nytheatre.com review by Pamela Butler
November 2, 2012
James McManus is a fortunate playwright to have the Apothecary Theatre Company producing his play Blood Potato. Every contributing element of this dramatic offering is inventive, intense and powerful right from the start. Set designer Doug Durlacher has effectively created a stark, cold landscape of rust belt decay and broken chain link fencing that is the setting for a story of three brothers, denizens of an abandoned steel mill town in western PA., and their attempts to create a life and future for themselves. Director Kevin Kittle aggressively orchestrates the action which centers around the return of one of the brothers, Declan, from Iraq and how this changes the lives of the family he returns to. Declan is welcomed home with celebratory beer drinking and general good natured teasing. But there are no jobs here, no opportunities, no optimism; only poverty, despair and addiction. While Declan is away, his brother Fly descends into methamphetamine addiction taking Declan’s girlfriend Janelle with him. Quinn, the third brother, becomes a school bus driver, almost leading a separate life from the others, with a separate set of problems.
Declan’s return triggers change. Fly, the meth addicted brother persuades Declan and Janelle to go into business with him, making meth and selling it to the local down and outers. Having few other prospects, the three become partners in the venture. Nellie, as Janelle is affectionately nicknamed, begins to get clean and she and Declan attempt to rebuild what they had before he left. Fly does his part selling, and he too makes the effort to not need the “ice”, to not be a tweaker, a term for a chronic meth user. In the unfolding of the story, we find out about their past, their childhoods and how they got to where they are now. Rosalind Lily has designed a child sized puppet for each adult and the actors sit behind them, taking them in hand giving them animation and voice. It’s a bold and effective device and it works. The expressive faces of the puppets, the incredibly beautiful and intelligent lighting design by Robin A Paterson, together evoke absorbing and emotional scenes of innocent youth. We are all the same. We need and want love, we feel hurt by betrayal, we suffer, we sustain hope.
The actors create a solid ensemble performance. Beth Wittig is outstanding as the raw boned but tensely curled into herself Janelle, who is both deliberate and unsure of what she’s doing. Even as she gets clean she keeps an edgy distance from those who love her. And here I need to credit the costume designer, Gina Scarnati, for her spot on choices, especially giving Beth Wittig bonus material (there’s an unintended pun) with which to work Janelle’s physical energies.
Carrie Watt is charming and believable as the fourteen year old school bus rider, Adrienne, who is independent and tough out of necessity, but still vulnerable and touching in her need for a loving connection to Quinn. Mike Mihm as Quinn, is a sensitive and decent guy, basic and enduring, without bitterness, as he wrestles with his feelings regarding this little girl who won’t leave him alone. Zack Griffiths is effective as the black sheep brother, Fly, irretrievably out of control, hyper-active, scheming, troublemaking, persuasive and betraying. Finally Dennis Flanagan rounds out the ensemble with his solid fix on Declan.
The play is 2 hours with a ten minute intermission but as they say, never a dull moment. The playwright has an ear for dialog, and he builds the tensions and passions of his characters through well crafted, nicely paced exchanges. There are numerous notable moments, I’d say memorable, but my memory can’t be trusted. There is also a great deal of humor which struck different chords in the audience at different moments.
Ultimately it might be that the production is better than the play. Good acting and great dialog aside, what happens is pretty straight forward, with some creaky hinges. It is the journey, the tight directing, the really strong elements of light, set and the echoing and brooding music (composed for the play by Tim Giles) that elevate the drama to its mesmerizing pitch. The elements in the plot that feel weak are Quinn’s reactions to ultimately painful revelations and the somewhat disconnected story of Adrienne and Quinn, which is a counterpoint to the criminal behavior of the others but otherwise doesn’t affect what happens to them. It is only that he is one of them, and it is their story, that his situation remains poignant and interesting. The theme is one of blood brothers, together to the end, and we see how they make this pact, but we don’t know if they can or will keep it, we can only speculate, and mull over the emptiness of the post industrial American landscape, of which this is just one example. Nevertheless, it is an impressive production worthy of a full house every night of its one month run.