(St. Petersburg, FL) October 6, 2018 –There’s an old saying that holding anger inside your soul is like holding a piece of searing hot coal in your hand 24 hours a day, seven days a week. In addition to causing permanent physical and emotional damage, it creates a sense of denial within that individual. And with denial comes a lack of reliability when it comes to that person’s point of view. Is he or she telling the truth, or is the person experiencing a type of self-loathing anger that is characteristic of a victim mentality?
Anger, resentment, and redemption are a few themes explored in Stephen Adly Guirgis’ Pulitzer Prize-winning “Between Riverside & Crazy,” which is not only making its Tampa Bay premiere at American Stage, it is also serving as the theatre’s season opener. This is quite bold considering the dark themes and tone of the play. However, it has excellent doses of humor, resulting in a work that entertains as well as enlightens. Courtesy of the playwright’s tight script and the production’s superior acting, especially by L. Peter Callender, “Between Riverside & Crazy” serves as a delightful beginning for the 2018/19 season.
Living in a New York City Riverside Drive apartment, ex-cop and recent widower Pops Washington (Callender) is not in a good mood. Eight years earlier, he was shot by a white police officer, forcing him into earlier retirement. Because of this incident, he is the plaintiff in an ongoing lawsuit with the police department. Stewing in his own rage and despair, he shares his home with his ex-con son Junior (Enoch King), Junior’s girlfriend (a delightful Vanessa Renden), Junior’s friend Oswaldo who is a recovering junkie (an explosively dynamic Donovan Whitey), and a finicky dog. But his former partner (Vickie Daignault) and her fiancé (Ricky Wayne) try to pressure Pops into settling the lawsuit, which is fueling his alcoholism even more. And the appearance of a mysterious church lady (a hilarious Sara Oliva, who is in one of the funniest sex scenes I have ever witnessed on stage since Eugene Morris Jerome lost his virginity to Rowena, the Arkansas hooker, in Neil Simon’s “Biloxi Blues”) adds to Pops’ chaotic life even more.
There are two stars in this production. The first is the playwright, whose characters, biting dialogue, and story progression is extremely reminiscent of the legendary August Wilson. The multicultural environment, slang, and interactions are incredibly natural and powerful. And Guirgis’ ability to combine humor with the story’s dramatic tension is flawless. His theatrical world comes to life beautifully, courtesy of Jerid Fox’s brilliant two-level set design that includes a turnstile, which smoothly rotates during key scene transitions. And with Benjamin T. Ismail’s deft direction, the audience’s attention never wavers from the action on the stage.
The second star in the play is the seasoned Callender. Although known for directing award-winning productions at American Stage, such as “Joe Turner’s Come & Gone” and “Raisin in the Sun,” this is the first time Callender performs at the St. Petersburg venue. And his debut proves to be a potent powerhouse. His Pops is a portrait of pain and anger mixed in with some seductive charm. Pops is Willy Loman with a sense of irony and sly charisma. He spouts off profanity as though he were in a David Mamet play, adding poignant humor to his broken persona. It’s a riveting acting lesson in character creation. Hopefully, he will appear in future shows at American Stage.
The supporting cast members shine in their own right. After a bravura lead performance in “Raisin in the Sun,” King is fantastic as Junior, a man who has a love/hate relationship with Pops, where the former emotion wins over the latter. Their last scene alone together is the most heartwarming moment in the entire play. Wayne is wonderfully duplicitous and oily as though he were a snake on the hunt, and Daignault, who gave a phenomenal one-woman show at Stageworks’ “The Year of Magical Thinking,” shows many complex layers as Pops’ former partner, where she is torn between loyalty to her fiancé or to Pops.
If “Between Riverside & Crazy” is any indication of what American Stage is going to be like, then audiences are in for a treat to witness stories that entertain, enlighten, and educate, maintaining that delicate balance until the theatre lights fade to black.
Peter A. Balaskas is a fiction writer, copyeditor, and playwright.
Between Riverside and Crazy runs from October 3 – November 4, 2018
163 3rd St N.
St. Petersburg, FL 33701
Photos by Joey Clay Photography