In Free Jumbalaya’s outstanding “Sadie’s Last Painting,” art triumphs over the undead
Sadie’s Last Painting is an apocalyptic Zombie tale. Sadie is one of the few Survivors. She has taken successful refuge in her Art Studio. She has spent three months there waiting for her wife to fulfill their rendezvous agreement.
She is close to hopeless and increasingly stir crazy.
She subsists on water and Debbie cakes. Not a protein in sight, still she looks pretty fit if you discount the large gash on her stomach.
Sadie enters the stage wounded after having made a run for Art supplies. She has been bit by one of the Undead who have taken over the streets. A fatal bite, but not so fatal that she hasn’t got time to act in an 80 minute play.
As she goes through her last day on Earth, McLean Jesse as Sadie takes command of the stage alone for well over an hour. She is immensely watchable, adorably frenetic, joyfully entertaining, intensely interesting and heartbreakingly sad. It is a brave performance and one of the best I’ve seen this year from her or anybody.
Ms. Jesse takes the big roles, the fragile, mentally unstable, traumatized women and grounds them in life. I can’t remember when she was last calm on stage. Yet she remains a real person, an everywoman thrown into the mass vortex of crazy. As an actress, she doesn’t always find solid ground to center her characters. Her vocal range needs more training. But as Sadie, she hits serious pay dirt.
She is also lucky to have an excellent, creative and original script.
Alex Mayberry has written the best original play I have come across this year. He keeps his story tight and focused on this woman, finding infinite interesting ways for her to get through this traumatic day. He achieves the right balance of mystery, intrigue, human frailty and human comedy. In other words he finds the truth to this woman and an engaging way to tell her story.
He writes a Zombie story that isn’t about Zombies. He uses them as an underscore to Sadie’s journey. What he does do is showcase the offbeat, unique soul of the Artist and let’s that triumph over all else. This is a play that sings. Which is not to say it doesn’t have some “pitchy” moments.
As fine as it is, the play falters when Sadie’s wife Lynn appears. Courtney Hans is a wonderful actress who blew me away in The Madea Myth earlier this year, and while very good, she doesn’t have the same opportunity here. Mayberry falters for the only time exploring this marriage, bypassing any meaningfulness the lesbian relationship might have to the overall theme. Their sexuality is understandably not the focus of the story, but I’m not sure it’s a footnote either. The choice, along with the slighter investment made in Lynn’s character when put up against Sadie, keeps Lynn less important and drives Sadie to over-written philosophical monologues in her presence instead of meaningful interaction which shifts the show into a lower gear.
The play does sing with the wildly creative musical compositions by Matt Treacy. Treacy did all the composing and, with his crew, does all the singing and sound effects to become a major supporting character in the play. Sadie spends a great deal of time singing to and being influenced by the music she plays and hears in genres as diverse as opera and Spanish traditional. She also treats her radio as a supporting character. Whether it is the music she hears or the news reports that absurdly give safety instruction, the perverse intrusion of outside sound is her only companion.
That intrusion also extends to her walkie-talkie communication with the only other Survivor she knows, Survivor Dan who insists on radio protocol even though they are the last two left.
Dan is heard and not seen, but he becomes as strong a character as any other thanks to the talents of James Tormey. Mr. Tormey is a very young actor who delivers an outstanding, middle-aged military type as Survivor Dan.
Makeup artist Stephen Ryan does some impressive Zombie makeup and gets it frighteningly right, showing us more a vascular explosion in the Zombie face rather than the decay and mold you usually get.
The Zombie confrontation is wonderfully staged by Emily Turner who choreographs a similarly frighteningly realistic death match.
The space at Planet Zero is a huge hall cordoned off against an amazing wall which features a massive sliding steel door which is perfect for the shelter. It gives you a sense of security that proves to be thwarted by human error. The stage is strewn with the things one needs to live in a space not designed for living. It is primarily an Artist’s Studio and looks like it. Pictures hung all around, supplies and frames and easels abound. It feels right. It allows the producers to give Ms. McLean tons of space and keep it framed for maximum sight lines.
The art on the walls are primarily the work of Ms. McLean, a very talented artist in her own right. Her works have been seen around Richmond for quite some time and here they abound and astound.
The genius of this collaboration of author and star is to have Sadie create art as the play proceeds. Ms. Jesse painted a lovely flower arrangement as the play progressed and it was fascinating to see her artist mind at work creating layers of reality to the flowers, all while deeply entrenched in a difficult script.
Tap dancing is fine, but the creation of a painting is a special skill I bet few actors have on their resume.
Director Cheryl Fare holds it all together with master precision. It is obvious that the performance was an intense collaborative artistic endeavor of the type other theatre companies should be jealous of. Firehouse will develop a script with Bo Wilson later this year, but Free Jambalaya gets there first.
Great script, amazing acting, polished staging, inventive score. Free Jumbalaya gets it right and produces a piece of theatre that rivals any in town. Bravo.
Sadie’s Last Painting runs now through Saturday, July 9th. You can snag tickets here.
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