Jamaica Gleaner
Published: Friday | February 8, 2013
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Drama students act outrageously well
Dr Kelli Melson - Contributed
Michael Reckord, Gleaner Writer

I asked her straight. "Are you a Christian?"

"Yes, sir," she said.

"You attend church regularly?"

"Yes, sir. And I'm on the choir, and I even go to other churches to minister."

"So do you think your church would approve of your role in Baby With The Bathwater?" (That's the satirical drama by noted American playwright Christopher Durang which is now on at the Edna Manley College School of Drama).

I was speaking to second-year Drama School student Samantha Thompson and I asked her those questions because in the play she portrays an energetically seductive, most unecclesiastical nanny. At one stage, dressed in a long flannel nightie, she tosses the man of the house, John (Horace Gordon), on to the floor, straddles him and proceeds to mime sexual intercourse with him.

She looked nothing like a devout member of what she called "an old-time, traditional Apostolic church", which permits "no make-up, no false nails, no false hair, no additions and no subtractions". On the night I saw the play Samantha attacked the part with gusto and, as the director and Drama School lecturer Dr Kelli Melson had instructed the entire cast to do, acted "outrageously".

Samantha, who is planning on a career in theatre, was initially very concerned about what her church and her mother would think about the character she plays. In fact, she "pulled back a lot" from some of the more unladylike stage activity she had been considering.

However, she is now mentally at ease with both her mother and church. "They know I'm acting. It's what I do (at the school)," she said. "That's not how I am on a regular basis," Samantha added about the nanny role.

dysfunctional family

The multifaceted play is about a dysfunctional family raising a dysfunctional son. John, the father, is an alcoholic who suffers from delirium tremens and often hallucinates. The mother, Helen, is so schizophrenic that Melson has three actresses playing her - Sashay Scott (as a domesticated Helen who wears an apron), Monique Hill (a fearful Helen who dresses like a schoolchild and sucks her thumb), and O'Neisha Heron (an angry, screaming Helen).

As written, the play does not call for three actresses to portray Helen, and Melson said she wrote to the playwright asking permission for her treatment of the character. In the Director's Notes, Melson writes that the play "is a commentary on social issues that affect most modern societies around the globe, such as drug and alcohol dependency, child abuse, and mental illness ".

However, interestingly, the author states that the play is based on his parents' family life and so is "emotionally close" to him. "It should play as funny, but you should care about the characters and feel sad for them," Durang writes.

In Melson's interpretation of the script, it is easy to laugh at the hyperactive, larger-than-life characters. The volume of their speech is turned to "extremely loud", every action is exaggerated, their pace is frenetic and their reasoning illogical. It's not so easy to feel sad for the violent John and Helen, who are just bad parents.

Still, when the baby of the title - a much-abused doll in Act 1 - becomes a young man (Cyprian Fuller) in Act 2, we do have sympathy for him. We can't help it. He is pitiful. For a decade after he turns 17 years old he sees a doctor (Roger Williams), probably a psychiatrist. And for most of that time he remains a college freshman, unable to finish even one essay.


More fundamentally, unsure of who he is, Cyprian continually changes his name, choosing mostly girls' names. As he explains it to the doctor, his parents wanted a daughter but not feeling they should "intrude" on the baby's privacy and check his genitals they simply assumed that the baby was female and called him Daisy.

The story takes many bizarre twists and turns, at times drifting from satirical farce to theatre of the absurd. It is tribute to both the talent of the actors and the skill of the director that the former remain true to their outrageous characters throughout the play.

This is a school production and its fundamental objective is the growth and development of the students. Melson refers in her Notes to their bravery and thoughtfulness as they approached the "very theatrical, non-realistic playing style that was new to them" that the play called for.

In a chat with me after Sunday's show, she explained that "the sometimes extreme physical" style employed in the directing came from her background (including a PhD thesis) in psychophysical theatre. She explores it in some of the Acting, Movement and Voice classes she teaches at the Drama School.

Getting the students to play in the style she wanted was not easy, Melson said. Among other things, she had to make them realise that "the crazier you go with the comedy, the deeper you have to go with the emotion".

"It took them a long time to come around," she said, but now "I think they're happy." So is she, especially since audiences have been talking back to the characters onstage, a sure sign that they are engaged.

Resident set designer Ron Steger's attractive brown, green and black set of mainly a series of ascending platforms and painted rehearsal boxes adds to the professional quality of the production.

Baby With The Bathwater closes at the Dennis Scott Studio theatre on Sunday, February 10.

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