Images by Mark Frohna.
Even though its author, Lori Matthews, lives near Madison, there is something quintessentially Southern about October, Before I Was Born. And not just because it takes place in Tennessee.
October, which was developed at the Milwaukee Chamber Theatre and premiered this weekend, has Southern Literature’s knack for thoughtfully infusing the commonplace with Big Ideas about Life and Death. Drawn—in a way—from the circumstances of her own life, Matthews’ play blends the everyday and the fundamental, and finds the occasional flashes of poetry that can emerge from that connection.
It's set in 1960, in a working-class home in Kingsport, Tennessee, home of the Tennessee Eastman Company, a chemical plant that employs almost everyone in the town. It’s Martha’s house, a place in which she has raised nine children. But today, the only ones with her are her son Houston, and her daughter-in-law Anne, who is seven months pregnant. At first, we are just given the big picture: there has been an explosion at the plant, and no one knows how many have been hurt or killed. The party-line phone is crowded with panicked neighbors searching for news. The local radio station offers only speculation, and is going off the air at sundown. Both Anne and Martha’s husbands work at the plant.
So there is waiting. Tension. Panic. Deep breaths. Comfort and reassurance. And in that simmering situation, characters and histories emerge, slowly but confidently. And beautifully. Martha is the ur-mother—loving, devoted, sensible and steadfast. Anne is the uneasy newcomer to the family—nervous and insecure. And Houston us the family screw-up who can’t seem to catch a break. After all, he’s the one that decided to take apart the TV set (“Huntley & Brinkley” just keep rollin’ and rollin’) on the day when it would be needed most.
But these single-sentence descriptions hardly capture these richly human characters. There is more than a touch of Tennessee Williams in April Paul’s Anne and Ken T. Williams’ Houston. The “charm of the defeated” for sure, but also the familiar push-pull between yearning and circumstance. Anne awkwardly clings to the idea of a better tomorrow through motherhood, just as she refuses to take off the high heels she wore to her baby shower earlier that day. And when Houston talks of his plan to open a miniature golf course, you can hear echoes of Willy Loman’s poignant American optimism.
The anchor of the production is the beautifully nuanced performance of Raeleen McMillion as Martha, as quintessential a matriarch as Ma Joad or O’Neill’s Josie Hogan. Her life and spirit is in the details, and McMillion uses the everyday rituals of home life to mask the growing unease that is finally unleashed in the play’s heart-rending final scene.
In a time when smart-phone attention spans grow more fidgety each year, it’s refreshing to spend time inside a world that doesn’t try to frantically hold its audience with frequent plot twists and turns. (Screenwriters these days write roller coaster stories to encourage audiences to watch and “tweet” shows during live broadcast.)
There is certainly surprise and suspense here, but Matthews, Wright and the cast trust the power of a simple story—one that involves recognizable and flawed human beings—to hold both our attention and put us in touch with the strength of the human spirit that prevails in a world often beset by pain and tragedy.