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TLT’s ‘Second Samuel’ brews heady emotional cocktail

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“Second Samuel” is not the most exciting title for a play. A production by that name, however, is currently running at Tacoma Little Theater. Penned by playwright Pamela Parker and directed by Chris Serface, “Second Samuel” has nothing to do with the biblical text that tells of the reign of King David. Here, Second Samuel is the name of a fictitious town in Georgia. (Early on, the narrator explains that General Sherman burned down the first town of Samuel during the Civil War and a second town had to be built from the ground up.)

If the title does not inspire confidence, neither does the setting: the Deep South in the late 1940s. Are we going to have to endure another sour, sun-scorched tale in the vein of Flannery O'Connor? Hopes were not high for this one. That is why we just have to learn to trust in the people who pick through all the available plays and let them come up with something for their audiences to enjoy. More often than not, they come through. And TLT delivers the goods with their production of “Second Samuel.”

All decked out in checkered dresses, overalls and suspenders, the characters populate a stage, the centerpiece of which, is an old screen door leading out to a big, Southern-style front porch. After an introduction by the narrator, the town “simpleton,” who goes by the name B Flat, the play very quickly begins to simmer along. The engaging, good-humored characters soon have the audience hooked.

The story progresses via a rather unique device of presenting a series of rolling vignettes that bounce back and fourth between the beauty shop (the female realm) and a bar called “The Bait n’ Brew” (they sell both earthworms and whiskey) where the men hang out. These vignettes are humorous, often ending in a pithy punch line.

While action takes place in one realm, the actors in the other realm hold position as if frozen in time.

Through this series of vignettes that keep the audience burbling along with laughter, there unfolds a story of the death of one Miss Gertrude. Miss Gertrude, it turns out, had been a force for good in the town. Through the reminiscing of the characters, it is apparent that Miss Gertrude’s friendship extended beyond social boundaries such as race, class and age. Her fidelity to friends and her general state of happiness seems to have radiated out though the town, beneficially impacting the lives of those around her.

The townsfolk, however, discover that the departed Miss Gertrude had been keeping a secret and the characters are forced to reassess the place that she had among them. The play deals with issues of identity and of relationships between people as unique individuals (as opposed to relationships between people as members of a race, class or gender).

Because the drama unfolds through rolling, humorous vignettes, the audience is moved to laughter while simultaneously caught up in the pathos of the human condition. This strong doubling of emotions is a masterful design on the part of the playwright. TLT’s cast and crew very successfully elicit this complex emotional response in the audience.

The cast is strong throughout the performance, which bubbles along and is over before you know it. Aaron Mohs-Hale is great as B Flat, the special needs person that is caught in a kind of perpetual childhood. B Flat, the archetypal “wise fool,” is able to navigate between the realm of the women and the realm of the men. His two best friends are the late Miss Gertrude and US, the sole African American character in the play. As narrator, B Flat also functions as the medium between the audience and the characters in the play.

Kerry Bringman plays the amiable and independent thinking Frisky, who refuses to let racial proprieties affect his friendship with US. US, played by Jimmy Shields, is a man so good that he borders on saintliness.

Bob Yount plays the somewhat sneaky Mansel who is married to belligerent, fiery, quick-witted Marcela, played by Neicie Packer. Veteran actor Tom Birkeland tackles the role of cantankerous old Mr. Mozel, the one character that echoes the racist tendencies that are commonly associated with the Deep South.

Diana George portrays sometimes bubbly, sometimes snide Omaha, wife of Frisky. Omaha runs the beauty shop and is assisted by mousey Ruby, played by Ellen Peters. The self-important, snooty yet gullible Jimmy Deeanne is acted by Jill Heinecke.

Doc, the majestic and wise man who is both the town doctor and feed store proprietor is played by Michael Dresdner. And June, the somewhat slippery dude that runs the mortuary, is well played by Marc Carvajal. There is not a weak link in the cast.

The set, designed by Lex Gernon and built by Blake R. York, as well as Niclas R. Olson’s subtle lighting and Michele Graves’ costumes all serve to conjure up the time and place of the story.

The characters in Second Samuel are all so good, that one begins to question whether this is not a sugarcoated, Norman Rockwell version of life in the Deep South. Parker, the playwright, however, was raised by her grandparents in a small town in Georgia and should therefore have a good idea of what she’s talking about. It is just as likely that the conventional, contemporary view of small town life in the Deep South is overly cynical and dark: a place of grinding poverty and relentless racial prejudice. Probably the truth is variable depending on the unique circumstance of each situation.

Entertaining and uplifting, TLT’s production of “Second Samuel” turns out to be quite a pleasant surprise.

The play runs through Feb. 7. For further information call (253) 272-2281 or visit www.tacomalittletheatre.com.

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