South Africa and Anacostia Playhouse have one thing in common: they’re both usually sources for exceptional plays. South Africa’s John Kani/Athol Fugard playwriting and devising team made some of the best plays of the 20th century out of the struggle against the Apartheid regime. Anacostia Playhouse knows how to pick good theater; they’ve hosted the critically acclaimed companies Theater Alliance and Scena Theater. Now they’re venturing into productions of their own with the Dog Days of Summer which closes this Sunday with the short run of Lara Foot Newton’s post-Apartheid drama Solomon and Marion.
The play received its U.S. premiere last year at the Kennedy Center. I now wish I had grabbed tickets to compare the productions (let my pain be your lesson: buy tickets to local US premieres) because the Anacostia Playhouse Solomon and Marion is an odd swirl of heartfelt remembrances, sometimes chilling moments, and an accumulating sense of frustration that took away from the potential power of the play.
Admittedly, there’s some frustration built into the play by design. Solomon and Marion tells the story of Marion (played by a cynically chipper Claire Schoonover), a dying White woman in South Africa, alone in her family home and separated from the ones she’s loved in her life: by divorce from her husband, by an ocean from her daughter, and by death from her son. She’s visited by Solomon (a rock solid Clayton Pelham), a young Black man from her past, now shrouded in mystery, who has been creeping around her house and watching her for Marion doesn’t know how long. The moments just after the opening of the play amp up the chilling factor, as Solomon peers at her eerily through mimed windows. The apprehension this scene inspires is right on the money, setting up the mystery behind why Solomon is spying and a terrible secret he holds.
But this suspense dissipates after Marion cheekily invites Solomon in to murder her, then finds out that he is from her past. And, due to some issues with direction (in blocking, space, and pace), that suspense never really returns. The scenery of Anacostia Playhouse’s black box for this play is mostly spare, with the interesting touch of family photos hanging from the rafters to imitate hanging on the walls (the play is sharing space with American Moor.)
But with the scenic designer foregoing a backdrop, the space is too huge for this intimate 2 person play, making the actors take seemingly interminable treks whenever they go offstage, which is often. This slowdown, combined with crawling transitions and a dialogue pace that never hit its stride, the mystery and menace of Solomon’s sudden presence in Marion’s life never became palpable. I wish director Lisa Hodsell had cracked the whip a little more and given the rising action of the play some more attention to detail.
But when the play reaches its climax, these actors do a fine job. Claire Schoonover’s cynicism gains a real bite, and Clayton Pelham finds the mixed up teen inside his stolid character. One fascinating result of the slow rising action was that the moments of true intensity are shocking and raw. Watching Schoonover explode is like watching a pet suddenly turn on its owner, like a moment you knew was possible but never thought would happen. Pelham’s reaction and his later brutal confession flips a switch in him, and Solomon, who was a believable but not very interesting man in the first hour of the production, breaks through his facade from inside out in Pelham. These moments show off the actors for who they truly are and can give you an idea of how much thought they put into these moments and these characters.
SOLOMON AND MARION
August 10 – 16
Part of the Dog Days of Summer Theater Festival
2020 Shannon Place SE
Details and Tickets
The other place the character’s shine is in the memories they share together and the new ones they create together. Solomon and Marion isn’t so much about action, but how revealing layers of memory inspires change in the titular characters. They share trifling, but amusing, domestic moments and memories, and the laughs and awws these exchanges inspire are genuine and heartfelt. Anyone who has been married can tell you that those kind of moments are the cement that holds real, tangible life together. Much like real marriage, those solidifying moments only come after the powerful conflict of the climax. But Solomon and Marion only runs 80 minutes, not a lifetime, and for this play to reach its full potential, those moments needed to be pushed forward, not back.
There are worthwhile reasons to see Solomon and Marion: the play tries to open up the world of contemporary South Africa to DC audiences and there are beautiful moments. If you’ve got the patience to stick through the first hour, there’s some gold at the end of this rainbow. Perhaps the pace has picked up since opening night. I certainly hope it has, because there are some sparks of brilliance here that should be allowed to shine for DC audiences.
Solomon and Marion by Lara Foot Newton . Directed by Lisa Hodsoll . Featuring Claire Schoonover and Clayton Pelham . Produced by Anacostia Playhouse . Reviewed by Alan Katz.