The new production from Theater Memphis (CICADA), which debuted last weekend and runs through April 16, explores the difference between a memory and a ghost and what it means to be haunted by both. Memories, like ghosts, are just manifestations (internal or external) of the people in our lives (often family) who have shaped, loved and inspired us. Or they are memories (real or imagined) of parents who sometimes made us feel ashamed, tormented and frightened. Maybe they are both. There’s a point to be made (generally speaking) when people say the phrase “Family is Forever” it’s supposed to be a good thing, but what if it’s not the case ? What if your family offered nothing but a long line of misery and pain? What to do? Where to go?
Originally developed at Memphis’ Voices of the South over a decade ago, then hitting Chicago in 2014, local playwright/actor/director/librettist Jerre Dye not only writes, but also directs CICADA for a limited time now through April 16 in The Next Stage at Theater Memphis. It is a theatrical experience that engages, engulfs and fascinates. It’s that rare production where the talent of the actors elevates the quality of the writing and/or vice versa. It’s a symbiotic relationship where Memphis acting royalty come together to personify the transformative writings of an artist of endless talent. It’s a magical marriage.
Set primarily in a Northeast Mississippi home where a mother (Lily) lives with her adult son (Ace) and countless other relatives (almost all women) who are no longer “physically alive”, the days of Lily went on to wallow in alcohol, insomnia, and regret. Despite feeble attempts to stay connected to her all-powerful savior, she puts her real salvation in becoming even more entangled with her son and forgetting the past. Despite genuine loyalty, Ace struggles to hold on, but recognizes that his mother is drifting drink after drink beyond earthly deliverance. Whether or not the parents who still live with this prospective couple are a figment of the spirit or Lily’s imagination is irrelevant, they are here to stay and are constant reminders of loss and tragedy. Opposite, next door, lives a woman (LaNora) who has mastered the art of facing death with aplomb. As she rages over her husband’s passing (calling him a “leaver”), his memories/ghosts elicit feelings of love and appreciation and, unlike Lily, she dedicates herself to the world of the living at through gardening. Their opposing tools for grief provide essential lessons for all of us.
Technically, the Jack Netzel-Yates set powerfully recreates a damp home built with tears and still drowned in grief. Every room, bed, table, and chair are painful relics of an inherited quagmire that Lily and Ace must navigate with no relief. The traditional attic clutter hangs above the frame like a beautiful metaphor for the past suspended precariously above, ready to crumble without warning. Mandy Kay Heath’s lighting design creates an eerily ghostly mood with scatters of dark figures hidden behind sheets and windows mixed with flashes of lightning followed by complete darkness. It definitely sets the mood.
Good shows sometimes have great acting that allows weaker dialogue to flow more naturally, while others have great writing that can elevate the performance of even weaker actors. It’s rare to find a show with great writing and good acting. CICADA has both!
Jo Lynne Palmer (a staple of Memphis theater for 60 years) is a welcome site as a grandmother who still lingers in the halls of the family’s former home and experiences an unusual, if not humorous demise. Palmer’s stage presence has always brought an immediate authenticity to any role she plays. You can’t take your eyes off her.
Kim Justis (another Memphis theatrical royalty) portrays Lily’s overly religious and contemptuous mother, Momma. Although this mom “technically” isn’t alive anymore, her words and behavior towards Lily will haunt her (and the viewer) forever. It is a devastating performance.
In a “where does this guy come from?” performance, Matthew Ward as dad delivers an incredibly popular, yet immature character. He is handsome enough to be convincing AND irresponsible. Ward perfectly underestimates him for such an intimate setting at the Little Theater.
As next-door neighbors, LaNora and her late husband called Preacher, Cecelia Wingate and Steve Swift could no longer be believable as a lovable but bickering Southern couple. Wingate’s LaNora screams and Swift’s Preacher giggles in a way that underscores a camaraderie built for eternity. Never has a “pull my finger” track been so beautiful and heartbreaking.
Luke Conner as stay-at-home son Ace is incredibly persuasive as the son trying to pull his mother out of the quicksand of regret without falling too. It’s a layered performance that never strays into over-action or insincerity. It is to be watched.
Finally, Alice Rainey Berry delivers a knockout performance as mother, daughter, sister, and abandoned lover enduring crushing loss after crushing loss. Berry is so natural in the role that she makes it seem like it’s deceptively easy to pull off (it’s not). Despite her attempts to be a good mother, daughter, Christian, etc., it’s never enough. She remains faithful to a fault, even faithful to an old decrepit house full of anguish. Although she thinks she is just living with the dead, she died too, but without the formal declaration. She pulls you in and never lets go. It is a remarkable achievement.
Cicadas are the loudest insects in the world and are difficult to see as they often hide in the folds of tree bark. Their high-pitched noise is ubiquitous, constant and piercing. They usually “sing” their daily overtures to usher in the impending darkness of night. Likewise, Lily lives in a world of perpetual sounds and visions of doom that never leave her head. His ghostly encounters are constant, torturous and unforgiving, yet familiar. Alive or dead, our families will never completely leave us. Their words and actions can stay with us longer than anyone realizes. The past can become the present in an instant and we find ourselves reliving the same moments over and over. Since its inception, CICADA does not appear to have played in many theaters across America. It is a quality piece that must be seen by as many people as possible. Although this is a play about the past, we pray that it may soon be discovered by other theaters in America and enjoy a long and healthy future.