Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
Thus is the driving motto behind the proudly worn and much-coveted angel pin that inspires the ladies now gathered to help the victims of the latest fire, earthquake, flood, or other biblical tragedy that has struck somewhere in the worldpreferably in some faraway country with an exotic name and with jungles. While listening to the tinny, heavenly tunes on WRSN (your "Risin' Radio," where "If this is the apocalypse, you're listening to the right station"), the women go through a mountain of donated crap, uh, treasures, to sort out the Scooby Doo lunch boxes and rooster statue lamps from clothes and supplies that might actually be of use in some steamy hot, dreadfully poor location where folk are suffering. And again, all together, "Bless their hearts."
Dragon Productions Theatre presents Bo Wilson's The Charitable Sisterhood of the Second Trinity Victory Church, a distant cousin of the stalwart classic for hilarious gossip and heartrending stories among Southern sisterhood, Steel Magnolias. Rather than gathering at a local hair salon, the women of this congregation are braving a Noah-size flood to come to the church's multipurpose room to sort through a Sinai-size pile of odds-and-ends donationsunder that strict, close-to-dictatorial command of the pastor's wife, Bea Littleton. She is joined by two regulars, Lorraine Jenson, mother of nine ready to swim the Jordon to escape for a while her crowded household, and Tina Yate, a former nurse who has ideas about how better to organize their monumental tasksomething bossy Bea is not interested at all in hearing.
The two are joined, unfortunately in their opinions, by newcomer Janet, "that Confederate floozy whose husband might be only imaginary," and laterhiding in the bowels of the mountain of donated itemsa young, homeless twenty-something named Riley Reynolds. As the storms rage outside, the lights go off, and the nearby bridge washes away to strand them for God only knows how long, inside their stories begin to pour in torrents, confessions of real and would-be murders thunder forth, and slowly but surely a safe island of sisterhood rises amongst the formerly stormy seas generated among the gathered women.
Unfortunately, to get to the more substantive, engaging and touching parts of Mr. Wilson's two hour, fifteen minute visit to the church, we have to endure a first act that moves too slowly through a lot of gossip, back-and-forth snipping, and some lines worthy of a laugh or two but not enough to warrant the time spent getting them. Both the script of Mr. Wilson and the direction of Cindy Powell share the blame, I fear, for a rather bland barrage of Southern dialects, holier-than-thou looks from Bea, and too many "Bless your hearts" from Lorraine. But, thank the Lord, a last-minute revelation at the end of act one followed by intriguing twists and turns in plot and some powerful acting as personal stories spill forth in act two bring some welcome redemption.
Dominant throughout the evening and adding in the second half some wonderful nuances to her overly righteous, first-half character is Lisa Burton as Bea. When Bea speaks, her mouth is a wonder to watch, as she tenders her Southern drawl through an array of white teeth and lips that form every sort of shape under God's creationoften with one hand cupped under her judgmental chin and eyes peering from her nose-hugging glasses. Ms. Burton takes a part we want to mock after first meeting her and moves Bea to a place, in a believable fashion, that we come to like and admire.
Jennifer Tipton is the former nurse Tina whose tapping foot and nervous energy does not allow her to sit still very longor to tolerate too easily Bea's insistence that every idea be hers to initiate, even if someone else (often Tina) has already suggested it. Ms. Tipton provides one of the more striking performances of the evening as she tells of a young girl who arrives at the emergency room with bullets in her abdomen and a ragdoll named Becca in her arms.
However, the most arresting, stunning performance of the evening comes from Caley Suliak as the vagabond Riley, a young woman who has been going from town to town, showing up to volunteer for a few days at a time at disaster collection centers like the one here at Second Trinity. She is both running from her own trauma back home and running in search of ways to make a difference and amends. Often speaking in a half-smiling/half-crying manner and downward-looking eyes wet with tears that never seem to flow, Riley eventually unfolds a story that transforms this group of catty do-gooders into a bonded circle of true sisters. Those eyes that often appear to be looking without seeing do find ways to speak as powerfully as any of Ms. Suliak's slow and soft-spoken words, moving the other women into action and an audience into near tears.
Rounding out the ensemble of five are Stephanie Crowley as Lorraine and Ambera De Lash as Janet. Neither script nor performances lend either of these parts to the overall accomplished impact of the other three, but certainly each does have her important moment of come-to-the-altar transformation as the play progresses.
Particular huzzahs must go to properties master and scenic designer Christopher Fitzer for the dozens, no hundreds of quirky items that dominate the stage as the give-away pile reaching to the ceiling. One can only imagine the time and effort it must take to reset the scene after each performance. Kudos also go to Catalina Elgarrista for picking just the right remnants for the personality-perfect outfits each character wears, along with their Southern-appropriate hairstyles.
The Charitable Sisterhood of the Second Trinity Victory Church as staged by Dragon Productions Theatre is not a play without its own sins, but there is promised redemption around the corner for those patient enough to wait until the first half's flaws give way to second half's moments of near perfection.
The Charitable Sisterhood of the Second Trinity Victory Church continues through June 4, 2017, at Dragon Productions Theatre Company, 2120 Broadway Street, Redwood City, CA. Tickets are available online at dragonproductions.net or by calling 650-493-2006.