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Gray Area

a Comedy
CATEGORY : COMEDY
by John Ahlin

COMPANY : Aurora Theatre [WEBSITE]
VENUE : Aurora Theatre [WEBSITE]
ID# 4131

SHOWING : October 06, 2011 - October 30, 2011

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PRODUCTION DESCRIPTION

When a scathing theater critic and radio commentator, Farragut, takes a gratuitous swipe at Civil War re-enactors as his final public salvo, three "good ole Dixie boys" decide they cannot let his remarks go unchallenged. This comic collision of worlds is a full out black-white, blue-gray, blue-red raging debate. Stereotypes are the biggest casualty in this delightfully uncivil comedy.


CAST & CREW LIST
Director Sherri Sutton
Randall Bryan Brendle
Keith Bart Hansard
Farragut Glenn Rainey
Horse Scott Warren
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REVIEWS

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The Words of Southern Aggression
by Dedalus
Monday, November 7, 2011
4.0
There are many words that could describe John Ahlin’s “Gray Area,” currently camping out at Lawrenceville’s Aurora Theatre. Comedy caper, historical debate, character whimsy – any of these would be accurate. But, at heart, I would describe it as a deeply entertaining (and theatrical) examination of the power of words, how they frame our discussions, how they can become either barriers or bridges between folks of different mind sets.

Farragut is a New York columnist, an acerbic curmudgeon whose favorite mode of discourse is snark. No target is too high (or too low) for the withering power of his words. When three Alabama good ole boys take umbrage at his comments about civil war re-enactors, they take matters into their own unwashed hands. They kidnap Farragut and whisk him away to their forest campsite, just apart from the battlefield that will host an upcoming re-enactment.

But (and here’s where this what-could-go-wrong disaster of an idea goes crazy-right), their intention is not to hurt or ransom Farragut, but to debate him. They want to show him that his prejudices against the South (capital “S”) are wrong, and to get him to honestly retract his column. What they didn’t count on was Farragut being a major civil war scholar himself, and that maybe he knows whereof he speaks, that maybe their own ingrained ideas of pride and heritage may not align completely with the facts.

What follows is a delightfully gonzo debate, a war-between-the-words of competing ideas and facts, a series of games with increasingly silly trappings and increasingly serious intent. It is a combination I found delightful to hear and compelling to watch. Ahlin’s purpose is perhaps made overly plain – that political discourse of a polarizing nature is pretty much useless, that ideas are rarely black-and-white, and that true understanding is found in that nebulous “gray area.” He takes the idea that understanding is not built on insults and echo-chamber bellowing, but on truly listening to the “other,” to getting into his shiny shoes (or battered boots) and hiking that proverbial mile.

His chief weapon is the character of Keith, the “ringleader” of this motley crew of Alabama friends. Keith is smarter than you would expect, wiser than Farragut at first realizes, and funnier than any audience deserves. He has a way with words that is truly splendiferous, an easy-going manner that’s quick to spot hypocrisy, even when it’s in himself. By making Keith such a “breath-of-fresh-air” in what could easily have been a forest of stereotypes, he lowers our own blinders and lets us give the man a listen.

Okay, some of the “facts” bandied about are a little shallowly researched (Keith’s comment about tariffs being a leading cause of the North/South conflict is easily debunked by a quick Google of when the tariffs were actually lifted). Still, the arguments are less about “facts” than about attitudes and emotions, and, in every case, these attitudes ring true.

The cast is especially successful at bringing this play to life – Glenn Rainey as Farragut and Bart Hansard as Keith are equally matched, both physically and emotionally. Both are sublime comic actors who can make a debate come off almost like stand-up routine. Bryan Brendle and Scott Warren bring Keith’s friends to brilliant life – both start as seeming caricatures, but each has something to contribute, and each has surprises for us that broaden and deepen their characters

Phil Male’s forest set is lovely with an odd cinderblock structure that could be a ruin or a monument, but provides a bizarre platform for blocking elevations and slapstick tumbles. The lighting by Rob Dillard makes effective use of gobos and gels to bring the forest to laugh at different times of day. Director Sherri D. Sutton is to be commended for orchestrating such a marvelous group of actors and designers and for bringing the strengths of this play to life.


