The human mind knows no bounds of imagination. Fueled by the experiences of life, playwright, artist, and baker Ray Werner journeys to the depths of human nature and back. Combining dialogue that peers into the souls of his characters while offering well-placed injections of comedy, Werner has a knack for writing interactions between small groups of individuals. This talent shines in SumiSami with the overwhelming majority of dialogue never extending beyond two people onstage at a time. By showcasing a revolving pairing between five distinctly crafted characters, the audience is allowed to witness different fragments of personality that build over time.
Only one of the five plays being produced within the month-long Ray Werner Play Festival, SumiSami is a two-act tragedy set in the Southern Highlands of Papua New Guinea where we are introduced to Pata Paddy (David Cabot) and Pata Tom (Gabe DeRose) at a Capuchin mission station. Tasked with sharing the word of God with the Huli tribe amidst their independence, cultural friction arises between Capuchin and Huli. Weaved alongside the site and legend of SumiSami, each character faces their trials and tribulations whether it be the struggles of celibacy, unrequited love, or questions of identity.
A veteran of the stage, David Cabot largely aids the production with his wonderful comedic moments. The enthusiasm and optimism that he brings to Pata Paddy (especially towards the marvel of SumiSami) is simply rejuvenating. Capturing the essence of a fatherly pastor thrown into leading a religious campout, the only aspect I questioned from Cabot’s performance is the use of his voice. For an otherwise realistic character, the vocal delivery by Cabot pushed at times dangerously close to an exaggerated characterization of Paddy through his heavy accentuation of jokes not so subtly pointed to the audience. That was additionally disheartening after viewing the brilliant dramatic delivery present within his final scene.
Gabe DeRose (Cabot’s youthful Capuchin partner) presents the antithesis of Paddy in what he brings to the stage. The contrast between the understanding Paddy and DeRose’s easily tempted Tom easily enmesh within Werner’s hand-stitched world. With a more lax approach to comedy, DeRose is able to showcase the troubling desires and thoughts of his character.
Both Nami Talbot who plays the beautiful Clare and Devon Burton who plays the innocent Alois show incredible promise and skills despite their young age. Although it was difficult at times to hear Talbot (even within the small theatre), she excels in delivering a passionate performance. Similarly, Burton easily steals the hearts of audience members accounting his unrequited love for Clare. I only wished to see Burton push past his somewhat narrow range of expressed emotions for Alois, particularly within his final monologue. I am eager to see where both Talbot and Burton go as this is assuredly not the last time Pittsburgh audiences will be seeing them.
Wali Jamal rounds out this well-balanced collection of characters as the Huli warrior and mission station handyman Moses. Jamal phenomenally tackles this character, balancing the complex relationships between the Huli and Capuchin. His gruff power easily stands out against the more passive characters and interactions between Moses and Alois easily highlights the strengths of both characters and their actors alike.
The intimate theatre space works to heighten and elevate the interpersonal writing of Werner in such a way as if we were sitting right next to the characters and were a vital part of their conversations. I commend Piper Clement’s minimalist yet complete lighting design in which the crinkle of scroller gels may have been leaves on the jungle floor in the overarching sound design. Mark Whitehead’s sound design is gracefully nuanced, marking the intensity and subtlety of the play’s conflict with each passing scene. Although certain scenes were blocked in a manner that to me lost the gradual build of brewing conflict at moments in time, the climax (while slightly predictable) is strikingly effective.
Running until December 2, the Ray Werner Festival by the Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company is a wonderful celebration of the works of a local and skilled author. Between musical plays, satire, tragedy, and a farce, there is sure to be something for everyone to enjoy as well as new experiences to behold. Representing only a piece of this buffet, SumiSami is a rich and savory addition for any theatre-goer to consume.
Categories: Archived Reviews