'A Soldier's Play' and 'Angels in America' 

A Soldier’s Play Arkansas Rep Jan. 30 ‘Soldier’ provides much to ponder There is plenty to enjoy and much to think about with the Arkansas Repertory Theatre’s new production, the Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning “A Soldier’s Play.” Director Gilbert McCauley, who led the Rep’s well-acted but long “The Piano Lesson” by August Wilson two years ago, this time presents a show that zooms through its two hours and grips you from its first moments, when a staggering, drunk Sgt. Vernon Waters is gunned down by an unseen assailant. The drama unfolds around Capt. Davenport, a lawyer forced by the 1944 segregated U.S. Army into an MP role, who is sent to investigate what the Army seemingly couldn’t care less about, the murder of a black non-com outside Fort Neal, La. (Side note: the play was the basis of a movie, "A Soldier's Story," partly filmed at Fort Chaffee.) Waters’ story is told in flashback form as Davenport questions the soldiers of his platoon, the “past” being staged in that very back left spot where we had seen the sergeant shot. Davenport soon discovers evidence pointing to two white officers, one decidedly racist, as possible murder suspects, but all the while Charles Fuller’s brilliant script details the kind of man Waters was and why anyone would care to kill him. Waters’ deepest problems arise from spending a lifetime trying to succeed in a fiercely segregated world and fighting the stereotypical image of his race, all the while believing he could fit in better with whites if blacks acted his way. He most despises such people as Pvt. C.J. Memphis from his platoon, an uneducated Mississippian who entertains his fellow troops with his blues singing and guitar playing. A twist in the second act involving C.J. leads to Waters’ drunken breakdown. “A Soldier’s Play” is filled with terrific performances, most notably Leo V. Finnie III as Waters and J. Bernard Calloway, back from his powerful lead role as Boy Willie (a completely opposite turn) in “The Piano Lesson,” as Pvt. Memphis. Charles Wallace, in the central role of Capt. Davenport, reminds us of movie actor Joe Morton. Local actor Mark Whitman Johnson is solid as Capt. Taylor, Waters’ superior. Kevin Jones, Lawrence Evans and the rest of the platoon all entertain, especially starting the second act with their choreographed marching drill. Sunday’s crowd roared its approval for that scene, and before all the final bows were taken the audience was on its feet with a rousing ovation. “A Soldier’s Play” continues through Feb. 20. Call 378-0405 for tickets. — By Jim Harris ‘Angels in America’ Weekend Theater Jan. 29 Hark! This ‘Angel’ Sings The Weekend Theater’s production of Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama “Angels in America: Millennium Approaches” has been held over for one more weekend (Feb. 4-5), and last Saturday’s performance before a full house offered ample evidence why. Bringing Kushner’s potent, epic work to life would be daunting for any community theater, but director and Weekend Theater vet Duane Jackson and a talented cast and crew have done it with equal parts grace and skill. And one great performance among many others makes it a must-see affair. Kushner’s drama, most recently incarnated on HBO as an Emmy-winning miniseries, deftly surveys the 1980s AIDS crisis from a variety of vantage points. Despite the often dire subject matter, Kushner’s sharp, subtle wit and richly drawn characters keep the audience engaged throughout the play’s three-hour running time. At the center of “Angels in America” is Roy Cohn (Alan Douglas), a lawyer and right-wing attack dog who mentors a young lawyer, Joe Pitt (Joe Hypes), who’s married to Harper (Julie Atkins). Cohn also sleeps with men, but denies his homosexuality even as his doctor diagnoses him with AIDS. He tells Joe he’s dying of liver cancer. Joe has secrets, too. He’s a closeted homosexual at conflict with his Mormon upbringing. A staunch Reaganite, Joe strikes up a friendship with Louis (Jeremy Estill), an openly gay man whose partner, Prior Walter (Tim Huffmaster), is sick with AIDS. Louis wrestles with guilt after leaving Prior, unable to cope with his lover’s disease. In addition to showing the gritty reality of death and disease, “Angels” also opens a portal into the inner thoughts and hallucinations of its characters. Director and Weekend Theater vet Duane Jackson uses a spare set and clever lighting to help the play move seamlessly between worlds. And he keeps the performances finely tuned to one another, emphasizing the parallels that exist among the varied characters to show the universality of each struggle. Many of the Weekend Theater’s regulars turn in typically fine performances. But Estill steals the show. Louis is narcissistic and ambivalent — a neurotic mess who is thoroughly unlikable. Yet Estill makes him the soul of the production, infusing the character with disarming humanity and heartbreaking guilt. It is a devastating portrayal -– you can practically see the weight of his lover’s illness bearing down on him, making Estill’s Louis easily one of the best performances to grace the Weekend’s stage. — By Lance Turner

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