Atlanta's scrappy Essential Theatre is a company with a mission.
Two of them, actually.
For Essential's ninth annual new-plays festival, Artistic Director Peter Hardy intends, partly, to stage scripts of national renown that, for one reason or another, haven't seen the local light of day. The company also seeks to cultivate Georgia talent with its Essential Theatre Playwriting Award and stage the world premiere of a local playwright. Essential may be a small, homeless company, and its repertory productions tend to be short on glitz, but the company's sincere excitement about theater is undeniable.
Frequently tried-and-true plays by out-of-towners outshine the homegrown discoveries, but lately the Atlanta-based honorees have proved particularly impressive, such as Larry Larson and Eddie Levi Lee's 2006 winner Charm School, which Horizon Theatre recently re-staged. This year's winner, Jean Sterrett's Southern Death Row drama Fix Me So I Can Stand, handily outshines the company's "national" selection, Christopher Durang's silly holiday show Mrs. Bob Cratchit's Wild Christmas Binge. Night Travels, the third show in the program, opened after press time but presents short, interconnected pieces about women's dreams by such female playwrights as Karen Wurl and Ellen McQueen.
Fix Me So I Can Stand, despite some rough spots, presents a surprising and well-textured treatment of still-relevant Southern issues. Familiarity is no friend to Mrs. Bob Cratchit, however, which is amusing in doses but makes sport of wearily familiar targets.
An actual incident inspired Fix Me So I Can Stand's portrayal of an African-American unjustly condemned to death. As if structured to support the notion of "separate but unequal," the play first presents the "white" half of the story. In the mid-1970s, two brothers reunite in their South Georgia hometown. Dozier (Patrick McColery) was recently elected judge while his younger brother Buddy (Mark Russ) left the South to practice law in New Jersey. Buddy finds himself interested in a case that Dozier's new duties are forcing him to drop, involving a black man on death row for a local homicide.
Sterrett was born in Australia but has been an Atlanta resident since the 1940s, and appreciates the paradoxes of the South, such as the superficial hospitality that conceals deeper inequities. Buddy and Dozier's sibling rivalry reveals a social edge in the way Buddy challenges Dozier for using the word "boy" to describe the convict. When they review the case's particulars, the play feels like a small-town John Grisham or Southern Perry Mason thriller. Some too-convenient plotting hinders the writing, however, like the way the brothers get a phone call from a surprise witness within minutes of discussing the case.
Act Two makes a surprising switch, being very nearly a monologue narrated by an unidentified African-American man (Spencer Stephens) who claims to be an eyewitness but may actually be Johnny, the condemned man. His account doubles back to before the murder and describes falling in love with his future wife, Ginny (Belinda D'Pree). When he stumbles upon the murder scene, he experiences not just the shock of finding bodies but the terror of being falsely accused for their deaths.
Stephens, a reliable Atlanta character actor, clearly recognizes that such rich roles come along rarely, and wants to rise to the occasion. He captures the play's most intriguing dimension, in revealing the soul-crushing effects of living on death row for more than half a decade, unable to raise his hopes when Buddy takes his case and chewing on his paranoia over his wife's paranoia. Stephens sells Fix Me So I Can Stand's idea that spending years under a death sentence is like being killed twice over.
Christmas is at the background of Stephens' drama but comes to the fore with Mrs. Bob Cratchit's Wild Christmas Binge. The first part of Durang's 2002 play follows A Christmas Carol more or less accurately, as if we're watching a community-theater musical adaptation, with intentionally cheesy songs: "It sort of weighs a ton / This festive Christmas fun!"
Fracena Byrd plays the Ghost who plans to haunt and reform Ebenezer Scrooge (Alex Van) on Christmas Eve. Her intent to show Scrooge his life keeps going wrong; they find themselves at the Cratchit family's poor-but-happy hovel too early, and Mrs. Bob Cratchit (Johanna Linden) can hear what they're saying. Fed up with the "heppy" outlook and irresponsible ways of Bob (Jeffrey C. Zwartjes), his wife resolves to get drunk and drown herself.
Mrs. Cratchit – who has an American accent and the first name "Gladys" – turns out to be another of Durang's cranky heroines who balk at conformity, not unlike the similarly suicidal title role of Miss Witherspoon (staged in January by Theatre in the Square). Linden's funny, against-the-grain complaining makes a great foil to the manic cheer of the holiday in general and the Dickens play in particular. The show becomes an amusing mash-up of It's a Wonderful Life and other Dickens works, with Sarah Falkenburg amusingly playing an oversized "Little" Nell.
But parts of the show are badly unsteady. Durang tweaks easy, out-of-date targets like Enron and "Touched By an Angel," and Byrd doesn't really pull off the combination of high-handed attitude and dawning befuddlement that the Ghost requires.
Mrs. Bob Cratchit's Wild Christmas Binge is better than many of the Scrooge satires one sees at the holidays, but not so much better that it necessarily deserves Essential's attention, especially in July. Perhaps it's a sign that the festivals' locals-only plays are ready to stand on their own.