Brilliant and Shattering MUD, RIVER, STONE at The Stagecrafters

by Michael Schwartz

Every now and then you get really lucky, and you see something that reminds you why you go to the theatre in the first place. I got lucky Friday night—I got to see The Stagecrafters’ production of Lynn Nottage’s MUD, RIVER, STONE and it’s brilliant. Nottage has emerged as one of the major playwrights of recent years, and the Stagecrafters team has brought her 1997 play to the stage with savage wit, bitter truth, and shattering humanity. Simply put, you need to see it.

(from L) Quisha Lawson, Kyle Paul Dandridge, Paul DiFerdinando, Christopher Gladstone Booth in a scene from The Stagecrafters' MUD, RIVER, STONE, playing in Philadelphia (Chestnut Hill), PA through April 24. (Photo credit: Sara Stewart)

Nottage’s set-up is a deceptively simple fish-out-of-water situation: she strands two African-American tourists, the Bradleys, in an African hotel in the rainy season—roads are washed away and there’s no way out for a while. The Hotel Imperial, perhaps in Mozambique, and perhaps not, as Nottage notes in her setting, is not in the tourist-friendly Africa, but in the midst of an Africa ravaged by war, starvation, and political upheaval. What begins as comedy, with the Bradleys dealing with the rude service and lack of amenities (everything will be fixed “soon”), turns deadly serious as the tourists and the locals are caught in a volatile hostage situation.

The playwright uses the trapped-in-a-hotel plot to give voice to the disparate victims and perpetrators of the surrounding chaos. There’s Mr. Blake, an English businessman born in Africa who might be profiting from the misfortune of the nearby villages; Neibert, a Belgian researcher who has “gone native;” Ama Cyllah, a sincere mission worker running out of physical and emotional resources; and Joaquim, the seething front desk clerk and former soldier who tries to seize a measure of power and self-respect. The waiting hostage scenario gives Nottage a chance to illustrate the often futile search for identity and self-determination, the utter desperation and violence that poverty can cause, and the slippery concept of cultural heritage—all the characters lay claim to an aspect of Africa and Africanism that might be as illusory as the non-existent road that was marked so clearly on the map.

Tracie Lango’s sure and taut direction supports a sterling performance ensemble. While Nottage brings a few of her characters to the edge of caricature, the performers register as real, flawed, and vividly human. Christopher Gladstone Booth, as David, navigates the journey from self-styled coolness to frustrated self-doubt with grace. Quisha Lawson shines as David’s wife Sarah, a proud, powerful modern woman whose defenses are cruelly stripped. Paul DiFerdinando gives us a complex, multi-layered Mr. Blake, blurring the lines between pragmatism and overt villainy. Erin N. Stewart shows us the idealistic youngster lurking just behind the jaded professional mercy worker in a merciless situation. Anthony McNichol, in turn, reveals the pathos behind Neibert’s comic inability to achieve bonding and brotherhood. Laura J. Seeley, in the role of a hapless and helpless hostage negotiator, perhaps has the most caricatured part, but she, too, etches a portrait of genuine humanity and self-awareness–she knows she comes across as a cartoon, and she knows it’s because her duties constitute the height of folly. Finally, Kyle Paul Dandridge is incendiary as Joaquim—alternately surly, dreamy, childlike, passionate, and cold, and Dandridge lets us see where the emotional turmoil comes from as he chills us one moment and then breaks our hearts. As all the tremendously gifted performers prowl, pace, and collapse on Richard Stewart’s evocative set, they throw us into a frightening, funny, and despairing world that is not so far removed from us as we might like to think.

If you continue to read my reviews, you won’t see me using the word “urge” very often, but I’m using it now—I urge you to see this show.

By Lynn Nottage
Directed by Tracie Lango
April 8-24, 2011
The Stagecrafters
8130 Germantown Ave.
Philadelphia, PA 19118

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