by Monica Trausch · May 3, 2014
Indie Artists on New Plays #87 Monica Trausch looks at Cherry Smoke at Urban Stages
“Me an Fish is in love. He jus don’t know it yet.”
So opens James McManus’ 2006 Princess Grace Award winning play, Cherry Smoke, as presented by Working Theater at Urban Stages. I enjoy McManus’ work; in his plays he captures the voices of distinct communities, communities and voices that are rarely presented on stage. Cherry Smoke is no exception as McManus chronicles the lives of four very poor, often violent people: Cherry, Fish, Fish’s brother, Duffy, and Duffy’s wife, Bug. These four are so different from the upper-class, wealthy elite we most often see on stage, fighting not about inheritances or class differences but finding love and acceptance in a world that has shown them nothing but “meanness.” During a particularly bleak admission of the abuses Cherry has suffered, she says to Fish:
“Cherry: Some folks get people who take care of em, some folks don’t. Fish: Why ya think bad things happen? Cherry: There’s just a meanness swirling around out there and it gotta land on someone. Fish: But why? Cherry: If it wasn’t me, itta just swirled around til it landed on someone else.”
Through the skilled direction of Tamilla Woodard and the nuanced performances of the entire cast, particularly Vayu O’Donnell as Fish, this show is able to transcend simple, vernacular speech and truly move the audience. I was able to forget that I was in a nice theater in New York City, and go deeply into the “remnants of a steel mill town in Western PA.” At first I was reluctant to jump right into this world, as this script doesn’t necessarily build, but rather jumps right in. But the actors’ performances built upon themselves as they moved into their characters. Molly Carden won me over as Cherry by the play’s end, as she went from silly ten-year old to a woman who has more trouble than she or anyone deserves. When she asks Fish to be her angel, I could feel my heart breaking for her, as she desperately clings to the only person she can, even if he is in and out of jail, “a dormant volcano.”
We feel the meanness Cherry talks about right away via Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams’ excellent set. MacAdams’ has created a dirty, industrial world that holds no comfort for it’s four lost characters. The space at Urban Stages is deep, and MacAdams uses it perfectly, adding dimension and layers to the world of the play.
Another way this production immerses us in it’s world is through lighting. Solomon Weisbard gives us a nuanced lighting design that helps move the story along, allowing the script to shift between time periods and locations almost seamlessly. Most memorably, during a particularly climatic fight scene, Fish stands in the boxing ring and Weisbard’s lights shine directly into the audience, disorienting us and putting us right in the middle of the fight, just as Fish feels. The fight scenes by Rick Sordelet are the most remarkable element in the staging of this play. As Fish dances and fights, it feels as if he is fighting someone, even as he stands on stage alone. I have seen fight direction and staging go horribly wrong, making these violent scenes all the more remarkable in their authenticity. The result is jarring, haunting and memorable. Just like this play.
The strength of this play and this production is the way the differences between our lives as audience members and the lives of street fighters and runaway kids seem to melt away. By the end of the play, these characters with their silly names and meanness seem just like us, wanting to be loved, to be accepted, to be understood.