March Theater Preview: Controversy and Conflict

She's a farm wife, he's a hot-shot photojournalist, and passions are ignited but dark skies loom: Elizabeth Stanley and Andrew Samonsky play the unlikely couple in "The Bridges of Madison County."

She’s a farm wife, he’s a hot-shot photojournalist, and passions are ignited but dark skies loom: Elizabeth Stanley and Andrew Samonsky play the unlikely couple in “The Bridges of Madison County.”

On Pittsburgh’s live theater circuit this year, March may come in like a lion but it will not go out like a lamb. Stormy plays are scheduled throughout the month—the kinds that go swinging bare-knuckled into conflict and controversy. And while some sort of “conflict” must be present to drive the story of any play, this lineup looks particularly heavy on the heavier themes.

Worlds collide at levels from the personal to the sociopolitical, turning friendship into chaos (Disgraced, at The Public) and romance to dust (The Bridges of Madison County, on tour at Benedum Center). Numerous plays are steeped in racial, ethnic, and/or class conflict, including A Lesson Before Dying (Prime Stage) and Miss Julie, Clarissa and John (Pittsburgh Playwrights), along with the Pulitzer-winning Disgraced.

Early in the month is a play that features incestuous rape—The Bluest Eye at Point Park Conservatoryand near the end, a history play about forced sterilization (demaskus theatre collective’s You Wouldn’t Expect). In between comes a new dance piece, Mark Thompson’s Kimono at fireWALL, which is billed as dealing with “predation and victimization.”

Yet we must believe that hope springs eternal, for there are rays of light piercing the gloom. Many of the shows on tap (such as Kimono) portray beauty and uplift being discovered amid ugliness. Also, the menu does include some lighter fare, relatively speaking.

City Theatre has the Catholic send-up comedy Sister’s Easter Catechism, followed by Sex with Strangers, a cyber-serio-comedy exposing the dark side of the joys of sex. Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre and Texture Contemporary Ballet are presenting programs of lively short works. And if you really want sunbeams amid the storm clouds, it’s hard to beat The Sound of Music, which visits the Benedum.

Shows are previewed in order of their run dates.

Toni Morrison, shown here in 2008, lit a fire with her 1970 book "The Bluest Eye."

The formidable Toni Morrison, shown here in 2008, lit a fire with her 1970 book “The Bluest Eye.”

THE BLUEST EYE by Lydia R. Diamond, adapted from the Toni Morrison novel. Feb. 25-28 & Mar. 10-13, Point Park Conservatory Theatre Company.

Toni Morrison’s first novel, which set her on the path to a Nobel Prize for Literature, also ranks high on banned book lists. There have been attempts to keep The Bluest Eye out of schools and libraries nationwide but it won’t be kept off the stage in Pittsburgh, as Point Park Conservatory Theatre performs playwright Lydia R. Diamond’s adaptation of the controversial story. The Bluest Eye is about a preteen African American girl who dreams of becoming white, thinking she’d then be prettier. Instead she becomes pregnant after being raped by her estranged father. Many twists and turns follow, played out both in surreal visions and in harsh reality. Diamond’s The Bluest Eye was commissioned by Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre, which premiered it in 2005. In the Rauh Theatre at Pittsburgh Playhouse, 222 Craft Ave., Oakland.

SISTER’S EASTER CATECHISM: WILL MY BUNNY GO TO HEAVEN? by Maripat Donovan. Now through Mar. 20, City Theatre.

Practically everybody in Pittsburgh knows Sister, or ought to. She’s the daffy nun played by Kimberly Richards in the Late Night Catechism live comedy series. The latest Late Night entry, Sister’s Easter Catechism, is designed to be good, clean fun for all ages with just the requisite touches of irreverence. In this installment, Sister explains the roots of the seemingly bizarre traditions that accompany the Easter season—from bonnets to baskets, and from chocolate rabbits to Peeps. She also answers deep questions children may have, like the one used for the subtitle of the show: Will My Bunny Go to Heaven? In the Lester Hamburg Studio at City Theatre, 1300 Bingham St., South Side.

A LESSON BEFORE DYING by Romulus Linney, based on the novel by Ernest J. Gaines. Mar. 4-13, Prime Stage Theatre.

