Theatre Review: Evolution Inaugurates Season in New Home with Nuanced ‘From White Plains’
As live performance tentatively comes back into the cultural life of Columbus, we see the rippling effects of the Columbus Performing Arts Center closing during the pandemic. One company most associated with that revered – for all its faults – two-theater complex for the last decade, Evolution Theatre, debuts its first show in their new home, Abbey Theatre of Dublin, this weekend: Michael Perlman’s 2012 Off-Broadway hit From White Plains.
This new beginning bears deep roots in Evolution’s, and artistic director Mark Schwamberger’s, long collaboration with Abbey Theatre’s director Joe Bishara, going back to multiple, stunning collaborations between Bishara’s former company CATCO and Evolution, through a delightful one-man show from Schwamberger live-streamed during the pandemic. Bishara directed From White Plains and established the three shows of Evolution that will play the Abbey stage this season.
From White Plains deals with the corrosive effects of cruelty and the radiating damage of the past. Dennis (Monty Almoro) wins an Oscar for turning a traumatic childhood in the eponymous New York suburb into an acclaimed film. His speech uses the platform to pay tribute to a friend, Cole, dead by suicide. Dennis calls out the bully who made their childhood lives hell: Ethan (James Harper). This bomb exposes cracks in both their lives, reflected by Dennis’ partner Gregory (Jarrod Turnbull) and Ethan’s best friend John (Ben Hartwig).
From White Plains shines when it eschews simple answers; it doesn’t paint Dennis as a high-minded saint or shy away from the implication that a manic episode amplifies the volume and reach of this spiral, but it also never lets its characters or the audience forget how horrific that behavior from the past was, glimpsed in fragments and shadows.
These four characters on a sparse but evocative set – designed by Katherine Wexler, with some extremely effective video from Bishara, building on skills he refined during the live stream era – focus audience attention on the actors and the cast shines with that challenge. Volcanic performances from Almoro and Harper make the most out of their characters’ buried similarities, the way power has shifted, and a similar tunnel vision, a lack of self-awareness, that imbues this tragic story with gripping nuance.
Just as important are the assist players. Turnbull and Hartwig take what feels like one-note characters at first blush and peel away layers to suggest complicated worlds. Both trying to bring some reason to these towering personalities with the deep sense they’ve tried it before at lower stakes and know where the outcome’s going to be.
Along with the crippling effect of the past, From White Plains is at its best when it grapples with the dangers of not connecting, of being trapped with your own voice for so long you’re not sure you know how to reach another person if you tried. Bishara makes a canny directorial decision to place the characters – even when they’re talking to each other – usually facing the audience. Sometimes we’re a sports bar TV, sometimes we’re an apartment wall. This amplifies the claustrophobic sense of their every mood being watched, both Harper’s Ethan after the speech and harkening back to Almoro’s Dennis being unable to breathe for that horrific attention in high school and it underlines the performative nature of a public apology.
The play’s a little too long, at 90 minutes, and a little repetitive; extended sequences boil down to two characters interrupting one another to then not say anything. At the same time, it was full of moments I was hungry to see expanded on: little physical insinuations between Harper and Hartwig in the bar sequence; Turnbull’s hunger to find a future but not sure where that lies.
As we’re still in the midst of a raging pandemic, safety precautions are important and the final preview I saw of From White Plains did an excellent job. Starting with 25% capacity with taped off rows and those of us in rows were at opposite ends from the single other party in the row (larger groups had a row to themselves it looked like, in the middle of their rows). A single path through the venue with one entrance, and one exit door. The online program accessible from a QR code was a tradition I hope gets more common (with some accommodation for the audience that doesn’t have smartphones), I really hate having to just get rid of all that paper.
From White Plains runs through May 22 with performances at 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Live streaming is also available. For tickets and more info, visit evolutiontheatre.org/box-office.