J. Wynn Rousuck

Maryland Morning Theater Critic

J. Wynn Rousuck has been reviewing theater for Maryland Morning with Sheilah Kast since 2007. Prior to that, she was the theater critic of The Baltimore Sun, where she reviewed more than 3,000 plays over the course of 23 years. Her feature coverage for The Sun included a comprehensive series chronicling the development of the Tony Award-winning musical, “Hairspray.” Judy got her start at The Cleveland Press and at Cleveland’s fine arts radio station, WCLV. Her broadcasting experience also includes a year as an on-air theater critic for Maryland Public Television.

A member of the Artistic Advisory Committee of Young Audiences of Maryland, Judy is also a freelance teacher for the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth and the Hippodrome Foundation, Inc. (the Hippodrome’s non-profit partner, which focuses on education and outreach). She was a faculty member at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s Critics Institute in Waterford, CT, for two decades; she is a former National Endowment for Humanities Journalism Fellow; and she was a visiting student at Brown University (2007-2008), under the mentorship of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, Paula Vogel. Judy and her husband, Alan Fink, share their home with two dogs, who enjoy hearing their “Master’s Voice” on WYPR.

Tessa Sollway

 

Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” is the most produced American play. It’s on stage somewhere every single day. So it’s not surprising that people think they know it -- “Our Town,” that folksy play that gets done in high schools.

But “Our Town” is much more than that. It’s a play that cuts to the core of what it means to be human, to experience life, and it’s a play that was so daringly experimental when it debuted in 1938 that it changed the face of American drama.

A production that gets all of that – or even most of it – right will shake you up in the opening scene and move you to tears by the end. Director Eric C. Stein and his cast have a firm grip on “Our Town” at the Vagabond Players.

 

Jackson Phippin

Baltimore’s newest theater company, The Oven, has made its debut at the Theatre Project with a short, intense original show called Gone.

A tightly knit ensemble of five young Towson University theater alums has spent almost a year and a half creating and honing this harrowing examination of the coercion or abduction of young people into prostitution.

Photo by Joan Marcus

Every once in a while, we whisk you out of the Baltimore and Maryland theater scene to our neighboring city, Washington, DC. The new musical Bright Star -- featuring music and book by Steve Martin and music and lyrics by Edie Brickell -- is playing at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater through Januaury 10, ahead of a spring opening on Broadway.  Maryland Morning Theater Critic J. Wynn Rousuck is here to share her thoughts on the performance.

Stan Barouh

John Patrick Shanley. A playwright with that name might be expected to write plays with Irish settings, Irish characters, Irish themes, Irish music. Not Shanley. He didn’t want to be pegged an Irish-American playwright.

Then this author of the screenplay of the Italian-American-themed movie, Moonstruck, gave into his roots and wrote Outside Mullingar – his 2014 play set in the rural outskirts of a town 50 miles northwest of Dublin.

It’s been a happy homecoming. Outside Mullingar is among the most produced plays at American regional theaters this season. One of those is Everyman Theatre, where Donald Hicken has directed an endearing Baltimore-Washington premiere.

The title of the bold, new play at Fells Point Corner Theatre is a provocative, monosyllabic word not suitable for public radio. In polite company, Mike Bartlett’s award-winning drama has come to be known as “The Cockfight Play.”

And though cockfighting isn’t mentioned in the script, at Fells Point Corner, director Steve Goldklang has clearly been inspired by it. Two roosters, ready for combat, are painted on the back wall of designer Roy Steinman’s bare set; a large dark red ring is painted on the floor.

Center Stage

Somewhere between Berkeley, California, last January, and Baltimore, now, the play, X’s and O’s, lost its subtitle: “A Football Love Story.”

When you see Berkeley Rep’s co-production with Center Stage, love isn’t the first emotion that comes to mind. Fandom, fervor, loyalty; definitely. But love? Well, as the saying goes: Love is blind.

Blind to such football health hazards as concussion and CTE, chronic traumatic encephalopathy – the condition that used to be called “punch drunk.” The play also raises other issues, but brain damage is the focus.

Harry Bechkes

Loneliness, luck (or the lack of it), birth and death weave their way through Will Eno’s play, “Middletown” -- now at the Theatrical Mining Company in Baltimore.  In the opening scene, the character of a policeman describes the town: “Population: stable. Elevation: same. The main street is called Main Street…People come, people go. Crying, by the way, in both directions.”

