If I Hold My Tongue is a new work by playwright Patricia Henley. Focusing on a group of women in a halfway house in Baltimore, it explores what it is to be a parent, a member of the community, and finally, a responsible adult.
With this production, part of the Women’s Voices Theatre Festival, Compass Rose Theater in Annapolis takes a risk in producing such a serious work by an unknown playwright. Smaller theaters can rarely take such financial chances; with little chance of commercial success, works in progress are usually produced by larger theaters with larger budgets.
But Compass Rose takes its mission of serving its audience with a passion that belies its small venue. For the last five years, they have produced works of quality within a slim budget. It’s a commendable achievement; we need more places to actively take chances in order for new playwrights to find their voices.
That being said, a voice must speak with some authority, and If I Hold My Tongue just doesn’t have it. It isn’t that the characters aren’t interesting or the plot compelling; it is simply that nothing about the dialogue or even plain facts rings true. If the author wishes for realism, then some semblance of research must be done. Take, for example, the setting- a halfway house in Fells Point in Baltimore. Fells Point? Where rowhomes go for $440K? Not even remotely possible. Given that this is easily Googled, the lack of knowledge about what parts of the city are prohibitively expensive or are poorer is distressing. (This reviewer must reveal that she lives in Baltimore, in a less-than-fashionable area, where there are at least four church-run halfway houses to her knowledge.)
And the dialogue is no better- veering between stilted and poetical, the characters are just mouthpieces; how they speak is simply not how street talk sounds these days. There are a few naughty words scattered about for effect, but it’s very evident that the author doesn’t use these herself and knows no-one who does: it just rings false, again and again.
This isn’t to say that there aren’t some real moments in the play: the basic premise of Tell or Don’t Tell is a strong one, and there are glimmerings of a social conscience underneath the artifice.
IF I HOLD MY TONGUE
Part of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival
September 17 – 27, 2015
Compass Rose Theatre
49 Spa Road
1 hour, 10 minutes with no intermission
The cast ranged from amateur to strong: in particular, Theresa Cunningham as Moodge took a thin and poorly sketched character and filled her as full of life as she could- it was like watching an artist sketch a Vermeer on a helium balloon. Ayune Boone likewise made her character of Lateesh all the more sympathetic, impressive given the unlikely storyline that was written for the character. And in the tiniest of roles, Clayton Pelham as Russell brought some balance to the play, though the romance between his character and the lead character of CC, a still-struggling prostitute, seemed just as unlikely.
Direction by Lucinda Merry-Brown was clear and decisive, though watching actors edge past each other on the tall, narrow stairway made us gasp and the stairway creak ominously. Lighting, though, was dim as dim could be; given that the barebones production was done on a simple black stage with little décor, we had a hard time just seeing faces in several scenes.
This is a workshop production, not yet a finished piece, and If I Hold My Tongue did have some things to say. I’d like to come back and see the second incarnation next year – each of its performances featured a talkback session after the show. Let’s hope the playwright took notes, and takes some time to finesse this piece over the next year, so that the voices of these women can be heard.
If I Hold My Tongue by Patricia Henley . Directed by Lucinda Merry-Browne . Produced by Compass Rose Theater . Reviewed by Jill Kyle-Keith.