Theater Diary: When Reactions Speak Louder Than Words

Jun 15, 2012
Originally published on June 15, 2012 7:46 pm

There's plenty of high drama going on in Porgy and Bess, and high drama can often mean intense acting.

God knows Audra McDonald is tearing up the stage as the drug- and drink- and sex-addled Bess: I've never seen her loosen up her joints and contort her body the way she does in two or three of the show's more scorching moments. She's located something rough and ugly deep inside, and found a physical and a vocal language for it.

But as any serious thespian will tell you, some of the best acting — or at least some of the subtlest, most affecting acting — is reacting. And because McDonald has already gotten plenty of praise (not to mention her fifth Tony) for her performance, I wanted to single out one particular moment delivered by NaTasha Yvette Williams, who plays Catfish Row matriarch Mariah.

It's one of the story's major turning points: Bess, who's been clean since settling down with Porgy, has been raped on a picnic by her possessive ex-lover Crown. Porgy, having revenged her by murdering Crown, is being questioned at the jail, and Sportin' Life — the drug dealer who's been trying to lure Bess to the bright lights of New York all night — is back, prophesying terrifying things about Porgy's fate and Bess's, and offering her old favorite, cocaine, to steady her nerves.

As Bess gives in, after a titanic interior struggle, the steel-spined Mariah catches sight of her from a doorway — and notices that she's left unattended the orphaned infant who's been both her charge and her lifeline, as much as Porgy has.

And as Bess notices Mariah noticing her fall from grace, as she gropes her way back toward that baby as if reaching him can keep her from hitting bottom, the roil of emotions that flicker across Mariah's face is more eloquent than words could be. There's consternation, grief, uncertainty and finally a terrible resolve — and without speaking, Mariah steps between Bess and the child, choosing to save the one she knows she can save, and leaving the other, whom she has loved and rescued once before, to shape her own fate.

That moment — the flip side of a gorgeous little dumb-show involving the same two actors and that prop rubber baby, back during that island picnic that starts so joyfully and ends so badly — puts the finishing touch on a lightly sketched but richly rounded relationship between Mariah and Bess. It's key to the considerable emotional impact of a show that's been criticized for its creators' efforts to streamline the storytelling — and it's an example, that one moment, of how to pack meaning into a place without needing more words.

Sing Out, Zoe

If you were charmed by the poise of Audra McDonald's daughter Zoe at last Sunday's Tony Awards ceremony, or touched by the passion evident in McDonald's shout-out to her from the stage, or even just quietly pleased to learn that your kid thinks something you do is cool, but would never let on, you'll like this next bit.

Zoe, McDonald told me when we caught up after Wednesday night's performance, hasn't seen Porgy since its out-of-town run at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass. — it's a little dark, and mom's doing too much weird stuff onstage, apparently.

But she does turn up from time to time to hang out in the dressing room with her babysitter and wait for the curtain to come down — and, McDonald reports with some glee, other members of the cast have been known to catch Zoe singing along with mom's voice on the backstage speakers. Not that she's ever admitted it to McDonald, of course.

Entrances And Exits

- As predicted, Nicky Silver's The Lyons didn't last long past the Tonys, where star Linda Lavin was left at the altar. The show's closing notice went up yesterday; the last performance is July 1.

- Susan Stroman, the five-time Tony winner who directed and choreographed The Producers, has been tapped for the stage adaptation of Woody Allen's Bullets Over Broadway. The musical version of that 1994 crime comedy is slotted for the season after next. (And that, never mind what Smash would have you believe, is how long it takes to get a show to the Great White Way.)

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