Prime Stage Theatre has an educational mission as well as an artistic mission. The company presents plays that raise social issues (such as, recently, The Crucible), brings in school groups to see the shows, and conducts related programs. But one does not have to be a student to appreciate Prime Stage: Good plays are chosen and they’re done well. Romulus Linney’s A Lesson Before Dying is a tense drama set in a small town in the pre-integration South. A young black man is wrongly convicted of murder and sentenced to die. As he awaits execution, members of his community resolve to help him come to terms with his fate—and in doing so, they must confront how courage, injustice, and faith are manifested in their own lives. A Lesson Before Dying is based on Ernest J. Gaines’ 1993 novel, which was also made into an HBO movie. At the New Hazlett Theater, 6 Allegheny Square East, North Side.

THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY (musical) by Jason Robert Brown and Marsha Norman, adapted from the novel by Robert James Waller. Mar. 8-13, national touring company at Benedum Center.

Who knew that covered bridges could become a multimedia sensation? Those in Madison County, Iowa, did it by sparking a story about an undercover, extramarital affair that ends in heart-wrenching drama. The novel was a runaway bestseller. The movie had Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood, an odd pair, making audiences sigh and weep as they played the story’s fictional odd bedfellows. And the latest iteration keeps the tearjerker quotient high while adding music. The Broadway musical version of The Bridges of Madison County visits Pittsburgh in a national touring production. This show didn’t exactly sweep New Yorkers off their feet, closing after only 137 performances in 2014, but is winning hearts across the heartland. The musical has two big things going for it: outstanding songsBridges won a Tony Award for Best Score—and its underlying tale of improbable love, which continues to resonate with many. Benedum Center, 237 7th Ave., Cultural District.

MIXED REPERTORY #2 (a program of modern ballets). Mar. 10-13, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre.

Step aside, Tchaikovsky. Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre is gonna dance to the music of Johnny Cash. Once again, PBT is showcasing the varied nature of contemporary ballet in an evening of short modern works. This year’s rendition is called Mixed Repertory #2, and it is headlined by James Kudelka’s The Man in Black, danced to several songs by Cash. (Recorded tracks are used in order to get the full flavor of the late balladeer’s distinctive voice.) Also on the program are Michael Smuin’s Eternal Idol, with music by Chopin, and Jardin aux Lilas, choreographed by Antony Tudor to music from Ernest Chausson. Capping the show is the premiere of an original piece created by PBT principal dancer Yoshiaki Nakano: He has titled it A Fellow Feeling, and the music is by that fellow Mozart. Byham Theater, 101 6th St., Cultural District.

Fajer Kaisi is Amir, the "Disgraced" lawyer in the Pulitzer-winning sizzler at The Public.

Fajer Kaisi is Amir, the “Disgraced” lawyer in the Pulitzer-winning sizzler at The Public.

DISGRACED by Ayad Akhtar. Mar. 10 – Apr. 10, Pittsburgh Public Theater.

Much of the buzz about Ayad Akhtar’s play Disgraced has focused on its hot-button subject matter. The central theme is Islamophobia, but many other forms of prejudice and social tension are explored. The play’s setup sounds like a crude ethnic joke—a lapsed Muslim, a Jew, a WASP, and an African American get together for a dinner party—and even though they’re all highly educated, progressive people, the talk turns heated and the knives come out.

Disgraced, now being given its local premiere by Pittsburgh Public Theater, received the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. And the play is more than socially relevant: It’s a riveting personal drama (see our review). The main character is a lawyer of Pakistani descent whose fast-track career has been interrupted when he is suspected of sympathizing with Islamic terrorists. At the O’Reilly Theater, 621 Penn Ave., Cultural District.

MISS JULIE, CLARISSA AND JOHN by Mark Clayton Southers. Mar. 12-27, Pittsburgh Playwrights.

Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company, best known for staging the works of August Wilson, is doing a new hometown original that riffs on a Swedish classic. Miss Julie, Clarissa and John was written by PPTCO founder Mark Clayton Southers as a re-conception of August Strindberg’s 1888 drama Miss Julie. Southers has kept the core dynamics of Strindberg’s famous plot. We still have Julie, a young woman from an aristocratic family, falling perilously in love with a servant. But the setting is moved from Sweden to a Virginia plantation during the Reconstruction period. Not only is the servant of a different social class than Miss Julie, he’s of a different color. Other new twists are added, and given that the Strindberg play was a shocker to begin with, Southers’ Julie could crank the voltage higher. 937 Liberty Ave., Cultural District.

SEX WITH STRANGERS by Laura Eason. Mar. 12 – Apr. 3, City Theatre.

