Anyone who says live theatre is dying isn’t getting out much. We have a truly vibrant array of talented playwrights, actors, directors, set and costume designers, and the list goes on, bringing to numerous stages across our region the magic that is live theatre. MISTAKEN CHARITY, premiering at the Walking Fish Theatre on the emerging Frankford Avenue Arts Corridor offers a perfect example of what creative artists who love live performance art can do and are doing in Philadelphia and the surrounding region.
Written and directed by Philadelphia Playwright Stan Heleva, MISTAKEN CHARITY is based on original stories by Sarah Orne Jewett and Mary Wilkins Freeman, late nineteenth century authors who wrote about the everyday challenges confronted by New England women of that era. The play centers on the lives of two elderly, poor and handicapped spinster sisters who well-meaning neighbors are convinced would have improved lives during their remaining years by leaving their modest shack-like cabin and moving into a respectable board and care home. The time period is 1906, and the place is a small coastal Maine town, complete with an authentic dialect crafted for this play and based on a foundation of New England Yankee and Irish accents.
The two actresses who transform themselves into mid-80 year old sisters Harriet and Charlotte Shattuck do a superb job of conveying the pathos that surrounds their increasingly slim hold on their long-standing commitment to independence from the charity of others. They do not wish to be perceived as weak or incapable of caring for themselves and so they struggle with a characteristic New England resolve make the best of what they have. That is, until kind-hearted neighbors played by Jody Gross and Michael Dura decide, despite the sister’s protests, to make all the arrangements to have them moved from their cabin to a home where other elderly women are being provided round-the-clock care.
Michelle Pauls plays the nearly deaf and arthritic Harriet Shattuck with a vengeance. She is so hardened with years of caring for both herself and her now blind sister Charlotte that she is now well beyond the flexibility required to accept the charitable change in living situation being thrust upon her by neighbors. Michelle Pauls is also the managing artistic director of B. Someday Productions at the Walking Fish Theater, where she runs the Barrymore Award-winning outreach program, “Of Mythic Proportions”, a performance project with students from Kensington High School. She, along with Stan Heleva, renovated the property on Frankford Avenue five years ago which now houses both the theater on the first floor and their living quarters on the two upper floors.
Charlotte Shattuck is portrayed with delicate sensitivity by Marcia Hepps, who brings to this character a range of emotions that reflects her inner-longing for retaining the beauty of the life she has so long lived and the desperate struggle she now has in becoming accustomed to total dependence upon her aging sister for the basic necessities that must be provided in order to continue living lives of their own choosing. Charlotte often refers to chinks which appear as light allowing her brief moments of gladness for the reminder of all that she still finds in life to appreciate despite her desperately limited lifestyle. Chinks in between the cabin wall boards allow light in though narrow bands that provides momentary focus for Charlotte. The chinks she observes and tries to share with her sister might also serve as a metaphor for the vulnerability to which they are both now exposed given the many chinks in their personal “armor” that once was better intact in protecting them from becoming subservient to will of the larger social order during that era that shunned the choice a woman might make to live unmarried and on one’s own.
The stage upon which Walking Fish Theatre productions appear is quite small, providing special challenges in mounting their productions. In this case, the sets require both a cabin and a bedroom at the board and care home to which the Shattuck sisters are moved. The manner in which the set for MISTAKEN CHARITY was designed and built given such meager space limitations is absolutely brilliant. Credit goes to Kevin Wayne Jordan who has done design work in theaters across the U.S. and is a cofounder of Casaburdan Productions.
MISTAKEN CHARITY is a play that well represents the exciting, relevant, and entertaining theatre arts productions that STAGE Magazine is so pleased to bring to the attention of theatre lovers throughout the greater Philadelphia region. Like the defiant Shattuck sisters, who ultimately chose to be the driving force charting their own destinies, B. Someday Productions will remain a glowing example of the commitment to excellence that is to be found among our many thriving and expanding live theater venues.
Written and Directed by Stan Heleva
May 3 – 21, 2011
B. SOMEDAY PRODUCTIONS
Walking Fish Theatre
2509 Frankford Avenue
Philadelphia. PA 19125