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Opening the Box 

It's family reunion time in Park Forest, Ill. Family in this case means mothers and daughters. The male contingent has been nothing but trouble. Not that the ladies don't stir up plenty of trouble on their own.

Fortunately, in the current production of Jar the Floor (at the Anthony Bean Community Theater), the ladies are a particularly appealing group: veteran troupers Gwendolyne Foxworth and Carol Sutton, Raphaelle O'Neil (a rising star in the local firmament), public-servant-turned-performer Gail Glapion and talented newcomer Ramona Monique Ussin.

Madear (Glapion) is the aging matriarch of the family. She comes in and out of focus. "Man," her deceased husband, lingers obsessively in her mind. But, as we come to realize, the past was not a bed of roses. "Man" was a womanizer -- with little patience for his wife.

Madear's daughter, Lola (Sutton), seems to have taken after her father more than her mother. She wants to have a good time (which means a man), even if she has to pay for it. Breezy, forthright, histrionic and, often hilarious, she also has a prudish streak, which she explains with her customary vernacular gusto. "I told him (a suitor who wanted her to perform 'unnatural acts') my mouth is a sanctuary and, let's face it, a pussy ain't pretty!"

Lola's daughter, Maydee (Foxworth) has gone off in another direction entirely. She has earned several degrees and, on the day we meet her, she is waiting to learn if she got tenure at the college where she teaches. While Lola rages about "freaky-deaky shit," her daughter speaks unflappably about "oral sex" and "the advantages of masturbation." This last point is actually a defiant boast meant to cover her own particular problem with men. Maydee raised her daughter on her own -- a working single mother with all the attendant strains and difficulties.

Meanwhile, Maydee's daughter Vennie (Ussin) is a resentful rebel who wants to be a singer. She is in love with a white Jewish girl named Raisa (O'Neil), who has had a mastectomy and is dying of cancer.

This is dysfunction with a capital D. And that's only the surface. In the second act, we learn what really happened. As Raisa's mother might have put it, "Oy vey!"

But in the first act, the explosions of tension are, more often than not, accompanied by a laugh-out-loud raucousness. Sutton, who has given us so many finely drawn dramatic roles, provides much of the comic relief in this angst-ridden sisterhood. With the vivacity of Aunty Mame and the saltiness of Bessie Smith, Lola is a prime example of what the French call a "monstre sacre" -- one of those outrageous charmers to whom the ordinary laws of behavior somehow don't apply. Lola tosses us many quick little comic gems. For example, when her daughter accuses her of being lost in a "narcissistic reality," Lola defends herself furiously, but she can't quite pronounce the key word of the accusation.

The others in the cast generally have more serious tasks (although Glapion's dead-pan, death-defying joy ride in a motorized wheel chair brings down the house). They all perform with poise, intelligence and conviction -- and one ends up feeling the playwright, Cheryl West, is considerably in their debt.

In a way, Jar the Floor brings to mind the legend of Pandora's Box. In the first act, the characters toy with the idea of opening the box, but never quite do. If one starts to make the fatal move, another prevents her. The mood is comic. The characters are revealed by their attitudes and their actions.

In the second act, however, the playwright is determined to get down to the real nitty-gritty. Pandora's box is opened. The demons of the past fly out in such a thick cloud, it becomes hard to follow what is what. For instance, Maydee wanted to be musician, but she loved classical music. African Americans weren't accepted as classical musicians. Her career was blighted by racism. So she went to college and got her doctorate and now she is a professor. But, we learn later, she actually hated studying music, because her stepfather sexually abused her in the back seat of the car, when he picked her up at her lessons. And so she broke her hand. To avoid taking lessons. Huh? Run that by one more time, please. There are touching and truthful moments. But much of the second act is a Gordian knot begging for a strong hand with a knife.

It is indeed a tribute to director Anthony Bean and his quintet of lovely ladies that, despite these formidable second-act longeurs, Jar the Floor succeeds in keeping us entertained.

click to enlarge Madear (Gail Glapion) tries to relate to Raisa (Raphaelle O'Neil) in Anthony Bean's version of Cheryl West's Jar the Floor.
  • Madear (Gail Glapion) tries to relate to Raisa (Raphaelle O'Neil) in Anthony Bean's version of Cheryl West's Jar the Floor.


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