Try this instant personality test. Read the title of the upcoming play at City Theatre—Sex with Strangers—then ask yourself: Does the notion strike you as (a) arousing, or (b) creepy? For the woman in Laura Eason’s play, the answer is (c) both. The woman is a struggling middle-aged novelist whose first book laid an egg. Into her life comes a stranger: a younger man, also an author, whose first opus went viral on the Internet. It happened to be the imaginary (or maybe not so imaginary) digital diary of a young man who sets out to have sex with lots of women and succeeds. Do the two writers engage in writerly intercourse? Of course, and the seriocomic results are not for children, regardless of how cyber-savvy they may be. 1300 Bingham St., South Side.

REFLECTIONS (new works in modern dance by various choreographers). Mar. 18-20, Texture Contemporary Ballet.

To help mark its fifth season, Texture Contemporary Ballet is performing a program of five new dance works created by members of the company along with others. The pieces are so new that they haven’t yet been given titles (or at least, they hadn’t by the time this preview was written). It will suffice to mention that the music ranges from classical to Coldplay, and the dancing from energetic to silky-smooth. One piece features a guest performance by Kieraqmil Brinkley of Oregon’s Polaris Dance Theater—a quadruple amputee who nonetheless dances with amazing grace. The schedule includes a special Saturday matinee for children. At the New Hazlett Theater, 6 Allegheny Square East, North Side.

THE SOUND OF MUSIC (musical) by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, with Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse. Mar. 22-27, North American touring company at Benedum Center.

When The Sound of Music opened on Broadway in 1959, reviews were not all thumbs-up. Some major critics found the story to be trite and the songs too sappy. The famously acerbic Walter Kerr fired off a string of zingers—writing, for instance, that the Trapp family’s kiddie corps made the musical “suffer from little children.” But history has judged otherwise. The Broadway show won multiple Tony Awards and ran for nearly four years; the soundtrack album wore out phonograph needles in homes across the land; the 1965 movie broke box office records … and here we are now, in the once unfathomably futuristic year 2016, with yet another touring production of The Sound of Music coming to town. Benedum Center is sure to be packed with fans of all ages. They’ll surely be enchanted by Rodgers and Hammerstein songs like “Climb Ev’ry Mountain,” “My Favorite Things,” and “Edelweiss.” And maybe these tunes are a wee bit syrupy, but it’s a brand of syrup that millions enjoy. 237 7th Ave., Cultural District.

Mark C Thompson sees the next move coming, in rehearsal for "Kimono" with dancer Alexandra Bodnarchuk.

Mark C Thompson sees the next move coming in rehearsal for “Kimono,” with dancer Alexandra Bodnarchuk.

KIMONO (dance performance) by Mark C Thompson. Mar. 18-26, fireWALL Dance Theater.

There can be no doubt that Mark C Thompson is one of Pittsburgh’s living artistic treasures. For many years, Thompson has worn many hats—or perhaps more accurately, many tights—as a virtuosic mime, dancer, actor, and choreographer. The common denominator in all his work is physical movement that blows you away, sometimes subtly and sometimes spectacularly. Most recently Thompson has created, and is appearing in, the feature-length ensemble movement piece Kimono. This project for Carnegie’s fireWALL Dance Theater explores themes of predator and victim in today’s oft-violent society. Running through the piece is a narrative of a man and woman striving to rise above the brutality, transforming it to visions of beauty. At Carnegie Stage, 25 W. Main St., Carnegie.

tp_youwouldntexpect_6x9YOU WOULDN’T EXPECT by Marilynn Anselmi. Mar. 26 only, demaskus theater collective.

Over the course of four decades, from the 1930s into the ‘70s, public health programs operating under the Eugenics Board of North Carolina sterilized an estimated 7,000 to 8,000 women and men. They had been judged unfit to procreate, as it was deemed that their offspring would be in some way defective and thus a burden to society. Many of those sterilized were African American women. Playwright Marilynn Anselmi’s You Wouldn’t Expect brings out the nature and consequences of the eugenics programs by focusing on a group of characters that includes both women who were subject to the procedures, and program officers placed in charge. The play has been given a staged reading in North Carolina; now Pittsburgh’s demaskus theatre collective is presenting the first full production of You Wouldn’t Expect. This premiere event will have two performances only, a Saturday matinee and evening show. At the August Wilson Center, 980 Liberty Ave., Cultural District.

Photo credits: The Bridges of Madison County, by Matthew Murphy. Toni Morrison, by Angela Radulescu, licensed with Creative Commons SA 2.0. Fajer Kaisi, courtesy of the artist and Pittsburgh Public Theater. Kimono, courtesy of off the WALL productions.

Mike Vargo, a Pittsburgh-based writer and editor, covers theater for Entertainment Central.