Saturday, April 13, 2024

From ‘Candida’ to ‘Cane’

The downtown West Palm Beach area is now home to an interesting theatrical dichotomy: Florida Stage, which produces only new works, and Palm Beach Dramaworks, which produces almost only established masterpieces, reside just minutes from one another. Right now, in the same zip code, theatergoers can enjoy a world premiere by a local playwright at 2 p.m. and a George Bernard Shaw classic at 7.

This delectable buffet of theatrical excellence makes an awesome statement about the robustness of South Florida’s theater scene, but the fact is, both theaters frequently take risks when they mount such works. As opposed to playhouses such as Mosaic and GableStage, which regularly produce the most recent, critically acclaimed offerings from on and off Broadway, Florida Stage’s plays have no pedigree going in. The fact that most of them are very good is a testament to producing artistic director Louis Tyrrell’s shrewd eye for material, but sometimes they can use some polish.

“Cane,” which opened this past weekend, is one such play – a two-part, Palm Beach County-set epic about greed, desperation, murder and simple twists of fate. The first act, set in drought-addled, Prohibition-era Belle Glade, is a cracklingly good drama of Shakespearean proportions about a poor but respected farmer (Gregg Weiner), the pregnant African-American girl who works his fields (Trenell Mooring) and the desperate, pitiful veteran (David Nail) who agrees to sell his land to the farmer only to rescind the deal after a hurricane makes his barren fields verdant again.

It’s a small masterwork up until the intermission. Act Two follows the progeny of these characters two generations later, and it lacks the crispness, drama and insight of the first act, petering to an unsatisfying and superfluous denouement. It embodies the risks Florida Stage routinely takes with untested work: We’re essentially seeing an extraordinarily mounted first draft, but a first draft nonetheless.

Though it produces works by playwrights that long been canonized in stage history, Palm Beach

Dramaworks runs its own risks. If Florida Stage’s plays can sometimes be too new, Dramaworks’ selections can be too old, and their themes may not resonate with younger audiences. Sterling recent productions of Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” and Eugene O’Neill’s “A Moon for the Misbegotten” managed to dodge this potential hurdle more than the theater’s current production of George Bernard Shaw’s “Candida.”

One of the playwright’s earliest works and part of his “Plays Pleasant” series (as opposed to his “Plays Unpleasant” series, written around the same time), “Candida” is a comedy of manners that punctures prude Victorian decorum with thoughts of sin and socialism. The central story is a love triangle between a haughty leftist reverend (John Leonard Thompson), his fetching wife (Kim Cozort) and a sniveling, milquetoast poet (Will Connoly).

Some fine supporting actors, including Cliff Burgess and John Felix, are all but wasted in small parts, and even the leading roles barely seem to challenge the actors playing them. This is simply not one of Shaw’s more profound or humorous works, and while seeing words like “windbag” and “fathead” being hurled from one pompously dressed character to another may have been considered daring at one point, the play’s subversiveness has lost its luster. And despite what some right-wing commentators have said about our current president, the commentary about socialism comes off as dated as the time period in which the play is set. Shaw enthusiasts will still probably have a blast at this production, but it’s unlikely to win new converts to Dramaworks. Still, I think most would agree that it’s better to have theaters that take risks and roll with the punches than ones that select only comfortable successes.

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