“Raising the Dead,” which clocks in at 85 minutes with no intermission, is directed by Essential Theatre’s founding artistic director Peter Hardy and McQueen. It has plenty of atmosphere, with Joshua Woods playing saxophone and music director Rodney Allen on piano during the performance and a realistic streetscape set design by Gabrielle Stephenson, with clothes strewn outside in yards and near trash cans.
The characters of Myra and Harlowe are distinctive. The two seem like polar opposites, types who’d never in a million years be friends unless they lived in close proximity. Harlowe is freewheeling and Myra is more repressed and afraid of the world around her, made even more so by recent protests and quarantines. Myra seems hesitant to speak, while Harlowe makes every thought she has public.
The production is a bit uneven, though. A veteran of several Essential Theatre shows, Beasley brings depth to her role as a woman who has missed out on much in life. The character of Myra seems to be fighting some inner demons, which Beasley beautifully conveys. While McQueen has strong comic timing and instincts, she overdoes her performance at times. Even though the character is supposed to be a force of nature, Harlowe doesn’t always seem real. McQueen’s best moments are the quiet ones she shares with Beasley, as the two women talk, listen to each other and profess their jealously of each other. Eventually, a secret comes out.
Considine is a prolific playwright whose “Raising the Dead” was a finalist this year for the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Playwrights Conference. Her play “Riding Bicycles in the Rain” also had its world premiere at Wyoming’s Relative Theatrics in September. Considine started off as an actress but turned to writing after a major illness. She calls this play a “love letter to the women who held my hand and kept me from slipping under the waves.” It’s full of complications, observations and tart dialogue, yet it feels like it could use a bit more detail on its characters, especially Myra.
“Raising the Dead” is one of the first theater productions I’ve seen in person since early 2020, and it’s certainly comforting to be able to attend in person and feel secure in doing so. Essential Theatre is requiring proof of vaccination upon entrance (or proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken with the past 72 hours) and masks during performances.
Over the years, the company has featured more than three dozen new works by area playwrights, including former Atlantan Lauren Gunderson, named the most produced playwright in the country in 2017 and again in 2019. Avery Sharpe’s “Woke,” my favorite Atlanta play of 2018, is also a recent highlight. Because the company places such focus on Georgia playwrights, it’s easy to cut it some slack. “Raising the Dead” doesn’t gel the way it should, but it does seem like a play that’s a few tweaks away from making a deeper impression.
“Raising the Dead” at Essential Theatre Play Festival
With “Calming the Man,” by Anthony Lamarr White, along with a two-night only encore performance (Nov. 17-18) of Shelby Hofer’s “High Risk, Baby!” Through Nov. 21. $15-$25. West End Performing Arts Center, 945 Ralph David Abernathy Blvd. SW, Atlanta. essentialtheatre.com.
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