by Vincent Marano
The Chain Theater has become a magnet for artists who challenge convention and expand notions of narrative and character. With their Winter and Summer One Act Festivals, writers have the opportunity to tell stories that don’t fit the popular 10 minute limit.
Case in point, Program 2 of The Winter One Acts. Fred Pezzuli’s Doc Burns and Mrs. Teter and Sheldon Shaw’s Jailbird are wildly different in character and content, but both explore themes of community and the need for human connection with originality and care.
In Doc Burns and Mrs. Teter, a small town doctor is harangued by one of those parasol-wielding docents of community standards into determining her illness without the benefit of an examination. What at first appears to be a comedy of eccentricities becomes a gentle character study of loneliness.
Both Doc Burns; beautifully played with wishful, hangdog sweetness by Charles E. Gerber and Mrs. Teter, a genteel ribbon of steel personified perfectly by Lucy McMichael, have lost their spouses. While Doc Burns has his practice and his poker to fill the void, Mrs. Teter organizes weekly talks on a range topics for the ladies of their town.
She also keeps track of every ones habits and routines, especially Doc Burns. Having detailed her symptoms in a previous phone call, she expects Doc Burns to have fully deduced her ailment without the use of even a stethoscope. Constantly invoking the memory and (dubious) skill of her iconic father, the previous town doctor, Mrs. Teter cajoles the put upon Doc Burns into a diagnosis that fits her sense of propriety.
But is that why she’s is here, in his office, today?
Harking back to a time when house calls and family doctors were not ironic terms Doc Burns & Mrs. Teter illuminates the need for people have their beliefs and place in the world affirmed and respected. Deftly directed by Tom Herman, Ms. McMichael and Mr. Gerber offer compelling and lovingly realized portraits of people going through the motions living, unsure of their reasons for being.
The trick is “Primum non nocere.” First, do no harm.
At first glance, Sheldon Shaw’s Jailbird couldn’t be as different, in setting and politics, than the previous play. Two African American men, thrown to together in a holding cell, may be seen by some as interchangeable, but that’s not how they see themselves or the world.
When we meet Paul, a voluble and volcanic (don’t mention Will Smith around him) social critic with a criminal background and a dubious understanding of jurisprudence, he’s practicing his defense for an upcoming court appearance. Funny and profane, he might be dismissed as another malaprop-spouting felon. In the hands of the talented and intense Hassiem Muhammad, Paul becomes so much more: a self-aware actor in his own misfortunes. He’s soon joined by hysterical first-time criminal, Shalomi, who wails to the point of distraction. Paul is forced to abandon his rehearsal and make contact.
The reminder of the play is a tangled web of punctured assumptions and rushes to judgment that force both men to reassess their worldviews. Paul tortures Shalomi with the inevitable fate of incarcerated black man, while Shalomi challenges Paul’s excuses and rationalizations. Marcus Edghill brings an aggressive fragility to Shalomi that makes him at turns pitiless and pitiful.
A bit over written and repetitive, but well staged by the playwright, Jailbird is an unvarnished look at minor misanthropes adrift in a world that consistently disappoints them. Neither Shalomi’s narrow faith or Paul racial fatalism provide enough rationales to justify their private misery.
Maybe seeing the world through each other’s eyes will give them a chance to see other possibilities. Or at least, seek competent legal representation. The Chain Theater Winter One Act Festival has 22 programs and more than 40 plays. There is truly something for everyone. The Festival runs through March 3. Winter One Act Festival 2024 — Chain Theatre
Photos provided by Director/writer Sheldon Shaw for Jailbird and Director/Dramaturg Tom Herman for Doc Burns & Mrs.Teter