What are you feeling right now? At this very moment and place.
That feeling has more influence on your behavior than any conscious thought.
Sanford Meisner would say that to be an effective actor, that premise must guide one’s every move. In 1935, Meisner introduced a set of exercises designed to bring an actor in touch with their authentic self and to embrace it. This may sound more Age of Aquarius than Golden Age of Theatre, but the works of Meisner students Diane Keaton, Robert Duvall, and James Gandolfini prove the effectiveness of repetition, improvisation, and script analysis in rehearsal.
In 1996, acting instructor and Meisner specialist Wendy Ward built her own training ground for actors seeking that authenticity, using Meisner’s techniques as a road map. Revival, the third production since Ward set up shop in Durham, was co-devised by the acting ensemble of the Ward Theatre Company and showcases the company’s strengths as writers as well as performers.
It is a bold move to devise a 90-minute piece with sparse dialogue and simple staging. In this “cultural and musical collage”–set in 1959–we are privy to an Appalachian hamlet’s annual tent revival. The subtle whisperings, eye rolls, and weeping from church pews are typically visible only to clergy. But Ward, doubling her small studio as the performance space, invites the audience into the canvas tent, sitting us face-to-face with the characters, mere feet away. I alternately felt warmly swaddled and anxiously ensnared by my surroundings.
Ward and the ensemble wisely eschewed the Holiness rituals of snake handling, poison drinking, and speaking in tongues in favor of a few rousing songs intended to mimic that energy, but they don’t quite match the cultish fervor that I simultaneously feared and thirsted for.
An impromptu performance of the Urban Sophisticates’ “Higher” (with its references to “haters” and “hard knocks”) feels too anachronistic, and interrupts the play’s authenticity. Traditional Christian songs “And Must This Body Die” and “I Know I’ve Been Changed” are more in tune with the production’s emotional pitch.
Revival requires the utmost vulnerability from an actor. On the surface, very little happens as they sit and face the invisible sermon behind us (cued by sound/lighting technician Bryan Walser). I could tell that a few members felt a bit unoccupied at times. But they were not seeing what I was seeing: the characters’ nuanced–often unspoken–reactions to the preacher and to each other.
My critical mind often evaporated as the performances allowed me to stop thinking and start feeling. They pulled me into their Meisner exercise. Though most characters address the audience directly during an unbefitting pseudo-rap battle, that scene is an anomaly. This crew delivers as much narrative as an Arthur Miller play with only 5% of the talking.
Each member of Ward’s company sheds skin, muscle, and bone until we discover a long, taut tendon, connecting an actor’s brain and a character’s heart–the perfect melding of thinking and feeling. This company’s Meisner-based preparations have allowed them to let go of the actor’s preoccupation with mechanics.
At the start, the tent lit only by a few strings of weak Christmas lights, I could make out the figure of a young woman (the broken Mae, played by a capable Alexandra Petkus) seated on a bench. Nearly a minute of silence went by. What was to come? That initial stillness was as stirring as any Broadway opening number, flowing into a quiet homily by the insightful schoolteacher Ephraim (a spirited Evit Emerson).
Each character is the star of his or her own play. The backstories are enigmatic, but not indecipherable. I felt the weariness of overworked housewife Artie (a subtle Margery Rinaldi) as she whispered her frustrations to a neighbor. I am still convinced that her dumbfounded husband Spark (an earnest Rick Skarbez) was unfaithful because Rinaldi made me trust her.
I wondered what was running through the mind of young gospel singer Evelyn (a committed Dominique Barnes) as the group ignored her and her quirks. When the uppity, born-again CarolAnn (a fascinating Sarah Dale) shot a disapproving glare at intoxicated, woebegone widower Dwight (a gentle Chadwick Thompson) my heart broke for him.
Everything I need to know about pregnant Cora is shown to me by Amber Oliver, with razor-sharp focus, as she reacts differently to particular statements from Pastor Hewitt (the steady voice of Brandon Cooke). The regret-fueled rage of wheelchair-bound Elsie (an awe-inspiring Kara Phelps) haunted me for hours after the performance.
Do not attend a Ward Theatre production expecting to sit back, relax, and tune out as you please. You must lean in, open your eyes, and brace yourself for a uniquely authentic theatrical experience.
SECOND OPINION: March 29th Durham, NC Indy Week mini-preview by Byron Woods: http://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/revival/Event?oid=5710178; and March 29th Hillsborough, NC WHUP interviews, conducted by Wayne Leonard: https://whupfm.org/episode/lights-up-32917-permanent-archive/ (at the 22-minute mark).
The Ward Theatre Company presents REVIVAL at 7:30 p.m. April 7 and 8; 2 p.m. April 9; 7:30 p.m. April 14, 15, and 18-22; 2 p.m. April 23; 7:30 p.m. April 25-29; 2 p.m. April 30; 7:30 p.m. May 5 and 6; and 2 p.m. May 7 at 4905 Pine Cone Dr., Suite 12, Durham, North Carolina 27707. TICKETS: $25. BOX OFFICE: 917-816-2122 or http://www.wardtheatrecompany.com/revival (scroll down).
DIRECTIONS: http://www.wardtheatrecompany.com/contact/. NOTE: All shows are wheelchair accessible.
OTHER LINKS; Wendy Ward (director): http://www.wardtheatrecompany.com/wendy-ward/ and http://www.wardstudio.com/ (official web pages) and https://www.facebook.com/WardActingStudio (Facebook page), and https://twitter.com/wardstudio.
Dustin K. Britt, a Triangle native, is a local theater actor, regular crew member, and member of the board of directors of Arts Access, Inc., which makes the arts accessible to people with disabilities. He holds an M.A.Ed. degree in Special Education from East Carolina University. Click here to read his reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment. You can also find him on Facebook as Dustin K. Britt, on Twitter as @dkbritt85, and via his movie blog Hold the Popcorn.