PLAYERS BY THE SEA THEATRE REVIEW
DICK KEREKES & LEISLA SANSOM [email protected]
Jacksonville Beaches’ Players by the Sea opened the world premier production of “Cotton Alley,” a one-act play by local playwright Olivia Gowan. The production opened in the studio theatre on January 15, and will remain on stage through January 30, 2016
We are always curious about new works by artists we know better as performers, and Ms. Gowan has certainly established herself as an accomplished actress over the past several years. Most recently, she played a leading role in the premiere of “St. George and the Dragon,” by Jason Woods, which was staged in Ponte Vedra. And you may recall seeing her in previous productions at Players, which included “The Trojan Women,” “Conversations After a Burial,” and “The House of Bernarda Alba,” for which she won a Pelican Award for Best Supporting Actress.
Ms. Gown portrayed one of the sisters in “Osage County” at Players. If you liked that play, or are a fan of any of the works of Tennessee Williams about dysfunctional families, you’re going to love “Cotton Alley.”
This play, set in the farming community of Pinebrooke, Georgia (population 3,012), opens in the small cluttered office of a one-man shop, owed by auto mechanic, J.T., who is seemingly indifferent to modern business practices; he apparently prefers fishing. The role is portrayed by Paul Carelli who previously directed “Glengary Glen Ross” at Players. In walks Griff Rodgers (Lucas Hopper), with a big problem: his car has broken down and he doesn’t have the cash needed to fix it. His dreams are filled with a future as a baseball star and he needs that car to drive to Orlando where he has a tryout scheduled with the Braves; however, J.T. is unwilling to help him in any way.
This day is a special day for the town, the day of the funeral of Grandmother Pearson, the owner of a large cotton farm. The property, which encompasses almost five hundred acres and has sustained the Pearson family for generations, is not currently productive.
Avery Rose Pearson (Carmen Burbridge), who is nineteen years old, has inherited the farm and a residence from her grandmother and is facing an uncertain future. Avery’s mother Ginger (Karen Overstreet) who arrives from out of town and plans to stay, did not attend the funeral, as she had been at odds with both her mother and her daughter for many years. While she has a past filled with addiction and one-night stands, she tells J.T. that she has been attending AA and has been sober for several months. Avery, who was born out of wedlock, wants only one thing from Ginger: to learn her father’s identity.Isom Steve Philips is Early Eubanks, an elderly man with health problems, who offers to buy the inherited property from Avery for an enormous amount of money. Mr. Eubanks has a grudge against the family, because, unlike his own family, the source of their past prosperity was based on the ownership of slaves. He plans to donate the land to a local African-American church as retribution.
Laura Gaines (Toni Philips), a likable neighbor and retired school teacher who taught both Ginger and Avery, is the most down-to-earth character in the production. She often visits Avery to bring food, and offer advice and encouragement.
Several subplots evolve. For example, J.T. and Ginger, who grew up together, were once a romantic number and may well be again, while down-on-his-luck Griff becomes intimately involved with the naïve Avery.
There are more twists and turns in this Southern melodrama during its ninety minutes of running time than in most two-act plays. Playwright Gown gives the characters portrayed by this talented cast a depth of detail that helps tether the play to a real world filled with pain. And these characters stay with you; we talked of nothing else during our drive home.
“Cotton Alley” was directed by Joshua Kries McTiernan, who is no stranger to cutting edge plays; his own creations included “The Creationists” and “The Red Line.” Additionally, he previously directed Tracy Letts’ paranoia-filled drama “Bug” at Players.
The scenic design by Joe Schwarz could not be better. It was built close to the seats in the intimate studio space and you are so close to the action that you will feel part of the show. We loved the messy mechanic’s office. The set revolves to reveal the Pearson house, and the faded paint, broken balustrade, and languishing plants illustrated the family’s current poverty.
Olivia Gown’s playwright’s note and biography in the program gave us some insight into the birth of this play which began ten years ago. Her interest in writing plays began at her alma mater, Valdosta State University, where she took a playwriting course during her freshman year. During a brief conversation with her, we learned that a second act is contemplated for “Cotton Alley,” and it certainly appears to us to have the potential for expansion.
We do have one suggestion: we think a brief synopsis would be helpful for audience members, as the plot is complex and much of the action happens quickly.
The Production Team included: Director-Joshua Kreis McTiernan, Playwright-Olivia Gowen, Stage Manager-Carmeron Pfahler, Scenic Designer-Joe Schwarz, Lighting Designer-Jim Wiggins, Sound Designer Eric Yarham, and Costume Designer-Jane Mild LaRoque.
Players is well-known for supporting local artists, and the production of “Cotton Alley” offers the community an exciting and thought-provoking opportunity to participate. For reservations and additional information, call (904) 249-0289 or visit playersbythesea.org.