I was raised about an hour from the Gettysburg Battlefield, and visited the site almost every year of the 60’s. I now live within walking distance of the Kennesaw Mountain site, so you may say I have Civil War history in my blood. I chafe when I hear arguments based less on fact than on family legacy-stories that have obviously changed through constant re-telling. At the same time, I acknowledge that the arguments are even less black-and-white than more contemporary political conflicts, and that there is a vast gray area that can shape and change even my preconceived notions and traditions.

What isn’t a “gray area” is the fact that this play is a remarkable entertainment, a play that could so easily have been little more than a dry debate, but was elevated by a cast that brings these characters to life and makes us care about what they say. More to the point, it makes us enjoy actually listening to their words!

It was my pleasure to unconditionally surrender to this play!

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)


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"Hee-Haw" Written by Thomas à Becket
by playgoer
Sunday, October 9, 2011
2.5
John Ahlin's "Gray Area" is a somewhat ponderous comedy dealing with a cantankerous New York critic kidnapped by a trio of backwater Alabama Civil War re-enactors. Its propensity for twenty-dollar words and non-stop confrontation quickly loses the interest of most audience members. It's all a gloss on the North versus South debate that has been going on for 150 years, ending with somewhat contrived understanding on both sides.

Sherri D. Sutton has directed the four-person cast to speed through the action, which gives it a good deal of momentum. There are a lot of comic bits, many of which are artifially theatrical. Some, such as the three Southerners spitting on the ground at each mention of New York, become a bit tired. The moments do, however, keep the tone light and comical.

The acting is terrific. Glenn Rainey and Bart Hansard are the main antagonists, representing the North and South respectively. Both bring energy and vocal power to their roles. Bryan Brendle doesn't quite embody the yin/yang qualities of his rube redneck/intellectual character (Randall), but Scott Warren is pitch-perfect as the dimmer Horse. None of the characters ring particularly true to life, though.

The show begins with a rapid-free monologue spoken by Glenn Rainey as New York theatre critic Farragut's final radio show/newspaper column. It's done in extremely dim light, preventing any bleed-through to the overall woodsy set, but it almost hurts the eyes. The dense aural component, filled with wide-ranging metaphors and similes, almost hurts the head.

A lot of the semi-obscure references in the opening monologue are later explained, but the explanations come across pretty much as a school lesson. The play is alternately above and below the comprehension of a standard Aurora audience. There are a lot of clever lines, but the scattered laughs greeting them make it clear that they are not universally appreciated (or understood) by large segments of the audience.

The set, by Phil Male, is as unpleasant as some of the many argumentative moments in the show. It portrays a section of Alabama woods, with a nice partial brick wall stage right, next to a canvas tent, and with a hideous faux-stone redoubt upstage center that looks as much like an angular igloo as anything. The trees scattered around the set have inconsistent numbers of leaves, and the one up high looks like a trunk growing sideways off a cliff rather than a stray branch of a tall tree. The "ground" is painted with the same white-heavy mixture of colors as the stone, so the overall effect is quite stagey and artificial. The lighting, by Rob Dillard, does nothing to make the set look better.

"Gray Area" crackles with the speed of a finely-tuned comedy. The tuning of the play itself tends to vary, though, with the crackle of static occasionally overwhelming the activity. It's not a particularly difficult play to sit through (although not everyone returned after intermission), but it is a difficult play to pay attention to all the way through. A mention is made of the action being like "Hee-Haw" written by Beckett. I'm sure Samuel Beckett was intended, but the philosophical content of the play would make a reference to Thomas à Becket nearly as apt. [POST A COMMENT REGARDING THIS REVIEW]


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