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Toned Down 

In last week's column, I bemoaned the dearth of interesting scripts. This week, I finally found one. The Fever by Wallace Shawn is an elegant meditation on the social reality of the planet Earth at the present time. That sounds like a tall order, but rather than try to master complicated facts, Shawn takes the route recommended by Lao Tse and other ancient philosophers: he looks within. He simply faces things so obvious that they are known to all and willfully ignored.

Now, before I continue, I have to add a caveat. Shows like Grease or Sweet Charity are like junk food -- full of empty calories but loaded with seductive, if inauthentic flavors. The Fever is the opposite. One woman on a small stage, talking. I certainly would not suggest you rush to the Fine Arts Center after a harassing day of work, bolt down a few stiff ones and expect a good time. Better to go to the gym and burn off the day's neurotic dross or spend an hour in a park or do whatever it is you do to get back in touch with a slower, more speculative mood. The pay off for giving up the junk food is the enjoyment of a substantial intellectual feast. In the least theatrical of ways, The Fever draws from the deep, sustaining roots of drama.

Michelle Doan Warner is the narrator. She has traveled from a developed, industrialized country to somewhere in the Third World. She is alone in a hotel room, feeling sick. It is a spiritual as well as physical sickness, for her arrival in this brutal, impoverished country has opened her eyes to the exceptional nature of her own privileged existence.

I was reminded of a stunning moment in one of the Gospels when a rich man comes to Christ and says he has tried everything, and with the deepest sincerity, and yet he cannot find God. What should he do? Take all you have, give it to the poor and follow me, says Christ. There is no description of the man's face. But one can almost see him blanch. He makes a speedy departure. That sort of moment is at the heart of Shawn's play. It's about the guilt of being one of the "haves." And this dilemma is presented in such a nuanced, candid and irrefutable way that it is simultaneously horrifying and reassuring -- like seeing a dead body for the first time.

With a restrained, honest performance, Warner holds us spellbound for the entire two-act monologue. Bryan Jeffrey Graham directed this thought-provoking miniature for the up-and-coming Big TaDa Productions.

Meanwhile, over at Southern Rep, we have two sterling performances in Yellowman, a play about the destructive effects of an obsession with skin tone in the Gullah communities of South Carolina. Lance Nichols is Eugene and Karen Kaia Livers is Alma. They are childhood friends who grow up together in a world where the color of one's skin and the status implications of that color rule tyrannically and fatally. Eugene's light-skinned mother defied her light-skinned father by marrying Eugene's father, who is dark. Eugene, however, is light -- which his father violently resents. Alma is dark (and overweight to boot) -- facts her dark-skinned mother berates her with constantly. Alma's father was a light-skinned no-good who deserted the home.

Nichols and Livers play not only the central characters, but everyone else as well. And they handle these complicated chores with charm and honesty, creating a genial evening of theater that offers much to enjoy.

I did find the production confusing, however. The play focuses on the distinctions of skin color to the exclusion of almost any other considerations in the character's lives. Over and over, we hear pejorative terms hurled back and forth between the darker- and lighter-skinned characters. One would expect Alma to be dark-dark and Eugene to be passe-blanc so that the Romeo and Juliet aspect of the situation wold be clearly present before us. And yet, Nichols and Livers are close enough in skin tone that they both seem to be on the light side of the great divide. When Alma repeatedly lamented about how her mother screamed at her for being so ugly-dark, I found myself squirming in my seat and looking around the audience. Did no one else find this strange? Was I misunderstanding the text completely?

Valerie Curtis-Newton directed this Pulitzer Prize-finalist play by previous Obie Award winner Dael Orlandersmith. Takeshi Kata designed the simple but effective set.

click to enlarge Michelle Doan Warner as the narrator conveys the - guilt of being one of the "haves" in Big TaDa's - premiere production, Wallace Shawn's The - Feverat the Fine Arts Center.
  • Michelle Doan Warner as the narrator conveys the guilt of being one of the "haves" in Big TaDa's premiere production, Wallace Shawn's The Feverat the Fine Arts Center.


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