Solomon’s Blade: Neglected Gem of a Play Makes Impressive World Premiere After 12 Years In Limbo
– by Lee Greene
“The beauty of this play is it’s about listening” says playwright Lisa Beth Allen, about her drama, Solomon’s Blade, which received its world premiere on the stage of the Camelot Theatre in Talent, OR on Friday, Feb. 5, 2016. [JPR: The Jefferson Exchange, The Sharpening Of Solomon’s Blade: Interview with Lisa Beth Allen, http://n.pr/1Pdig20] So many of the world’s problems: international conflicts, ethnic group clashes, neighborhood disputes, family turmoils, and our individual struggles with one another are attributable to that simple, but nearly universal truth: people generally have a tendency NOT to listen. We bring our biases and prejudices, judgments, opinions, thoughts and impressions with us into every interaction we have with the rest of the world, and just naturally tend to tune out and close our minds to anything that’s not consistent with or is contradictory to our existing beliefs; if something doesn’t mirror our thoughts we just don’t listen. Psychologists even have a term for this much studied phenomenon: cognitive dissonance. [“cognitive dissonance is the mental stress or discomfort experienced by an individual who . . . is confronted by new information that conflicts with existing beliefs, ideas, or values. . . . An individual who experiences inconsistency (dissonance) tends to become psychologically uncomfortable, and is motivated to try to reduce this dissonance—as well as actively avoid situations and information likely to increase it.” Wikipedia, Cognitive dissonance, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_dissonance]
We tend to perceive people in the world around us through a lens that dichotomizes everyone as being “similar” to or “different” from us, and if we peg them as different, there is an instant tendency NOT to seriously listen to anything substantive they may have to say. Needless to say, the world would be a far better place, with significantly less conflict, war, pain, grief and injury, if we would just stop and really listen to one another. That’s the lesson conveyed by Ms. Allen’s play, but done beautifully, and not the least bit preachy with a well written story depicting the problem in microcosm in the immediate context of a very personal interfamily crisis and in the greater context of historically strained Arab-Jewish relations.
Ms. Allen wrote the play some 12 years ago. It received an early and well received reading at the prestigious Ashland New Plays Festival in 2004. In the intervening years, it was submitted for consideration by many theaters and got readings at the Cleveland Play House, the Goodman Theater in Chicago, several West Coast theaters, but never before a full production. Ms. Allen says, “I’d . . . get the loveliest rejection letters.” [Mail Tribune, Playwright Lisa Beth Allen on ‘Solomon’s Blade’, 2/3/2016, http://bit.ly/1NWbeea] Livia Genise, the force of nature who has breathed life into and sustains the Camelot Theatre, was at that reading at the Ashland New Plays Festival in 2004 and has wanted to produce it ever since. But circumstances always got in the way, including an untimely injury sustained by Ms. Allen. Meanwhile, Ms. Allen kept refining and improving the play. She says “It’s changed a great deal” in the 12 years since that original reading and there’s been “a good bit of adjusting and tweaking and shifting.” [The Sharpening Of Solomon’s Blade; http://n.pr/1Pdig20] Of working with Ms. Genise, who directed the production for Camelot Theatre, playwright Allen says, “It’s just been a great collaboration.” [Id.] “The thing that struck me was how accessible it is,” Genise says. “You can argue with your relatives, but nobody listens. The way the play is put together, you listen to the other side.” [Playwright Lisa Beth Allen on ‘Solomon’s Blade’, http://bit.ly/1NWbeea]
The basic plot finds an unmarried, unreligious Jewish woman Claire Green (Elizabeth Marie), returned from mission work in Africa to give birth to a child, in a Detroit hospital, seven-and-a-half months pregnant, brain-dead and on life support. It largely falls on the shoulders of her not especially close or intimate sister-in-law, Tamar Greenwold (Rose Passione), a very observant and conforming Jewish woman, to deal with the crisis. Tamar retains the help of her best friend, free thinking attorney Kristin Joseph (Renée Hewitt), to find a good set of adoptive parents. This Kristin does, making arrangements for the adoption of the infant upon its birth by a very stable, caring and desiring couple, who happen to be Arab-Israeli. Oops. Kristin tells Tamar the couple are Israeli, but overlooks the Arab part, and until their first meeting Tamar assumes the adopters are Jewish. Almost all the scenes take place in the hospital room of the brain-dead Claire, where Tamar visits daily with her two young daughters, 17 year old Michelle (Aubrey Campbell) and the precocious 8 year old Hannah (Madison Garren), who are curious about their unborn cousin in their brain-dead aunt’s body and wrestling with the concepts of life, death, brain death, souls, life support, etc. The adoptive mother-to-be, Sahrrah Shouman (Stephanie Jones) also visits Claire’s hospital room where she reads children’s stories to the unborn infant.
