Secrets — everyone has them. But what might happen if they are awakened? Would the emotions overwhelm one to the point of losing control? Or would self-hatred rise and manifest itself as brutality toward others physically, verbally and emotionally?
University of Oklahoma Lab Theatre’s season premiere explores these questions in Canadian playwright Judith Thompson’s 1990 play “Lion in the Streets.” The title is a biblical reference to Proverbs.
Dramaturg and actor Kyle Whalen explained in his program note that “we, like the sluggard, may retreat from our lion. The characters in ‘Lion in the Streets’ are forced to face the beast.”
The black box setting’s intimacy heightens the play’s raw depictions of lust, self-loathing and hatred. Downward eyes are impossible because of the close proximity of the play’s action.
“Lion in the Streets” is not a play for the inexperienced. Cast member Chandler Ryan’s thoughts summarized her own difficulty in developing her characters.
“When starting the rehearsal process for this show, the deep, emotional nature of the content seemed out of reach for someone my age. These characters have such weight that is so apparent in every line of the text spoken, I didn’t know how I would ever be able to understand what they are going through.”
More than a decade older than Ryan, I echoed her initial worries as an audience member after the play’s opening scenes. I quickly began thinking, am I going to be able to sit here for two hours and watch actors display their sexual urges, hit each other and listen to their blood curtailing screams?
Yes, thanks to director Susan Shaughnessy and her cast’s abilities to emphasize moments that led me to sympathize with their various characters. Shaughnessy’s six cast members play 29 characters.
There are humorous moments squeezed in between the panic and fear. Ryan delivers one of these moments as Rhonda proclaims everyone needs treats in life: “Every bite of jelly donuts cleans out your soul.” What? But before you think, the laughter comes and the tension is broken for a brief moment.
Ryan’s realistic and sensitive depiction of cerebral palsy patient, Sherry, also brings about laughs through her curse and graphic descriptions of being a prisoner in her own body. Using only the text to elicit a response, you feel conflicted on how to engage with Scarlett, through her body or her mind.
“Lion in the Streets” is built from small episodic scenes that begin with a young Portuguese girl named Isobel. Sweet and apparently lost as she stumbles into center stage, Isobel is dressed in a dirtied nightgown with her black hair pulled back in two braids. She has returned to present day Toronto to search for her family.
Isobel plays our guide as scenes from her own life interweave and finally collide in the play’s final scene. Along the way, Isobel discovers she is a ghost among the living, while we are challenged to continue watching one painful scene after another.
OU senior Andrea Lopez portrays the slain Isobel. Her physical reactions to the scenes unfolding in front of her are reflected in the audience. Lopez’s presence on stage throughout the production is a reminder of innocence lost.
Who frees us from our darkest memories? Our pain? Our suffering? Kelcie Miles explores these questions as the wife, Jill, who will do anything to save her marriage, including undressing in front of all her friends in hopes of winning him back. This is only the second scene and very challenging for any age.
Allison Trussell portrays Sherry who is a vulnerable 20-something and wants nothing more than to be married, even at the hands of a man who rapes her every night. Whalen explores retrospectively David’s journey to accepting his homosexuality while Conner Wilson’s character, Michael, physically lashes out to in hopes of stopping the physical urges he feels toward other men.
“Lion in the Streets” sends one out into the night wanting to run home and shower, but with a final message of hope from Isobel ringing in your ears. “My heart talks … it never be quiet …Want you all to take your life. Want you all to have your life.” Isobel reminds us at times that we can only find the light through darkness.
Shaughnessy’s production team includes Rachel Arditi, stage manager, publicity design and marketing; Chad Anderson, scenic and sound designer; Adam Honore, lighting designer; Whalen, dramaturg; Matthew Ellis, fight director; Tom Orr, director of the Helmerich School of Drama and co-producer; and Dean Rich Taylor, co-producer.
“Lion in the Streets” opened Wednesday and continues its run 8 p.m. today through Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. The play is rated R due to violence and sexual content.
All performances are in OU’s Lab Theatre, 640 Parrington Oval, in Beatrice Carr Wallace Old Science Hall, second floor. Suggested parking is at the OU Memorial Union parking garage or First Presbyterian Church, west lot, 555 S. University Ave.
Tickets are $6 for students with an ID and $8 for adults. Tickets may be purchased by calling the OU Fine Arts box office at 325-4101 or visit in person at OU Catlett Music Center, 500 Boyd Ave.
Box office hours are 11:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday and 30 minutes prior to performances.