Open Fist, a longtime Hollywood company, is summering on the LA River’s eastern shore during a facility renovation. At the Atwater Theatre Center, they’ve unfolded all five fingers at once — a trilogy by Padua Hills patriarch Murray Mednick, and two solo shows.
The solo offerings, Cemetery Man and Don’t You Ever Call Me Anything but Mother, appear together, two pieces of jewelry on an open palm.
In Ken Jenkins’ Cemetery Man, Bruce Dickinson shares the musings of a fellow who’s spent his life in charge of a small town’s hilltop graveyard, and has just been handed a dismissal notice. With wry humor, he recalls many who’ve passed under his shovel, punctuating his reminiscences with sips of liquor and potshots at the backhoe (offstage) that’s ready to replace him.
Dickinson, bearded, dungaree’d, playing his larynx like a flute from whine to growl, is an enchanting storyteller. Jenkins and director Amanda Weier keep him moving, emotionally and physically, enough to hold our focus. But the piece doesn’t go as deep as a good grave; like the epitaphs of Spoon River Anthology, it evokes a familiar image just this side of stereotype. It’s a charming bauble.
Don’t You Ever Call Me Anything but Mother is something else again — a baroque pearl discovered under years of dust. John O’Keefe’s solo sonata portrays a woman fairly far gone into alcohol and dementia. In her squalid rooms, she strings the broken beads of her day on loops of talk aimed at her absent son, while his image flickers in her mind from child to adult and back.
The play is well-written; but Tina Preston’s bravura performance elevates it to a memorable work of art. Delivering half her lines offstage, modulating them into every pitch and volume imaginable, letting them sometimes slide into unintelligible mumbles and slurs, Preston gives us everything a human voice can do; and she is no less masterful and unrestrained in using her body.
This enthralling lesson in full-bore acting is well supported by Jan Munroe’s bold direction and his eye (as set decorator) for modern trash. Andrea Fiorentini and Peter Carlstedt also deliver daring, precise lights and sound. Together, the troupe wins Don’t You Ever Call Me… a place alongside Beckett’s Happy Days, as a humorous yet harrowing cameo of the human fight against despair.
Both plays, interestingly, were first created decades ago, yet they’ve held up well, with their relevance even more pointed now. Cemetery Man gently calls to mind the millions of folks left in the side eddies of “progress,” who’ve at last been making their resistance to change felt in our national life. And Don’t You Ever Call Me… more painfully reminds us to “call Mom” — to tend to the tens of thousands of our neighbors who are struggling like this, unassisted, unnoticed.
Open Fist is doing a service to our theatre and our community by bringing these two short plays back onstage (especially Don’t You Ever Call Me…, which deserves a long life in the repertoire). We’re fortunate to have these artists around, wherever they call home.
Cemetery Man, by Ken Jenkins, directed by Amanda Weier.
Don’t You Ever Call Me Anything but Mother, by John O’Keefe, directed by Jan Munroe.
Presented by Open Fist Theatre Company, at the Atwater Village Theatre Center, 3269 Casitas Ave., LA 90039.
Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 8:00,
through May 31.
EXTENDED THROUGH JUNE 7.
Tickets: <www.openfist.org> or (323) 882-6912.