AISLE SAY Florida
by Carlyle Brown
Directed by Kate Alexander
Florida Studio Theatre Keating Mainstage
1241 N. Palm Ave., Sarasota,
Dec. 7, 2007-Jan. 26, 2008
Reviewed by Marie J. Kilker
We first see broadly smiling Simon Cato ringed in roses, his arms up in a “v.” He’s first among a bevy of pre-Civil War black slave jockeys, hired out to win horse races. Pure Confidence is Col. Johnson’s horse that only Simon can make outrun any other. He picks up considerable money from riding, though far less than southern Col. Johnson’s pockets. Simon’s confident that if the Colonel will buy him, he can not only win for him but race a horse of his own. He could make enough to buy his freedom. But war separates Simon from stables and staple friendly relationships. First, though, he’s able to buy for his wife Caroline, slave-confidante to Johnson’s wife Mattie, who’d rather not part with this “friend.” To prevent Simon hitting and treating Caroline like a slave, he must pay Mattie a big price, undergo a Christian wedding, and behave.
We see Simon after the war, in bright red bellhop uniform of a Saratoga hotel, glaring unhappily into space and next the bags he’s to carry for a guest. Simon gained freedom only by escaping to the Union army. In a postwar race, ganged up on by white jockeys, he spilled to near death. Nursed back to life by Mattie, he has one of the few jobs open to blacks in the North. The disdaining hotel Clerk is put out by the guest who’s a reporter and wants to interview Simon for a story on famous black jockeys. Col. Johnson follows, wanting Simon, still cocky and focused on freedom, to return to his stables. Yet what a fuss when Caroline, now a hired-out housekeeper, enters the forbidden lobby to meet with Mattie! Confidence aplenty is needed to right relationships, both business and personal, on the part of former masters and their slaves.
It’s hard to imagine anyone a better Simon than Gavin Lawrence, who created the role at Actors Theatre of Louisville and (where I first saw him) Alabama Shakespeare Festival. Two of his unforgettable feats: a resounding sports report while riding a barrel in an imaginary horserace of Freedom against Slavery, as well as Lawrence ringing the stage in a mimed “ride” around the track, metaphorically encircling all the actors in Carlyle Brown’s multi-layered drama. Though necessarily short, Lawrence seems to never let Ed Schiff’s Col. Johnson look down on him. I feel, though, that white-haired, white-bearded Schiff comes on as too old, looking too much like a stereotypical southern Colonel, and later like the fast food one. Barbara Bradshaw’s Mattie could also age less statically, but I have nothing but praise for how Bradshaw has Mattie psychologically mature. She’s matched in both change and insightful comic exchanges by Melanna Gray as Mattie, who’s grown in “free” self-confidence and beauty. Richard McWilliams handles opposites well: a hateful prejudiced Southern race horse owner and the reporter who admires black jockeys and respects Simon. Crafty as an Auctioneer of jockeys, Dean Bowden neatly turns himself into the second act’s stupidly racist Hotel Clerk.
As directed by Kate Alexander, wonderful Pure Confidence intrigues from the get-go. Though this production sometimes lacks the subtlety I liked so well at ASF, it keeps just enough suspense at the play’s conclusion. Scene designer Jack Magaw extends stage floorboards to suggest an oval and uses wooden posts and backdrop to represent stable and auction barn. Less solid background might allow a quicker change of scene-setting props, but Marty Vreeland’s lighting is on the mark. While there’s a bit more twangy music than needed, added sound effects by Jim Novack are welcome.
Stage Manager: Stacy A. Blackburn. Time: 2 hrs. w/15 min. intermission.