Essential’s ‘A Complicated Hope’ would benefit from some simplification

He’s seen only in a painting in the center of the stage early on, but the character of Michael casts a substantial shadow across John Mabey’s “A Complicated Hope.’ He’s the connective thread linking the trio of others in this new work, presented of part of the 2022 Essential Theatre Play Festival.

Running through Aug. 28 in repertory with Daniel Carter Brown’s “The Outrage Machine,” as well as a selection of readings, “A Complicated Hope” is being given a professional world premiere directed by Ellen McQueen.

The drama focuses on many issues quite efficiently but is a little too ambitious for its own sake.

As the play opens, we meet Marie (Nicole Rose) and Arnie (Burke Brown) at a funeral home, after Michael has died. After 10 years of marriage, Michael left his union with Marie for Arnie. Now, as the two put the man they love to rest, the two survivors are not on chummy terms. There is obvious strain in the situation, as well as grief from both, with Marie trying to minimalize the short time the two men spent together. As Michael and Marie’s daughter, Rose Marie (Camille Monae), grows older, she befriends Arnie and learns more about her late father through him.

The play crisscrosses forward and back, showing how these three weave in and out of the other’s lives. Mabey wrote it shortly after their father passed away.

Credit: Elisabeth Cooper

Credit: Elisabeth Cooper

Winner of the 2022 Essential Theatre Playwriting Award, “A Complicated Hope” was developed by Theatrical Outfit and Working Title Playwrights. It won the Mildred and Albert Panowski Playwriting Award by the Forest Roberts Theatre at Northern Michigan University in 2021 and the Charles M. Getchell New Play Contest through the Southeastern Theatre Conference this year.

Mabey’s drama is told in a non-linear manner, leaping back and forth in time. The playwright has a clear grasp of dialogue and the natural rhythms of his characters, all of whom are quite different.

The crucial opening scene seems heavy-handed and cliched, as Marie makes some homophobic comments toward Arnie as they both cope with loss. Yet the relationships that eventually develop — between the two as well as later between Rose Marie and Arnie — have an unexpected depth.

It’s unfortunate, though, that the young playwright overcomplicates this. Mabey, also a certified mental health counselor and academic book and journal author on topics such as spirituality and sexual identity, addresses moving on after loss, grief, forgiveness, identity, guilt, the interracial relationship of the two men and how they had to stay closeted. “A Complicated Hope” also deals a lot with religion and how Marie has shifted away from being a Catholic. The play tries too hard and has too much on its agenda.

Even at 85 minutes with no intermissions, the show drags at times. A long, climactic scene between mother and daughter needs trimming, in particular, and some lengthy set changes slowed things down on opening night.

The cast does provide some redemption.

Brown is a bit one-note in the role of Arnie, and his measured pauses between almost every word seems a little Forrest Gump-like. The script never indicates much of a backstory or even what Arnie does for a living. Nonetheless, to his credit Brown is able to make an impression as the wounded character who was never attracted to men until he met Michael and who doesn’t seem to have an angry bone in his body.

Rose can occasionally overdo it as Marie but for the most part is authoritative as a wife and mother (and successful lawyer) trying to figure out what has happened to her life, as well as dealing with some personal issues.

Monae delivers the best performance, making Rose Marie a young woman confused about her past and trying to make peace with it. It’s exemplary work.

A frequent director with the company, McQueen can’t always make sense of the play’s unorthodox text and structure. But she does stage some very poignant moments among the trio, especially between Rose Marie and Arnie, including a quiet, poetic scene where Rose Marie learns more about her name from him. A disagreement between the two years later is also potent.

Essential Theatre is the longest-running local theater devoted to supporting the work of Georgia playwrights and over the years has produced the likes of Lauren Gunderson and Topher Payne. Avery Sharpe’s 2018 “Woke,” dealing with race relations, is a personal favorite. One of the joys of attending the company’s summer festival is knowing that, for the most part, the productions will be ones no other audience has seen before.

“A Complicated Hope” reminds me of Horizon Theatre’s current “Square Blues” in that both premieres have complex, interesting characters in the mix but don’t really know how best to utilize them or their situations. “Hope” isn’t a bad production at all, yet it takes some odd turns and needs some narrative tweaks. A simpler, cleaner version could be infinitely more successful.

THEATER REVIEW

“A Complicated Hope”

Through Aug. 28. Part of the Essential Theatre Play Festival with Daniel Carter Brown’s “The Outrage Machine,” through Aug. 27. $12-$28. Hush Harbor Lab presents a reading of “The Wash” by Kelundra Smith, taking place one night only, Aug. 18. $25-$28. The Bare Essentials Play Reading Series presents “Shark Week” by Anneka Rose on Aug. 22. Free. West End Performing Arts Center, 945 Ralph David Abernathy Boulevard, Atlanta. 404-212-0815, essentialtheatre.com.


Credit: ArtsATL

Credit: ArtsATL

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