Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Review: The Pearl Merchant

Erin Layton as Hannah and Bryan Taylor as Tom in The Pearl Merchant (photo credit: Christopher Davis)

Pearl Merchant Fails to Sell its Themes

By Lauren Yarger
Some great themes about adoption, faith and prejudice are at the heart of “The Pearl Merchant,” the first full-length production from the Threads Theater Company with a goal of presenting plays that spark conversations about faith and contribute to cultural renewal. Minor irritations, however, like those that produce cultured gems, shift the focus and keep the production from becoming a natural pearl.

Painter Hannah (Erin Layton), unable to have children, wants to adopt her student whose mother is dying, but her husband, Tom (Bryan Taylor, and mother-in-law, Elisabeth (Jillian Lindig), don’t think it’s a good idea for reasons that aren’t known to Hannah. Nenna (Nehassaiu DeGannes), a mysterious visitor, raises questions about whether the white couple has thought through all of the consequences of adopting this black child.

Like its own forced metaphor about nurturing trees, the play (from first-time playwright Cecilia Brie Walker) suffers from too many plantings without a lot of thought given to the roots. Is this a play about adoption, trust, racism, ghosts, guilt, Christian faith or the dynamics of working through a difficult stretch of marriage? Without clear direction, the play presents like a row of all of those seeds watered by a bunch of inserts to try to get them to grow together: “insert wise advice from mother here;” “insert thought about God here;” “insert explanation for ghost here.”

Intended “surprise” plot twists seem telegraphed well in advance and none of the themes ever is brought to a “pearl-like” conclusion. The lack of fluidity translates to the performances where only DeGannes seems comfortable in the skin of her character despite some nice blocking and attention to detail from director Misti B. Wills.

April Bartett’s scenic design stands out, though. She transforms the tiny stage (The Space on West 43rd Street) into two defined areas: Elisabeth’s mountain home with baskets, plants and detailed country accents downstage and the “bald,” an outdoor patch up on the mountain where Hannah likes to paint (as the audience enters the theater, she is seen painting in the shadows for a nice effect) upstage. Bartlett’s skill makes the two separate areas, on stage together throughout the almost two-hour one act, work despite a couple of exits from the bald through wooden doors. A glowing pearl also is a nice effect.

“The Pearl Merchant” was produced with help from Gifted Hands, a Manhattan volunteer program that offers recreation and healing through art, design, and craft classes for a range of populations, including at-risk youth, the homeless, people living with HIV/AIDS, and the elderly.

Christians also might like to know:
• Contains language

• God’s name is taken in vain

• The play contains some confused theology. An atheist who tells us she doesn't believe in God tells us she knows she's not going to hell, “thank God”....

• There is a ghost and Elisabeth, a Christian, offers the following as a possible explanation: “There are places the Celts recognized, where the barrier between the world of matter and the world of spirit is thin. ‘Thin places,’ they call them. Mysteries happen there. And when their children passed through the hills here, of course, many of them stayed. Well, I think something dwells here that is like that ancient thinness.”

• Tom, a seminary professor, is concerned that if the truth about his past comes out, his career might suffer, but seems oblivious to the fact that a guy who has sex with a former atheist girlfriend while engaged to someone else, fathers a child for whom he doesn’t take responsibility and then keeps all of this from his wife might not be the best candidate for tenure at a seminary.

• Threads Theater Company began in 2004 when a group of theater professionals at Redeemer Presbyterian Church began to discuss the connection between faith and theater. The group created a staged reading and discussion series and established a new play development program.

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Our reviews are professional reviews written without a religious bias. At the end of them, you can find a listing of language, content or theological issues that Christians might want to know about when deciding which shows to see.

** Mature indicates that the show has posted an advisory because of content. Usually this means I would recommend no one under the age of 16 attend.

