The Pumpkin Pie Show: Commencement
nytheatre.com review by Richard Hinojosa
October 22, 2009
I find it interesting that after somebody goes ballistic on their peers the people that were there feel compelled to claim some kind of ownership in the tragedy. They claim they saw the signs or that they had a bad feeling about that particular day. But the truth is we can never really know and when tragedy strikes we just have to learn to deal with it. Clay McLeod Chapman puts a fine point on dealing with tragedy in his new triptych Commencement in a truly amazing evening of storytelling that is equal parts brilliant writing and powerful performance.
Commencement is another installment of Chapman's long running Pumpkin Pie Show. It's a storytelling show of the best sort...dark and a little twisted. This installment features the extraordinary Hanna Cheek telling all three parts of a story that takes three different perspectives of a high school shooting.
In the first part we are introduced to a mother who has been sequestered in a pediatric ward away from the swarm of media and parents and victims. She has come completely unwound and she is on the verge of exploding but she manages to tell her story regardless. Cheek is exceptionally intense in this character. She creates a thick fog of tension from her very first line. Next, we meet the valedictorian. She's been working on her commencement speech. She knew the shooter but only through the notes he wrote in the margins of the library books he checked out. Chapman's writing in this segment is remarkable. The structure of the story is very thought-out and executed. The final part of the story gives us a mother of one of the victims and really places a torturous but very necessary button on the whole thing. Cheek really shows her versatility here, playing all three characters in the same scene.
I've been a fan of Chapman's writing for a while now but I really think he outdoes himself here. He still has his knack for dark, unexpected twists but this story he lays out perfectly. The journey is marked by gut-wrenching emotional turnarounds and tragic irony. His characters are meaty and real and yet still so flawed and fragile. He also sets up many very fine callbacks that made me gasp a little or go, "ahhh nice one." Commencement proves that Chapman has become a truly seasoned live storytelling writer.
And to top that off, Hanna Cheek takes Chapman's story and hits it out of the park. Her performance is intense and focused. She never lets up even for a second. At the very top of the show she grabbed me with her frazzled portrayal of a woman whose world has been suddenly yanked out from beneath her. She goes from there to a sweet young girl with a silly crush and then into a woman so filled with teeth-grinding bitterness, without missing a beat. Cheek reaches in deep and takes a big bite out of each of these characters. She is powerful and relentless.
Storytelling is an art that's enjoying a wonderful resurgence. It's an experience like no other when they done well and this one certainly is. Commencement looks into the heart of tragedy and stabs it. Catch it before it's gone.