Review: White Hot by Tommy Smith. Produced by Marxiano Productions. Directed by Braden Abraham. With Hannah Victoria Franklin, Kimberly Sustad, Braden Abraham and Ray Tagavilla. Now through February 11, 2012 at West of Lenin.
Standing outside West of Lenin, the theater space in Fremont last Friday with other audience members having a post show ciggie and discussion about the show we had just witnessed, “White Hot” by Tommy Smith and produced by Marxiano Productions, we came to the conclusion that this production was the 180 degree antithesis of Seattle Rep’s current family friendly show, “How to Write a New Book for the Bible”. Mr. Smith’s “White Hot” could be considered the Anti-Christ to that Hallmark Hall of Fame-ish night of entertainment; it’s everything “How to Write…” is not: Nasty…Dark…Perverse…Layered…Textured…Complicated. And, despite the theatricality of the characters, plot and dialogue, “White Hot” is also rather frighteningly real. The dark, misanthropic characters do some pretty vile things yet I found the characters to be far more believable than the stylized ideal American white bread family at the center of “How to Write a New Book for the Bible”. And, it was because of the emotional and mortal shortcomings of Mr. Smith’s characters that they become believable and identifiable; real people ARE dark and complicated and very capable of doing some very bad things. It’s part of being human.
Not to belabor the “White Hot”/”How to Write…” comparison but if the average fan/audience member of the Rep show was willing to travel to the small West of Lenin space to check out “White Hot”, I’m guessing at least 85% of them would flee in the first two minutes of the play. At the opening of the show, we meet two young women named Sis and Lil having a rather frank and profane conversation on a couch and we quickly learn that the two women are sisters and have very different personalities. Lil is pregnant, unhappily married, withdrawn and rather obviously suffering from some depression and dysfunction. Sis on the other hand is very much single, extroverted and displaying signs of being a sociopath; the character very quickly informs us she has some serious issues with just about every kind of addiction you can name…sex, booze and drugs. Lil feebly protests her sister’s graphic descriptions of her life, but it’s also obvious she yearns to indulge in such behavior herself, especially having an encounter with a new man in Sis’s life, a mysterious vaguely foreign stud named Grig.
The play then cuts to a scene with Lil and her coldly abusive asshole of a husband, Bri and we quickly understand why she wants to break free; Bri is a condescending jerk who demands that Lil agree with him about everything including Bri’s wish that their forthcoming child be male, despite the fact Lil wants a girl. Unhappy with her relationship with Bri, Lil makes plans to meet up with Grig, while Sis and Bri take their own fractious relationship to a whole new level as well. “White Hot” then ends…darkly, and quickly after only about 75 minutes. It’s a fast, brutal ride to a grim and haunting destination.
“White Hot” is a fever blister of a play. It’s not nice. It’s not pretty. It’s raw and tough but highly stylized; the characters seem to be casually aware that they are in a play. We’re in Albee/Pinter/Theater of Cruelty land here…it’s not naturalistic or casual. It’s meaty, grown up theater for adults who crave intellectual and artistic drama. Yet, the characters, despite the black bleakness of their personalities and arch dialogue and turgid violence of their lives, are based in real human behavior and emotion. I’ve met women like Sis and Bri…no, their behavior wasn’t as extreme and theatrical as these characters, but the underlying patterns of action and reaction and self-destruction were very much present. These characters are strong and vivid and powerful and theatrical and ugly and violent…and grounded in reality.
I think the writing of “White Hot” is taut, direct and to the point and Tommy Smith does an excellent job of keeping things on track yet ambivalent enough for audiences to have to do some thinking on their own. It’s not an easy and tidy play with every question answered by curtain fall. It makes you think. And, the writing is enhanced by the work of director Braden Abraham who stages the show with a tautness and simplicity that highlights the rawness of the script. There’s not any excess baggage in this production…it moves along like a fire engine enroute to a four alarm blaze.
“White Hot” is a stylized play that could easily go off the tracks with overly broad performances but this production is blessed with the presence of two excellent actresses doing exceptional work. The heart of the play is the relationship between Sis and Lil and both Hannah Victoria Franklin and Kimberley Sustad solidly anchor this production with their work. Ms Franklin has bowled us over in previous performances with her bold presence and persona and she’s well cast here. Sis is both a larger than life/take all prisoners/hyperactive monster AND a severely emotionally damaged and terrified woman and Ms Franklin brilliantly tackles all the layers of the character. Hannah Victoria Franklin is another Seattle actor that needs to be showcased in major roles in major plays, both classic and new, at theaters all over town.
And, equally as strong, in a role that’s outwardly the opposite of Ms Franklin’s, is Kimberley Sustad playing the severely damaged and withdrawn Lil. Sis, with her non-stop talking and bravado, is a showier part, but Sis is actually the tougher role to play with her layers of pain more subtly written. It’s a quieter, more reflective and reactive role and Ms Sustad plays the nuances with great beauty and precision. The contrast, both physically and emotionally, between the characters and the actors who portray them is a principle delight of this play. Kimberley Sustad is yet another strong actor who needs more strong roles in strong works.
“White Hot” really belongs to the female characters and actors, but both Ray Tagavilla, in the small role of Grig, and Braden Abraham in the far larger role as the husband, Bri, do strong work. With very few lines, Mr. Tagavilla makes his solo scene in the production a powerful one, with a quiet sense of the strength and sexual power of his character. Braden Abraham, who does an excellent job as the director of this production, also had the unhappy task of stepping into this role at the last minute due to the playwright Tommy Smith having to vacate the role. I’m assuming that Mr. Abraham has had acting experience; most theater directors start out as actors, and he is fine in the role, if not a trifle muted and lower keyed than the other actors. His performance isn’t as strong as Ms Franklin’s and Ms Sustad’s but it doesn’t hurt the play. The character of Bri is lower keyed than the others and while Bri isn’t as overt as Sis, he’s equally as sociopathic, if not more so, than that character. Mr. Abraham stepped into a tough role and performs admirably in it.
Quick love for the simple, but very effective set design by Andrea Bryn Bush and Jessica Trundy’s lighting work…West of Lenin is a small space and both designs fit the space and enhance the play. Lotta love for Emily Fassler’s sound work…it’s as tough, violent and unflinching as the material it surrounds.
More love for Mark Siano and his Marxiano Productions for producing a tough, unflinching and raw night of theater. There’s a lot of pablum and goo produced on Seattle stages…we should always commend theater companies when they dare to stage something with grit and substance whether it’s ultimately successful or not. Happily, “White Hot” is a very successful night of raw theater that hasn’t been sanitized for your protection.