That’s where and how Tamar first encounters Sahrrah, quite a lovely scene, except – Sahrrah happens to be wearing a Muslim hijab. Tamar is immediately taken aback, and all the tidy adoption arrangements begin to unravel as Tamar objects to the adoptive parents “because of our differences” and begins to fight for custody of the unborn child. Sahrrah’s fiancé, Amahr Reddy (Roy Von Rains, Jr.) enters the fray, in support of his soon-to-be-wife, but bringing his own biases and stereotypes, and only succeeds in making things “ugly” (his description). With the two women fighting over the unborn infant, ala the well-known biblical Solomon story from which the play derives its name, 8 year old Hannah, who has been listening, launches a Solomonic plan to solve things and end the fighting.
That’s all the plot detail you’re going to get from me. No more spoilers here. If you want any of the missing details or to know how the story ends, you’re going to have to buy a ticket and go see the play. Trust me, you’ll be glad you did. It is a very well written piece (I can’t understand for the life of me why all those other theaters passed on staging a full production!) and Ms. Allen wraps it up nicely – not sugary sweet, nor tragic – but point poignantly made, and again not in the least bit preachy or politically vociferous, but all in the context of a very accessible interfamily crisis and conflict.
So I’ve told you the story is remarkably effective and outstanding. Now I’m going one step further and informing you that the production is exceptional. I have commented time and again in previous reviews of Camelot Theatre productions that the stagecraft at the state-of-the art Camelot Theatre is almost always notably excellent. They invariably do a superior job with lighting, sound, sets, costumes, projection, and special effects. All that was true again for this production. The set provided a very realistic and effective depiction of a modern hospital room, right down to the oversize monitor displaying the patient’s vital signs (which it DID, in simulated AND readable-from-the-back-of-the-theater real time). But all that theatrical magic was just icing on the cake. The real treat, in addition to the terrific story, was the absolutely superlative, across-the-board, acting. I get to see a lot of theater performances and have seen some memorably good acting, but this performance ranks up there with the very best I have seen anywhere in Southern Oregon at any time – and THAT includes some really outstanding shows with universally acknowledged top-of-the-line acting, including some at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and some previous shows at the Camelot (see, for instance, my reviews of The Manchurian Candidate, http://performingarts.reviews/2015/10/24/camelot-theatres-the-manchurian-candidate/ and Sunset Boulevard, http://jacksonvillereview.com/?s=Sunset+Boulevard). For this show, Ms. Genise called on some of Camelot’s finest and ablest actors, and then coaxed magnificent performances from the whole company.
Let’s start with Camelot regular, Rose Passione, portraying the lynchpin character, Tamar Greenwold. The success or failure of the play really rests on her shoulders, in believably portraying the full range of emotions of a character wracked with grief, trying to sort out the mess left by a detached and isolated relative, dealing with energetic, not always obedient children, convinced of the “certitude” (Ms. Allen’s word) of her beliefs, and of her own goodness, and confronted with a situation that defies her core values. Ms. Passione carried it off splendidly. This production is an unqualified success, largely because of her success in believably conveying the experience of the central character. I have seen Ms. Passione many times on the Camelot stage, usually giving very good performances, but this was by far Ms. Passione’s best performance – the one, at least so far, that will be singled out, when her career is summarized at its end.
