Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Wlmstn "New Releases", Almost a Winner

Playwright Joseph Zettelmaier has a special relationship with Williamston Theater.  Zettelmaier’s plays are the kind that Williamston’s patrons enjoy – warm, family -oriented, with gentle and sometimes wacky humor.  Over the years, Williamston has premiered 10 Zettelmaier plays.

The latest, “New Releases,” follows the before mentioned Zettelmaier model.

It opens on a startingly realistic video rental store. Set designer Bartley H. Bauer has all the details right, down to the small letterbox slot to turn in used DVDs.

The program states that the time of the play is “the present”, but in reality, there are almost no video stores left in our strip mall landscape today- so let’s imagine it taking place 10 years ago.

We soon meet Jen (Jamie Lien), a young employee and college student, all decked out in a trampy outfit that she’ll wear to a Halloween party that night. 

In walks Carol (a perfect Sandra Birch,) a non-descript, middle age woman who is aimlessly wandering around the store that has “Store Closing” signs everywhere. We are witnessing the end of yet another era destroyed by modern technology.

With no apparent reason, Carol spies a video in the Indie shelf called “Maria at Midnight” and obsessively pulls it from the stack and proclaims that she “must have it”.  All of this intrigues Jen no end.

Immediately the clerk and the customer connect with each other. They’re both smart, both love movies and both have an ironic sense of humor.

Although Sandra Birch instantly shows her creds as a professional actress who knows how to move and speak on stage and inhabit a character, Lien is an able partner.  She’s charming and provides the spark to stoke a believable chemistry between the two.

Jen is lost, lonely and is looking for her place in life, and she sees Carol as a mysterious woman who may just have the answers she’s looking for.

Whenever Carol comes in the store, Jen’s creative mind is all aflutter as to what secrets this enigmatic woman holds within her. The relationship they create is the fuel that keeps the show going. Lien is a fine young actress who has a bright future.

This first encounter captures the audience.  The two characters are interesting and we want to know more.  As it turns out in this no intermission 90-minute play, not much more is developed between this terrific first scene until the terrific final scene of the play, as directed by Paige Conway.

Bob (Scott Norman) is the store’s owner who drifts in and out of the action but whose character is sorely undeveloped. 

In every scene Sandra Birch, who has appeared in several Williamston shows, is superb.  She is totally engaged and her voice is both commanding and sensitive.  Clearly, she’s the pro on the stage.

So, the characters are interesting and quite engaging but the body of the play appears hallow. 

But have patience, the slow middle gives way to the final scenes which are both satisfying and emotional.

“New Releases” runs through June 9.

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