Theater Review: “Scorched Earth”
Jeremy Howard, David Bridgewater, Adrian Rieder, and Ronnie Brown in “Scorched Earth.” Photo Credit: Barksdale Theatre.
Racism, deceit, sex, and religion are all elements of the new play “Scorched Earth” by David L. Robbins and directed by Steve Perigard currently premiering at Barksdale Theatre. Based on Robbins’ novel by the same name, the play is set in a small Virginia town where a young interracial couple has just buried their new born daughter who was born with a horrible birth defect and died shortly after birth.
Not long after the funeral, the little baby is exhumed based on a majority vote by the church not to allow the mixed-race child be buried in the all white cemetery of the church. This heinous act turns the town on its head when shortly after the exhumation the church responsible is burned to the ground with the child’s grieving father, Elijah, played by talented and brooding Ronnie Brown, as the sole suspect in the arson.
Featuring a large 16 person cast, this play is captivating from beginning to end with several “I didn’t see that coming” moments. The male leads were exceptionally strong. The performance by Adrian Rieder as Elijah’s lawyer, Nat Deeds, was the highlight of this play for me. Rieder has an effortlessness to his acting, so genuine and honest, that in the words of the author himself “makes every other actor step up their game” when they are in a scene with him. David Janeski is perfection as the church’s new minister, Tom Derby, who is extremely tortured with more than a few skeletons in the closet. Eric Williams plays the prosecuting attorney, Ed Fentress, with just enough underhanded sneakiness and willingness to further his career to make you cringe each time you watch him pull another trick out of his hat.
The performances by the female leads were lackluster in comparison to their male counterparts. Elijah’s wife, Clare, is played by Mclean Jesse, whose performance felt a little flat. It felt like “acting” and I felt similarly about the portrayal of Nat Deeds’ estranged wife, Mauve, played by Jennie Meharg. Jody Smith Strickler plays Clare’s grandmother, Mrs. Rosy Epps, who is considered to be a staple in the small community and is frequently referenced by the other characters. Strickler gives a good performance as the revered Mrs. Epps, but like the other female leads her performance was not as strong as it could have been.
The performances by the supporting female actresses were, however, quite impressive. Jeanie Rule, portraying Judge Hawk, is excellent as the no-nonsense judge and Margarette Joyner gives an equally strong performance as Jackie, the town’s medical examiner.
The staging was genius with a motorized moving floor used to create the illusion of hills, separate rooms, and even a cemetery. You feel as if you have traveled all over this small Virginia town in the two hour play thanks to Ron Keller’s creative staging. The costumes by Marcia Miller Hailey were simple and appropriate for the setting. And lighting designer Lynne M. Hartman uses creative lighting techniques to highlight the character emotion and even give the illusion of fire.
“Scorched Earth” is packed with suspense and will give you chills, and after seeing it I think they should make more novels into plays.
“Scorched Earth” runs through May 20 at Barksdale’s Willow Lawn. For more information or to purchase tickets, please visit http://www.barksdalerichmond.org/
Jen Maciulewicz is theatre critic for GAYRVA.com and is a Richmond local. Jen attended VCU and holds a B.S. in Anthropology. She has starred as Reno Sweeney in Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes" and attended VCU’s School of Music. Follow Jen on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jenlaumac.
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