In order for the story to work, Tamar Greenwold needs a believable and effective foil, in the Sahrrah Shouman character. And Stephanie Jones was just gangbusters in providing it. I have previously seen Ms. Jones, as well, in numerous productions, and early on saw a spark of great potential there:
“Ms. Jones performance as Cherie was pitch perfect, and went a long way to making the story believable, and the show a success, for the audience. I dare say she was a more believable Cherie than Marilyn Monroe in the film version. This young actress clearly has talent, so you can expect to see more of her in the future.”
[Review of Next Stage Repertory Co’s Bus Stop, http://performingarts.reviews/2015/09/18/next-stage-repertory-companys-bus-stop/]
Well, the future is NOW. I didn’t initially recognize Ms. Jones, in the hajib, with the Arab-Israeli accent. But the performance was impressive, believable, and memorable right from her first scene. I was so impressed with the performance that, at intermission, I just had to pull out my program to see who this outstanding actress was, in the Sahrrah Shouman role. And I was floored to discover it was Ms. Jones. She was unrecognizable as herself, on that set on the Camelot stage. She had totally transformed herself, getting into the Sahrrah Shouman role. She was Sahrrah Shouman and it was nothing like any of her previous roles and performances. Such incredible range, and acting talent on display. Wow!
The extraordinary performances by the actresses in the two central roles were supported by equally outstanding performances by two other veteran actors in the cast. Camelot regular Renée Hewitt was pitch perfect as best friend and attorney Kristin Joseph. The role requires a deft touch, to find a balance in providing a smart lawyer who is also the not-ready-to-be-grown-up free-spirited best gal pal. Ms. Hewitt nailed it. The fiancé, Amahr Reddy character gets to be the clarion of passion in the story, most clearly expressing love, passion, animus – while the female characters tiptoe around emotions, Amahr comes right out with it.
For that character to be effectively portrayed requires an actor who can believably and emphatically emote on stage – and Camelot company dependable Roy Rains was ideal in the role and produced a perfect performance. Another character critical to the story development is hospital nurse, Steve Borrego, delightfully played by Camelot regular Rigo Jimenez, who is continuously attending to Claire and interacting with the Greenwolds and adopters-to-be, essentially serving as the instrument allowing all the others to share their stories with the audience. He also plays a pivotal, if unwitting, role in Hannah’s Solomonic solution to end the fighting. Mr. Jimenez was terrific in the role – cheerful, fun to watch and a great foil for the other actors.
Then there were the Greenwold children, Michelle (Aubrey Campbell) and Hannah (Madison Garren). They were on stage for most of the show, and have some meaty work at some points in the story, especially Madison as Hannah. Both of the young lady actresses rose to the occasion and delivered unblemished performances to equal those of the spot-on performances of their featured, talented, and more experienced, older cast mates. Finally, let me offer a tip of the hat to actress Elizabeth Marie, who was tasked with the part, as Claire, of laying in that hospital bed, playing dead for nearly 2 hours, with the rest of the cast flitting around her, bussing her, caressing her, massaging ointments and creams on her and rarely ever leaving her alone. Despite all that was going on around her, Ms. Marie managed to maintain her appointed task successfully the entire time: dead, dead, dead!
Lastly, given the thoroughly outstanding performances by the entire cast, and the complete success of this production, I have to compliment Director Livia Genise. She has taken Ms. Allen’s vision, as presented two dimensionally in the script and just given it wonderful 3 dimensional life on the stage and led each of the actors to peak performances. One more thing to mention, that is clearly the director’s doing – even the transitions between scenes (five of them!) were well done, quick, seamless, not distracting, and without losing any energy or slowing down the story development. As directing goes, this was just a tour de force.
I am absolutely confident that when other reviews of this production reach audiences, and word of mouth about this show begins to spread, the gist will be that this is an outstanding drama, and a superlative production, which should be seen, and not missed. So I expect tickets will go fast for the rest of its run, and I would advise readers of this review to get your tickets ASAP, before the run sells out. Performances of Solomon’s Blade continue at Camelot Theatre, 101 Talent Avenue, Talent through February 28, Thursday thru Saturday 8:00 pm, Sunday Matinees 2:00 pm. For tickets: order online at http://bit.ly/1EO71aR, or call the box office at 541-535-5250, or in person at 101 Talent Avenue, Talent, Oregon.
[All photos, except Bus Stop, by Camelot photographer Steve Sutfin]