It Starts with His Car

A man and his car, a beautiful thing: passion for his car sometimes equals amour for his woman. A confident woman can accept that fine balance and sometimes elevate reverence for the object long past the mere human relationship’s demise. That’s the starting point for Lakewood resident playwright’s Isabella Russell-Ides’ newest offering, “Leonard’s Car: when the rainbow is NOT enuf”, a dynamic drama reflecting on the conflicted relationships between a visual artist and writer and her two grown adopted African–American daughters.
And how her deceased lover Leonard’s car impacts all of them….

The lyrical, intense metaphorical qualities of Russell-Ides’ writing reveal her years as a poet and allow the play to soar to transformational heights as found in the works of Pinter, Stoppard, and the verse-driven Maxwell Anderson. Yet what sets Russell-Ides apart is the distinctly womanly quality of the writing. Even as she’s portraying a character’s fierce slash and burn anguish on stage, her audience feels wrapped in a warm cocoon of Gaian love energy. Russell-Ides sugarcoats nothing while placing a premium on connection, just as Pinter and Stoppard often resolve with disconnect. A male alienation-oriented style v. a female integrated one–there’s room for both, with veracity and substance. Both styles provide intriguing and honest commentary, when well executed.

The challenge for Russell-Ides’ actors and director is to respect the tone poem quality of “Leonard’s Car” while depicting realistic characters leading believable lives. It’s a success in every case. Director Terri Ferguson, long-time producing partner with Echo Theatre, fosters the ferocity of the play and balances its characters’ emotive explosions with exquisite moments of revelation, grief, joy and release. This is not a play ready for some megalomaniacal director to superimpose an outsider vision upon. Terri treads a fine-honed creative tightrope with insight, finesse and utmost respect.

As the core personality on stage, the artist-mother, Cindee Mayfield displays a mesmerizing mélange of crusty alcohol-induced self-delusion with bursts of reality-based clarity and wise-woman responsiveness to the disparate needs and moods of her daughters. She triggers the cascading flow of conflict and resolution. Like many a “real” mother, Cindee’s character sometimes knows she’s doing it, sometimes finds herself completely astounded by the explosive emotional responses she elicits. Cindee came to the role late in the production process when another actor left due to illness; her strong, nuanced performance attests to her depth as an artist and her consummate professionalism.

As the daughters, Octavia Y. Thomas and Ashley Wilkerson create intrinsic contrast, yet manage to ‘feel’ like long-suffering sisters. Octavia exudes an outgoing, Type A presence; sparks seem to fly from her eyes and off her tongue as her character confronts her mother with expansive, narcissistic outrage. Ashley’s character is the far more reflective sister, filled with a deep longing for connection with the two louder, effusive, Olympian-like influences onstage. An elegant, internally driven actor, Ashley fascinates the audience with smoldering stillness and intense focus. At times one hardly knows which character to follow while the afternoon encounter at mother’s art studio reaches emotive crescendo and offers a few surprise plot twists.

Set by Christopher Jenkins and lights by Robert G. McVay create a fittingly wacky, fanciful fantasy world environment inhabited by the main character.  As the opening play of TeCo Theatrical Productions’ 15th Anniversary season, “Leonard’s Car” satisfies like sublime nectar of the gods and whets the appetite for more first-class delicacies. Call 214-948-0716 for tickets or visit http://www.tecotheater.org

Last thought:
Russell-Ides’ play would make an outstanding national touring vehicle for Whoopi Goldberg or Queen Latifah. Anybody got a connection?  Pass that mother love around.

Alexandra Bonifield
NEA/ Annenberg Fellow in theatre criticism

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