The Local, Essential Theatre's sprawling, collaborative play about Atlanta, explores numerous facets of our hometown's identity, from purgatorial traffic jams to a Phoenix-like capacity for reinvention. At times, The Local shows an affinity for the idea of Atlanta as "The Huckster's City." At one point, Spencer Stephens' narrating train conductor remarks, "Atlanta's done a lot of hard sell over the years. How do you think we got the Olympics?"
For a stage play, The Local contains a surprising affinity for straight-up civic boosterism. The Convention and Visitors Bureau could cut and paste speeches about the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Georgia Tech, and the city's history for use in videos for tourists and investors, with few major tweaks.
"It's not hard to sell something you love," commented Ellen McQueen, The Local's director and driving force, in an interview before the first preview. The Local reflects McQueen's and her fellow artists' sincere attempt to celebrate the real Atlanta, at times at the expense of the show's dramatic tension.
The theater company supports local voices as part of its artistic mission and bestows an annual prize, the Essential Theatre Playwriting Award, for Georgia dramatists. In this summer's repertory, Essential Theatre stages two additional world premieres by Atlanta playwrights: Topher Payne's satire of the educational system Evelyn in Purgatory and Jordan Pulliam's Shakespeare/superhero mashup Bat-Hamlet. The Local doesn't just celebrate Atlanta writers, but attempts to capture the city's at times elusive character.
McQueen took the idea for The Local from a friend, a Tampa-based playwright whose writer's group developed an evening of plays set in the Florida city. McQueen immediately wanted to apply the concept to Atlanta and pitched it to Essential Theatre's board of directors in mid-November, requiring a quick turnaround for a new, logistically complicated stage play. That month Essential put out a call for submissions for The Local, with the requirement that the short plays all take place in Atlanta locations.
Having received about 80 total submissions, McQueen estimates that the finished project contains about 26 individual works, including two dance solos and a poem. Many of the pieces derive from anecdotes or biographical sketches of real people, ranging from Atlanta actor Robin Bloodworth to unidentified, undocumented workers. Submissions that didn't fit in The Local's structure will be presented at Essential's Aug. 1 reading OTP: Outside the Play.
Based on the opening-night performance, The Local gets off on the wrong foot with an overly obvious musical number about I-285 gridlock. The Local reveals more insight and wisdom with its monologues and short, multi-character scenes that build to quiet epiphanies. A young Buckhead girl's play date with a pushy friend provides her first inklings to the mysteries of sex and death. A survivor of Hurricane Katrina relocates to Cabbagetown and contends with the 2008 tornado. An old woman moves to the city and finds familiarity in Atlanta's greenery, at one point marveling at "a clump of broom sage growing through a crack in the sidewalk at North Avenue and Presidential Parkway."
In part, McQueen wants The Local to convey the city's multiplicity of communities. "We're trying to make people from different parts of Atlanta realize, 'Oh, I didn't know that was going on in my hometown.'" Some of its strongest parts convey Atlantans who exist outside the spotlight, including separate monologues involving violence in former Westside housing projects like Techwood and the aspirations of illegal workers to share in the American dream.
Like the show's slide projections of famous landmarks, some of the short plays simply name-check Atlanta institutions and feel like filler between the more substantial pieces. An adorable little girl gives school-style reports on the CDC and "the Phantom of the Fox," but the pieces provide little in the way of conflicts or thematic heft. In contrast, one of the evening's highlights shows an elderly woman recall her first visit to the Cyclorama and her subsequent struggle to reconcile her hatred of slavery with the devastation the South suffered during the Civil War.
McQueen saw two themes emerge from the dozens of submissions. "One is belonging, and I knew I wanted a piece set at Gay Pride. It used to be that if you were gay in the Southeast, you had to come to Atlanta to belong. The other is rebirth and remaking yourself. The symbol of Atlanta is the Phoenix, and the classic example is Sherman burning us down in the Civil War. The Civil Rights Era kind of burned it down and started over again. And man, the recession — it's burning us down again. We're right inside one of those moments now."
A reference to Atlanta's income disparity inspires some angry moments, including an Occupy Atlanta flashback that seems out of place. The Local features some winning bits of fantastical comedy, especially an argument between the various streets with "Peachtree" in their names: "You all look the same to me." "Hey, that's 'streetist!'" Feeling greater than the sum of its parts, The Local at best combines nostalgia and hope for the future despite adverse circumstances, and conveys individual's roots in the community despite Atlanta's reputation as a city of transplants. "Bittersweet" may be The Local's defining quality, even though Atlanta boosters aren't likely to put that on a bumper sticker.