Stillwater Theatre Company is conducting a bold experiment with its regional premiere of Ether Steeds. Meredith College’s professional-theater-in-residence is staging Manhattan playwright Jason Williamson’s Magical Mystery Tour of North Carolina’s Outer Banks under the stars, in the A.E. Finley Foundation Rooftop Garden at N.C. State University’s J.C. Raulston Arboretum in Raleigh, NC, where the acoustics are not always the best and ambient noise from bugs and trains drowns out significant snatches of dialogue.
Ether Steeds mixes magic with melodrama in a coming-of-age story with supernatural overtones and lots of flashbacks. Seventeen-year-old Skeeta (luminously portrayed by recent Barton College theater graduate Jess Jones) is noisy and infernally persistent as she buzzes around her parents’ modest Outer Banks home, asking uncomfortable questions of her recently widowed Mom (2011 Meredith College theater graduate Marilyn Gormon), who is looking for love in all the wrong places and bringing home her smoking and drinking buddies for a little slap and tickle.
Mom’s latest candidate for Mr. Right Now is a quiet, soft-spoken twenty-something fisherman named Emory (played by N.C. State University senior biochemistry major Bryce Davis). But Emory isn’t buying anything that slatternly Mom is selling. However, he finds a kindred spirit in the much-younger Skeeta, who may yet convince him to nail his restless rambling shoes to the kitchen floor.
Informall Theatre Company co-artistic director Douglas H. Boxley of Greensboro plays Skeeta’s kind-hearted Daddy, who was a hard-working but none-too-successful farmer in life and is seen mostly in flashbacks, because he was a volunteer fire fighter who died fighting a fire.
There are many equine images in Ether Steeds. They include ghost horses in the sky (the “ether steeds” of the play’s title), the real-life wild horses that call portions of the Outer Banks home, and a kelpie — a mythical water horse from Celtic folk tales — that allegedly courted Skeeta’s great-great-great-great-grandmother Ida in a secret star-crossed romance that ended at the water’s edge.
Bryce Davis’ low-wattage portrayal of Emory and the kelpie — a supernatural creature miraculously transplanted from the lochs and rivers of its native Ireland and Scotland into New World waters — is no match for Jess Jones’ passionate performance as Skeeta or even Marilyn Gormon’s crusty characterization of Mom or her compelling cameo as Mom’s great-great-great-grandmother Ida. Douglas Boxley is more successful in bringing Daddy to life, but it is Jess Jones as the coltish Skeeta who makes the most memorable impression.
Stillwater Theatre Company co-founder and artistic director Steven J. Roten bravely battles the bugs, the noise, and the fickle May-June weather to give Ether Steeds a lively outdoor staging, and a fast-moving Greek Chorus (Julie-Kate Cooper and Stephanie Byrd) shifts the show’s minimal scenery at a gallop. But there is too much melodrama and not enough magic in Stillwater’s production of Ether Steeds, and not enough chemistry between Jess Jones and Bryce Davis to make their romance convincing.
SECOND OPINION: June 1st Durham, NC Independent Weekly review by Byron Woods (who awarded the show 3.5 of 5 stars): http://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/stillwater-theatres-ether-steeds/Content?oid=2498569. (Note: To read Triangle Arts & Entertainment’s online version of the May 25th Triangle Theater Review preview by Robert W. McDowell, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2011/05/stillwater-theatre-company-presents-the-regional-premiere-of-ether-steeds-by-jason-williamson/.)
Stillwater Theatre Company presents ETHER STEEDS at 8 p.m. June 3-5 in the A.E. Finley Foundation Rooftop Garden at N.C. State University’s J.C. Raulston Arboretum, 4415 Beryl Rd., Raleigh, North Carolina 27606, on the NCSU campus.
TICKETS: $15 ($10 students, seniors, Meredith faculty and staff, and Arboretum members).
BOX OFFICE: 919/760-8757 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
NOTE: To read an interview with playwright Jason Williamson, click http://stillwatertheatre.com/uncategorized/jason-williamson-interview/.
The Playwright: http://www.doollee.com/PlaywrightsW/williamson-jason.html (Doollee.com) and http://www.dramaticadventure.com/staff/jason.html (Dramatic Adventure Theatre).
Robert W. McDowell is editor and publisher of Triangle Theater Review, a FREE weekly e-mail theatrical newsletter that provides more comprehensive, in-depth coverage of Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill theater than all of the other news media combined. This review is reprinted with permission from Triangle Theater Review.
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To read all of Robert W. McDowell’s Triangle Theater Review previews and reviews online at Triangle Arts & Entertainment, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/author/robert-w-mcdowell/.