Theater Reviews: A Peculiar Crossroads and Issac's Eye

Two beloved historical figures are dramatized with disparate results at Tampa's Silver Meteor and Sarasota's Urbanite.

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A Peculiar Crossroads:
A Celebration of the Life and Art of Flannery O’Connor

(3.5 stars out of 5 stars)
Aug. 20-30, Silver Meteor Gallery, 2213 E. Sixth Ave.Ybor City, Tampa. 813-300-3585.
7 p.m. Thursdays and Sundays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. $12, $10 students and seniors.

Isaac’s Eye
(2.5 stars out of 5 stars)
Through Sept. 6. Urbanite Theatre, 1487 Second St., Sarasota. 941-321-1397.
8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. $20, students with I.D. $5.

“Flannery O’Connor: A One-Woman Play” is simply too short. The 30-minute monologue, compiled by Kerry Park from O’Connor’s letters, essays, and addresses, could happily be twice or three times the length. Who wouldn’t want to spend a good hour-and-a-half with this comic, erudite, incisive commentator on the South, religious faith, and the art of writing short stories? O’Connor, as impersonated by the talented Betty-Jane Parks, can talk about Dostoevsky one moment, and “thousands of pigs butchered daily at the Armour packing plant” the next. She can refer reverently to her Catholic faith, and then worry that the church might just “turn into another Elks Club.” And she can explain things about her own stories — filled with damaged, broken, even freakish characters — by saying that “to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind, you draw large, startling figures.”

The occasion for Park’s docu-play is Silver Meteor Gallery’s A Peculiar Crossroads: A Celebration of the Life and Art of Flannery O’Connor. The evening also features a short film, made in 1932, of young O’Connor’s backwards-walking rooster, and a TV drama from 1957 based on O’Connor’s story “The Life You Save May Be Your Own.” The rooster bit is just a novelty, but the TV adapation — originally appearing on the Schlitz Playhouse of Stars — is strangely affecting as it dramatizes the encounter of a one-armed drifter (Gene Kelly), a hard-bitten old woman (Agnes Moorehead) and the woman’s beautiful deaf-mute daughter (Janice Rule). Not surprisingly, the teleplay reverses the O’Connor tale’s worldly-wise ending (which led the writer to pledge never to sell anything else to Hollywood), but some of the story’s magic remains. Maybe it’s O’Connor’s conviction that we’re all grotesques one way or another that makes for the show’s resonance. Or maybe it’s actress Moorehead’s ability to suggest, with a minimum of words, her imperious character’s deep neediness.

Still, the real highlight of the “celebration” is the opening monologue, staged shrewdly by Landon Green to make the most of the Silver Meteor’s long, narrow acting area. When the play begins, we see the author in her bedroom, replying on a typewriter to a fan’s correspondence; then she gets up and moves to other spaces (designed by Michael A. Murphy) representing a living room or a podium with lectern. Looking uncannily like the real O’Connor, wearing a bland, formless dress and glasses, Parks speaks to the audience with the slow, labored drawl of a tired victim of lupus, and even uses crutches as she walks in the monologue’s last minutes. Almost everything she says is quotable (and quoted): of a negative New Yorker review, “It’s easy to see that the moral sense has been bred out of certain sections of the population like the wings have been bred off of certain chickens to produce more white meat.” Of the Christian writer’s advantages: “[Religion] affects his writing by guaranteeing respect for mystery.” About the loss of the Civil War as the inspiration behind Southern fiction: “We have had our fall. We have entered the modern world with an in-burnt knowledge of human limitations.” And about studying creative writing: “Humans are made of dust. If the student scorns getting dusty, then writing fiction is not a grand enough job.”

Parks’s acting is mostly excellent, though her accent fails her a couple of times; Green’s directing is as forthcoming as anyone could want. At the end, one can only say, “More O’Connor! More O’Connor!” Half an hour isn’t enough. There’s only one solution: go back to the stories and read.

Breathing the ether. Late in Lucas Hnath’s Isaac’s Eye, the Narrator figure warns us that much of what we’ve taken in is fiction — “just a little lie to help you see something that’s difficult to see.” Unfortunately, this claim doesn’t persuade. The drama we’ve witnessed — about the near-marriage of Isaac Newton to a woman named Catherine, and the efforts by scientist Robert Hooke to keep Newton from becoming famous — feels simplistic and trite, illuminating little about Newton’s spectacular intelligence, his strange distance from females, and his idiosyncratic theological speculations. Yes, rival Hooke was an envious type; and yes, Newton never married, and may even have been a virgin when he died. But the tale of unrequited love, medical malfeasance and blackmail that makes up most of Isaac’s Eye could as easily be about two doctors in Bartow competing for a place in the local Rotary Club. The love story — girl wants marriage and children, boy is standoffish — is all too familiar, and the struggle over entry to the Royal Society is overdone and melodramatic. If you’re expecting to learn something about Newton’s amazing life and career, better look elsewhere. Isaac’s Eye doesn’t deliver.

Newton is a 20ish genius with vast ambitions for glory. His girlfriend Catherine admires him and wants to settle down, but Isaac’s peepers are on greater things. He arranges to meet the most celebrated scientist of his day, Hooke of the Royal Society; but Hooke is worried that this upstart might surpass him and tries to thwart young Newton’s aspirations. In the central section of the play, the two men gamble on the repetition of an experiment Newton claims to have made upon himself: he inserted a long needle into a tear duct and thereby proved something or other about optics. A dying, plague-stricken beggar becomes their guinea pig: the needle is inserted, the interrogation begins — and I’ll withhold the rest, since it provides nearly the only suspense in the whole play. Later, the Newton-Catherine-Hooke triangle becomes a source of drama — not very convincingly — and at the end, the Narrator reminds us that soon after Hooke died, his portrait disappeared (a documented fact). And of course, there’s that portentous assurance that we’ve all just experienced a magical lie-that-reveals-truth.


But there’s some wonderful acting here. Ben Williamson as Newton is a rebellious, punkish figure. More than a look into God’s imagination, he wants personal celebrity; and if Hooke is barring the door, well, there’s always extortion. Robert May as Hooke is a towering antagonist who keeps a sexual diary, is having relations with his niece, and isn’t about to let some self-infatuated whippersnapper place him in shadow. Kim Stephenson as Catherine is a tender, lyrical love interest, committed to her ambivalent Isaac with a constancy that borders on the maternal. And Tony Stopperan, as both the Narrator and the Dying Beggar, has a fine ironic approach to performance, always suggesting that there’s more to know about his character than he’s letting on. The play is crisply staged by Vincent Carlson-Brown, and Seth Graham’s fine set includes a huge blackboard on which a character writes occasionally. Costumer Becky Leigh mixes contemporary and period clothing for just the right postmodern effect.

Still, one wants more. A little light on the subject.

But that’s precisely what Isaac’s Eye doesn’t offer. 

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