by Macey Levin
When the audience meanders in to see Golden Leaf Ragtime Blues by Charles Smith at Shakespeare and Company’s Bernstein Theatre they are entertained by recordings of old comedy sketches including “Who’s on First.” The stage is surrounded by a red gauze curtain offering a glimpse of a dirty, cluttered apartment. As the recordings fade an older man enters and attempts to play Scott Joplin’s ragtime music on a piano. When the house lights fade, the apartment, still shrouded and suggesting a long-ago era, comes to life as an old Jewish vaudeville team, Pompey (Glenn Barrett) and Ollie (Kevin G. Coleman,) rehearse a routine. Pompey continually forgets his lines; the rehearsal is over and Ollie quits show business. When the curtain is removed it is 1993. What follows is a story of families and memories.
Eighty-two-year-old Pompey lives in a squalor of clothes strewn throughout the room, stacks of newspapers, piles of dirty dishes and eighteen empty Spaghetti-o’s cans. One afternoon his daughter Marsha (Kristen Moriarty) arrives and urges him to clean up the place. He refuses to acknowledge the chaos despite her threats to send him to an assisted living residence or her pleas to see a doctor. During their argument a black teen-ager, Jet (Logan Slater,) appears. Marsha is the latest of a long line of foster parents. After she asks Jet to help Pompey clean up the mess she leaves for the market to replenish her father’s supplies.
The old man and the Afro-American teen develop a contentious relationship refusing to recognize that their lives have similarities. Jet’s mother has died; his father, who has a criminal record, is not in a situation where he can care for him. Pompey’s wife has been dead for a long time; Ollie has recently passed away, and he resents Marsha trying to manipulate him. Two men lost. Throughout the time they are alone together they reveal their fears and the emptiness of the future. They are both at a dead end; little by little they find common ground.
There are universal elements involved in the plot and the relationships. Most families face strife though they may handle it differently. Marsha’s desire to find an easier life for her father is resisted, much to her dismay. Even though she occasionally implies she’s going to “wash her hands” of him, she is always there to tend to his needs. At one point she accuses him of being an absentee father more interested in his career than his home. Jet has been in foster homes or state institutions for most of his young life preventing him from having a true family experience. Though he doesn’t say it directly, he knows he is missing something.
Ollie and Pompey worked together for years, yet there is a small measure of conflict between them. Marsha obviously cares for her father, but some of what she does for him is through a sense of obligation rather than familial love. The evolution of the connection between Pompey and Jet is the core of the play.
Smith originally wrote the play in 1992; this is the first production of the revision. He has taken into consideration the historical era to serve as a background but the focus is on the four characters. A range of emotions runs throughout the play… love, anger, frustration and more complemented by music and comedy. From the first moment we see Pompey and Ollie rehearsing we are absorbed by the lives of all these people. Their personalities, actions and words compel us to watch and listen.
Though Mr. Coleman’s Ollie is somewhat peripheral to the immediate events, the scenes in which he does shtick are amusing though some times he needs stronger projection. Ms. Moriarty’s beautiful work bounces from concern to consternation. She is a controlled dynamo.
Mr. Slater’s Jet is a pained and confused young man who feels beaten by the world. Despite the darkness that hovers over his painful past, Jet makes us like him and hope that he finds a better life. The play, however, is Mr. Barrett’s. He tells jokes; he swaggers. He is easily angered and yet, oddly empathetic. There are nuances in his facial expressions and gestures that underline his moods. It is a performance of deep dimensions.
Director Raz Golden has staged the play beautifully despite being confined to a necessarily small playing space designed by Theron Wineinger. We believe the characters’ emotions and physicality. The pace of the work is consistent as it builds to its climactic moments. There are moments of soft-shoe dancing nicely choreographed by Sheila Bandyopadhyay.
Ms. Wineinger’s set is wonderfully tacky, crowded with stuff that wisely does not inhibit movement. It is also redolent of the lives of the characters. The lights by Katie Ward subtly create various moods and the occasional shifts in time. Charlotte Palmer-Lane’s costumes, especially Mr. Barrett’s, tell us who these people are and a bit of their lives. An important need of the play is the sound, in particular the use of Joplin’s music designed by Carsen Joenk.
Golden Leaf Ragtime Blues is a charming and insightful play receiving a very sensitive production.
Golden Leaf Ragtime Blues by Charles Smith; Director: Raz Golden; Choreographer: Sheila Bandyopadhway; Cast: Glenn Barrett (Pompey) Kevin G. Coleman (Ollie) Kristen Moriarty (Marsha) Logan Slater (Jet); Set Designer: Theron Wineinger; Light Designer: Katie Ward; Costume Designer: Charlotte Palmer-Lane; Sound Designer: Carsen Joenk; Stage Manager: Dennis Ebert, Jr.; Running time: one hour, twenty minutes, no intermission; September 23 – October 30, 2022. For information and tickets go to http://www.shakespeare.org