Stylistically, this description is reminiscent of the Stage Manager’s description of Grover’s Corners at the start of “Our Town.” Much of what follows is an homage to that classic American play.

This past June, I moderated a playwrights’ panel at the second International Thornton Wilder Conference. Will Eno was one of the panelists. He praised Wilder’s immense skill at writing about the quotidian – the commonplace, the everyday.

Center Stage

Theater Critic J. Wynn Rousuck has been to see the production of The Secret Garden, running now through November 29th at Center Stage. This morning she sits down with Tom to share her thoughts on an enchanting performance.

Happenstance Theater

Cabaret Noir summons up a world where Philip Marlowe or Mike Hammer or, for that matter, Guy Noir would feel right at home.

Stage versions of film noir aren’t new – Sunset Boulevard and City of Angels were big, glitzy Broadway musicals that won Tony Awards.

Washington-based Happenstance Theatre takes a much more low-key approach. Cabaret Noir is an ensemble-created work based in stylized movement, humor, mime, dance and a dash of puppetry. The show is making its world premiere at the Theatre Project.

Everyman Theatre

    

“Some people build fences to keep people out and other people build fences to keep people in.” That’s a line from August Wilson’s “Fences.”

Troy Maxson, the protagonist of this 1987 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, is building a fence for both reasons. But the “people” he wants to keep out aren’t people at all -- they’re Death and the Devil.

“Fences” is August Wilson’s most popular play – the 1950s installment of his decade-by-decade chronicle of 20th century African-American life. It’s already had a star-studded Broadway revival, and now Everyman Theatre is producing it for the second time.

Clinton Turner Davis – an August Wilson veteran – directs Everyman’s new production. Its lead actor, Alan Bomar Jones, also has a history with Wilson’s plays -- and particularly with Troy Maxson; he’s played the role twice before.

Troy is a fictitious former baseball star in the Negro Leagues. He’s still bitter about not making it to the majors when Jackie Robinson broke the color line. Just the mention of Robinson propels him down his porch steps, tearing off his cap and breaking into a rant.

Jones is a large man; it’s easy to believe his Troy was an athlete. His stern demeanor captures Troy’s personality -- a man whose entire life has been a battle. No sooner does he finish railing against Jackie Robinson than he challenges Death itself, acting out how he wrestled Death and won.

Troy learned to play baseball in prison. Now he works for the Pittsburgh sanitation department and is married to a good woman, Rose, with whom he has a teenaged son named Cory.

Cory’s a nice kid and Brayden Simpson, an alum of the Baltimore School for the Arts, delivers a splendid portrayal as a gentle teen who’s eager to please.

Cory’s been recruited by a college football scout, and everyone but Troy realizes that Cory is desperate to follow in his father’s footsteps. All Troy can see is a repeat of the disappointment and dead end that marked his own athletic career.

The father-son conflict is central to “Fences,” but a marital conflict surfaces as well. Wilson wrote aria-like speeches for his characters, and some of his richest are for Troy’s wife, Rose.

Joy Jones plays Rose with the fortitude the character requires and also lets us see the love Rose feels for Troy. But her delivery of a crucial line that changes the course of their relationship elicited unexpected laughter on opening night.

August Wilson crafted “Fences” as a traditionally structured drama, with a single protagonist – in contrast to his ensemble-driven plays. The result is a play that’s not only powerful, but highly accessible.

Wilson did, however, include one of his archetypal mystical characters. Troy’s brother, Gabriel, is a brain-damaged war veteran. Now he chases so-called “hell hounds” and wears a battered trumpet on a string around his neck, waiting to blow it for St. Peter.

Bryant Bentley imbues this sad soul with a childlike range of emotions – from unbridled glee to fury. Director Davis’ production isn’t the strongest I’ve seen of this play; it wavers, at times. But Bentley’s depiction of Gabriel is among the most moving. Every time Troy looks at Gabriel, you sense the loss he feels for his diminished brother.

In many respects, “Fences” is a domestic drama in the mold of “Death of a Salesman” – which Everyman will produce later this season – or “The Glass Menagerie.” “Fences” is as focused on personal responsibility and familial relationships as it is on racial and economic issues. Everyman’s production illuminates those themes and reminds us why this play, which debuted only 30 years ago, is already deemed an American classic.

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