Review: Speakeasy by Rory D. Sheriff
By Perry Tannenbaum
February 17, 2023, Charlotte, NC – Quick adaptation and a be-ready-for-anything state of mind are key survival tools for any performer who ventures into the minefield of live performance. But as opening night for BNS Productions’ Speakeasy inched closer, booked for this weekend at the new Parr Center – where no local theatre company has performed before – Charlotte’s preeminent black repertory company stepped on an explosive they couldn’t avoid. Just before the three-day run was scheduled to begin, one of their lead players came down with COVID.
Rory D. Sheriff, the author of the new script and founding artistic director of BNS, was forced to shuffle his cast, elevating Marcus Looney from a minor role to leading man while stepping into the vacated role himself. Both of these actors appeared on opening night, turning what would ordinarily be termed a workshop production into a rather fancy reading stage effort, enhanced by the scenery and lighting (also by Sheriff) we would expect in a full production, with six of the eight cast members off-book.
A couple of the main themes in Sheriff’s new work, starting over and working together to save the day, mesh well with the behind-the-scenes tumult. After leaving her abusive husband, Virginia is hoping to make a new life for herself – without a man, for a change – back at her dead parents’ home in 1978 Reading, Pennsylvania. Doing this her way is hindered by her wanton sister Marge, who is tirelessly “pimping” the newly-available Virginia around town, and the inevitable pursuit of men who have heard about the breakup.
The most aggressive of these is Percy, the horny neighborhood cable guy. On top of that, while leering at Marge, the mailman delivers an alarming formal letter informing Virginia that her parents left their property taxes unpaid for over 10 years. She must quickly come up with over $1000 or get out. Older brother Roosevelt, a starchy preacher man, would much rather sell the place than provide her sister with the balance.
Well, if you already have a cable guy and a mailman knocking at your door and salivating, Marge proposes that Virginia do the next best thing to prostituting herself: jointly turning the family homestead into a speakeasy, where local men can pay out to enjoy the sisters’ company in exchange for alcoholic beverage, assorted snacks, and free cable TV, courtesy of Percy. Prohibition hasn’t returned to Pennsylvania, but the sisters can’t legally peddle booze without a state license.
A volatile triangle develops before intermission as Percy feels entitled to take further advantage of Virginia, spending the night and tiptoeing out the back door with the speakeasy’s take. Hard to report a crime like that to police. Virginia might have a white knight willing to champion her cause, a Winston-Salem refugee named Horse who has fallen hard for her, but she keeps pushing him away even after he wins Marge’s sincere endorsement. Cecilia McNeill has taken on a very conflicted role in Virginia, earning our empathy with her troubles while drawing our impatience – and occasionally our annoyance – with her negativity and her deafness to what Marge, Horse, and her own heart are telling her about her new beau.
McNeill carried it all off rather brilliantly in her auspicious debut if you consider how little time she had been given to acclimate to Looney as her co-star and how often her true love had to gaze downwards at his script. It was hugely helpful that Looney was off-book when he made his first entrances through the back door to the sisters’ speakeasy, and that after intermission, when he always had his script with him, he prioritized memorizing those lines where Horse should be gazing most intently at Virginia instead of the script. Otherwise, the role never appeared to be beyond Looney’s depth. A lingering photo at the BNS website of Jonathan Caldwell, originally cast as Horse, made me think that Virginia’s worries about him tossing her over would be more credible if he were there. If it were Caldwell standing up to Tim Bradley as Percy when the action peaked, I also suspect that it would have looked more like an equal match and not as brave or quixotic.
Such alterations are always the byproduct of casting different actors in the same role. Sheriff can make peace with them or he could possibly like them better, but I’m sure that he would hate to discard Bradley with his imposing presence and his boisterous vulgarity. Horse the outsider and Percy the loose cannon are the two men that remind me most readily of the American Century drama cycle by August Wilson, an inspiration that Sheriff candidly acknowledges. Having appeared in three different BNS productions of Wilson’s dramas – and importing an extra roar from the title role in Sheriff’s Be a Lion – Bradley straddles those two realms magnificently, a lowlife rascal who can be quite formidable and menacing.
Alana Jones, Bradley’s slinky consort in Lion, is a bit over-directed and overly frisky here as Marge, her broad comedy projecting far beyond the stage and hall to faraway Gaston County. But the audience adored her, so Jones will likely continue mincing around her speakeasy like a cartoon cat. The contrast is certainly effective when she becomes candid and caring with Virginia. A bit of a clothes horse, Jones is my prime suspect for slowing down scene changes, for costume designer Dee Abdullah’s ample wardrobe has her feverishly changing costumes whenever she’s not sashaying onstage. I’d be surprised if she wears less than five get-ups, but the guys also have multiple outfits.
All the guys are nicely seasoned and excellent, providing additional Wilson flavoring. Dominic Weaver as Roosevelt puts a nice soft spot for Virginia in the middle of his sanctimonious hauteur that we can see from the beginning, when the upright minister is difficult, obstinate, and stingy. In his BNS debut, Andrew C. Roberts gives us some meaty civil-rights-movement context in a powerfully delivered monologue, although it seems to come from nowhere. James Lee Walker, II, has done so many uniquely stylish roles for BNS and other companies around town that I was not at all surprised to see him shine – in one scene literally shine in a glittery shirt.
A bit of the stilted dialogue we heard an opening night will likely vanish as Sheriff refines his script, and more variety in how extended monologues are staged and lit will likely materialize in the hands of a defter director. For starters, the guys might explicitly confirm what card game they’re playing at the speakeasy and which Ali fight they’re watching on TV. Feedback that Sheriff receives from this workshop edition will likely help him to sharpen his characters’ sparring and deepen their drama. He and BNS are off to a great start at their new venue.