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

My Bio

Lauren Yarger has written, directed and produced numerous shows and special events for both secular and Christian audiences. She co-wrote a Christian musical version of “A Christmas Carol” which played to sold-out audiences of over 3,000 in Vermont and was awarded the Vermont Bessie (theater and film awards) for “People’s Choice for Theatre.” She also has written two other dinner theaters, sketches for church services and devotions for Christian artists. Her play "From Reel to Real: The Jennifer O'Neill Story" was presented as part of the League of professional Theatre Women's Julia's reading Room Series in New York in February 2018.

Yarger trained for three years in the Broadway League’s Producer Development Program, completed the Commercial Theater Institute's Producing Three-Day Training and produced a one-woman musical about Mary Magdalene that toured nationally and closed with an off-Broadway run.

She was a Fellow at the National Critics Institute at the O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, CT. She writes reviews of Broadway and off-Broadway theater (the only ones you can find in the US with an added Christian perspective) at http://reflectionsinthelight.blogspot.com/.

She is editor of The Connecticut Arts Connection (http://ctarts.blogspot.com), an award-winning website featuring theater and arts news for the state. She is a contributing editor for BroadwayWorld.com. She previously served as theater reviewer for the Manchester Journal-Inquirer, Connecticut theater editor for CurtainUp.com and as Connecticut and New York reviewer for American Theater Web.

She is a Co-Founder of the Connecticut Chapter of the League of Professional Theatre Women.

Yarger is a book reviewer for Publishers Weekly and freelances for other sites. She is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

She is a freelance writer and playwright and member of The Drama Desk, The Outer Critics Circle, The American Theater Critics Association and The League of Professional Theatre Women. She served as a judge for the SDX Awards presented by the Society of Professional Journalists. She also is a member of the Connecticut Critics Circle. and the Episcopal Actors' Guild.

A former newspaper editor and graduate of the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, Yarger also worked in arts management for the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, the Hartford Symphony Orchestra and served for nine years as the Executive Director of Masterwork Productions, Inc. She lives with her husband in West Granby, CT. They have two adult children.


All material is copyright 2008- 2018 by Lauren Yarger. Reviews and articles may not be reprinted without permission. Contact reflectionsinthelight@gmail.com


Key to Content Notes:

God's name taken in vain -- means God or Jesus is used in dialogue without speaking directly to or about them.

Language -- means some curse words are used. "Minor" usually means the words are not too strong or that it only occurs once or twice throughout the show.

Strong Language -- means some of the more heavy duty curse words are used.

Nudity -- means a man or woman's backside, a man's lower front or a woman's front are revealed.

Scantily clad -- means actors' private areas are technically covered, but I can see a lot of them.

Sexual Language -- means the dialogue contains sexually explicit language but there's no action.

Sexual Activity -- means a man and woman are performing sexual acts.

Adultery -- Means a married man or woman is involved sexually with someone besides their spouse. If this is depicted with sexual acts on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Sex Outside of Marriage -- means a man and woman are involved sexually without being married. If this is depicted sexually on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Homosexuality -- means this is in the show, but not physically depicted.

Homosexual activity -- means two persons of the same sex are embracing/kissing. If they do more than that, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Cross Dresser -- Means someone is dressing as the opposite sex. If they do more than that on stage the listing would include the corresponding "sexual activity" and/or "homosexual activity" as well.

Cross Gender -- A man is playing a female part or a woman is playing a man's part.

Suggestive Dancing -- means dancing contains sexually suggestive moves.

Derogatory (category added Fall 2012) Language or circumstances where women are referred to or treated in a negative and demeaning manner.

Other content matters such as torture, suicide or rape will be noted, with details revealed only as necessary in the review itself.

The term "throughout" added to any of the above means it happens many times throughout the show.

Reviewing Policy

I receive free seats to Broadway and Off-Broadway shows made available to all voting members of the Outer Critics Circle and The Drama Desk, the two professional critics organizations with journalists covering NY theater. Journalistically, I provide an unbiased review and am under no obligation to make positive statements. Sometimes shows do not make tickets available to reviewers. If these are shows my readers want to know about (I review all Broadway shows and pertinent Off-Broadway shows), I will purchase a ticket. If a personal friend is involved in a production, I'll let you know, but it won't influence a review. If I feel there is a conflict, I won't review their portion of the production.

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