By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Miracles abound in Crowns at Dallas Theater Center and Handler at Quad C Theatrein Plano, two shows that explore faith, love and redemption. DTC's cast of seasoned Equity professionals (including two local favorites) gets into the old-time religion with foot-stomping renditions of gospel tunes and broadly acted stories about days gone by. Crowns is a huge feel-good and feel-God musical about the emotional and cultural connections between African-American women and their Sunday hats. Handler, on the other hand, is a student-acted yarn about a secretive religious sect that uses live snakes in its worship services. Both productions are blessed with an abundance of talent, and both the big-budget show and the simply staged college drama warm the soul and move the spirit in ways that only righteously good theater really can.
Handler is the work of playwright Robert Schenkkan, a Pulitzer and Tony winner for his expansive, nine-play Kentucky Cycle. Tucked away in the distant "hollers" of Appalachia, the congregation of the Holiness Way church takes literally the New Testament scripture that commands believers to "take up serpents," as well as cast out demons and speak in "new tongues." They are a lively bunch, led by Brother Bob (Shawn Lundy at the performance reviewed). The fundamentalist Christians sing and pray themselves into breathless frenzies. Believing that their strong faith protects them even from the venom of poisonous snakes, the most fervent of the flock lift live rattlers above their heads as they dance up and down the aisles.
At the center of Handler is a young married couple, Terri (Colleen O'Connor) and Geordi (Mike Tuck). She works as a motel maid, and he describes his job as "local sinner." After doing prison time for his role in a tragic accident, Geordi returns home to a still-grieving wife who has grown cold and bitter toward her alcoholic husband.
Life is bleak in their little town. Even the church is drying up. Brother Bob begs God to "give us a sign" of something better. That comes in the form of a strange miracle involving Geordi, a rattlesnake and a quick trip to the great beyond and back.
The first half of Handler provides the set-up--a rather conventional one, too. But Schenkkan fills the second act with surprises, taking the characters into a fiery dreamscape as Geordi travels into an eerie, otherworldly wilderness to find redemption and to earn back Terri's love. Geordi speaks long speeches in the voice of the snake: "I will crawl on my belly in the dust, a fugitive on this earth!" He meets a hillbilly moonshiner (James Ortiz, in an electrifying performance) and a deformed young girl (Melissa Farmer). They test him with offers of white lightning and other earthly delights.
Geordi works out some of his dilemmas as a latter-day Lazarus, and on his journey back to life, he starts to feel his inner bruises healing. He sheds the skin of his past transgressions and emerges chastened and enlightened. It's a fascinating transformation, acted beautifully by young Tuck, who understands how to pace his performance as Schenkkan's writing rocks between the prayerful and the profane. If the rhythms aren't quite right between Tuck and O'Connor during their long back-and-forth monologues at the end of the play, it's their inexperience holding them back, not any lack of ability. These are two fine new actors.
Quad C, the theater at Collin County Community College, consistently dares to stage material few other local theaters would touch. Handler is certainly a bold and challenging selection. The play asks how far one should go to express faith in God. And what if a "sign" turns out to be so frightening that it makes the recipient wish it had never happened? The play takes on the extremes of religion and the media (they swarm all over Geordi and Terri after the "miracle" takes place), and it plumbs the complexities of lost faith and lost love. It's an intense two hours, acted with aching earnestness by the young cast of director Gail Cronauer's production. As college theater goes, it's rapturous.
Still, Crowns does sport two fine feathers in its cap, namely the two divas of Dallas musical theater, M. Denise Lee and Liz Mikel. At last, they're in the same show. Too often they compete with each other for roles. Here, they're stars. Lee is the saucy Velma, the flirtatious one in the group of six women and one man (Wayne W. Pretlow, wearing many hats and playing many different gents). Mikel plays Mabel, preacher's wife and all-around doyenne with "hattitude."
Set in modern-day South Carolina, Crowns wears a plot as thin as a net veil. A troubled Brooklyn teen named Yolonda (Roz Beauty Davis, who has played this role at Arena Stage and others) is sent south for safety after the gang-related death of her brother. Under the watchful eye of her regal grandmother, Mother Shaw (the amazing Miche Braden), Yolonda learns the history of her family and is introduced to the tradition of elaborate Sunday headwear among African-American women. "Our crowns have been bought and paid for," says the grandmother. "All we have to do is wear them." The girl tries stubbornly to stick to her big-city ways, but eventually she embraces a new sense of dignity endowed by the older women around her.
The barebones story line really is just an excuse to string together a series of hat-related anecdotes, interspersed with gospel songs. The music is Crowns' real glory and where it rises above mere haberdashery. Two musicians--pianist Sanford Moore and percussionist S-Ankh Rasa--manage to fill the theater like a 50-piece orchestra. And the women's voices, pure, warm and strong, are thrilling as they lean into familiar old hymns. When Denise Lee throws her whole body behind "His Eye Is on the Sparrow," your goosebumps will get goosebumps.
Each performer in Crowns gets a moment or two or three in the spotlight. (Lee also sings a rockin' "Rock of Ages.") But it's the hat-centric conversation that starts to wear this show down. We get the "Hat Queen Rules," instructions for how to hug a woman wearing a hat, tips on hat-lending ("I'd lend my children before I'd lend my hat--I know my children know their way home"), hat-and-wig combinations and how to keep a hat on when the spirit moves particularly wildly. Just when you think Crowns might head in a different direction, no, they go right back to the hat rack.
Almost all is forgiven in the rousing finale, which recreates a worship service complete with sermon. All that's missing are the collection plates (hey, DTC, fundraising opportunity?). As the ladies ascend a heavenly staircase (on a lovely set by Dallas designer Randel Wright), their voices rocket off the rafters. Spirits are lifted. Love is all around. Hats off and amen to that.