a father, soul mate, or responsible family member sometimes hold strong but, more often, flicker like candle flames.
The resulting landscape is immeasurably lonely. We’re a long way from Grovers Corners, where the small town is a symbol of quaint, hearty, deeply interwoven families. In Cherry Smoke it’s a miracle if a single family unit ever really congeals; daily life carries an oxidized sense of age and directionlessness. The set by Matthew Soule is appropriately sparse, with a few wooden crates, a metal pail, some glass bottles, and, from every angle, a disquieting network of ropes strung in thick dips across the dimly-lit stage. The ropes impart the feel of a half-finished spiderweb; it’s the home of someone who can’t quite make out where the rules of the ring end and begin. Even the huge black shapes and negative spaces between the ropes are impossible to ignore, and in the quiet moments you may find that peering into them spurs some unexpected soul-searching. For a moment or two, we’re kids staring into a starless sky, trying to seen beyond what’s been laid out in front of us.
What happens in the foreground isn’t always as poignant. Some of McManus’s turns of phrase are simply too waxy to be believed – poor Cherry, especially, suffers a few pseudo-Ophelian fits of delusion that snap a little too easily to poetic tongue – and the production as a whole won’t completely overcome its intellectual pedigree until the dialects sink in. That far-flung Pennsylvanian speech style, with its bastardized tenses and dollops of double negatives, ain’t served too good by anything but a sustained and whole-hearted attempt at faithful speaking – something sorely missing from a production that’s otherwise tremendously diligent and full of smart choices.
Who learns more: the bully who finds his own soft spot, or the weakling who taps an unknown core of strength? The hard-knock friends in Cherry Smoke boast a whole lot of both, and the best passages in the play highlight the lunacy of standing up and trying to conquer the frightening corners of your own life. Sometimes, in boxing, it’s possible to stop the blood flowing by directly punching the cut. But who, besides heroes and madmen, hope to get hit where they already hurt?
By James McManus
Directed by Jessica Burgess
Produced by Jessica Burgess and Tim Getman for the Round House Theatre Silver Spring Series
Reviewed by Hunter Styles
Cherry Smoke plays thru Sept 5, 2010.
For Details, Directions and Tickets, click here.