When we first meet Eli “The Bull” Willis, the central figure in Out of Hand Theater’s world premiere production of “Calf,” one of the most startling images is the chains around the young man’s hands. Those chains eventually come off — at least physically — but tight restraints seem destined to forever restrict him from moving forward.
Part of the company’s Shows in Homes programming, “Calf” is being staged inside numerous metro Atlanta houses through May 22, preceded by a cocktail party and followed by a talkback led by Georgia Justice Project, which represents individuals in the criminal justice system and works to reduce barriers to re-entry. There is also a theater performance at 7 Stages on May 9.
Written by Atlanta native playwright Leviticus Jelks, this is a 70-minute performance in which Marlon Andrew Burnley plays Eli, who has spent the last 10 years in jail for a crime in which a kid died. “Calf” examines how Willis tries to readjust to life after prison and the difficulties he faces with the crime perpetually hanging over his head — trying to find a job, as well as a place to live, and connecting with the 10-year-old son he never met. Now staying in a motel room, the character asks the audience, “How would you like to be identified for your entire life by the worst thing you’ve ever done?”
Credit: Courtesy of Out of Hand
Credit: Courtesy of Out of Hand
The play takes place in Atlanta’s English Avenue neighborhood, and the script refers to the timeframe as now, then and tomorrow. In all, Burnley plays seven characters, including a parole officer, a Mexican American grocery store owner, a blond Apple Store employee, Eli’s mother and the mother of his son. Some of those characters are quite memorable in only a scene or so, such as when the Apple employee questions her own racism.
The company’s associate artistic director, Burnley originally was set to direct this production until the previous Eli left for another show. With Burnley stepping into the role, Nikki Young has taken over as director. Burnley is quite effective at conveying Willis’ pain and frustration, working against a system where he can barely keep his head above water.
The staging can feel a bit rough at times, though. It can be hard to keep track of all the additional characters, and the changes to and from can be abrupt and confusing. Composer and sound designer Eugene H. Russell IV incorporates some important cues, but the lack of props hinders the production.
Playwright Jelks has a fascinating character at the center of his work. Willis is a decent guy looking for a break, for someone to take a chance on him, while dealing with a society ready to glance and turn away and not offer him a second chance. “Calf” could use a few more dimensions, however. While there is some keenly observed material and insight here, at times it can feel like a mere conversation starter — with the discussion to follow — rather than a full-fledged play. Perhaps that is the point with these events, but it does feel like Jelks’ well-written work has the potential to evolve into something deeper.
Now in its 20th season, Out of Hand has become an invaluable part of the local theater landscape. The New York Times championed the company with a Best Theater of 2020 citation, the troupe was a 2021 Governor’s Awards for the Arts & Humanities honoree, and very few other local theater companies stage the kind of work it offers, focusing on social justice and re-imagining the boundaries of community engagement.
Pre-pandemic, I did see another Shows in Homes play by Out of Hand. “Conceal and Carry,” staged in late 2019, dealt with a liberal gun owner and his attraction to the weapons and featured a riveting performance by Lee Osorio.
“Calf” opened April 21, and I attended a Sunday afternoon performance at the home of Alliance Theatre Artistic Director Susan V. Booth and her husband, Max Leventhal. Each show accommodates up to 30 attendees, and the intimate feel is a welcome one. This particular performance was done outdoors and, while it was a lovely day, the setting posed some problems. A few excited neighbors often made the quieter passages of the play hard to hear, and an adorable dog wandered in and out of the audience, in the performance area and in and out of the house, almost begging for co-star status.
That said, though, I think even indoor home events might not be ideal for this. Having read the script, I feel like a few distinctive details get lost in translation.
I was never bored with “Calf” and I don’t think anyone will be. Yet I was never as captivated as I wanted to be, or moved or angered. I hope in its next incarnation, the play finds more solid footing and is able to maximize its central concept.
Jim Farmer covers theater and film for ArtsATL. A graduate of the University of Georgia, he has written about the arts for 30-plus years. Jim is the festival director of Out on Film, Atlanta’s LGBTQ film festival. He lives in Avondale Estates with his husband, Craig, and dog Douglas.
Through May 22. $18-$30. Various locations, including 7 Stages, 1105 Euclid Ave NE, Atlanta. outofhandtheater.com.
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