Having lost her sight only a few years earlier, Sara Canfield (Judy Leavell) is too stubborn to use a white cane or learn Braille, and though a shut-in by choice, she hires young people to read her the New York Times and other periodicals to keep her in touch with the outside world.
Sara finds herself in a complicated situation when the newest applicant is Raymond Gordon (T'Challa Dion Jackson), a young, African-American ex-con. In Jones' two-character play, each teaches the other about the different kinds of inequities America imposes on minorities and the handicapped. Directed by David Thomas, Nocturne for a Southern Lady is built around two intriguing roles, but the script never figures out how to make the best use of their friction.
When Sara proves eager to send Raymond on his way shortly after his arrival, he accuses her of being a bigot and sets off their first argument. They each constantly reassess their attitudes about the other, and as the play goes on, it teases out the mysteries of how Sara was blinded and why Raymond went to prison.
In previous ART Station productions, Leavell has credibly played genteel Southern women, so it's refreshing to see her take to the role of a frequently hostile urban ball-buster. She's mastered the technique of conveying blindness by keeping her gaze on a fixed point, but that's only the beginning of her rich performance, which captures Sara's combination of self-assurance and self-pity, aggression and need.
Unfortunately, Jackson comes across as tentative and boyish as the resourceful Raymond, and it's difficult to accept him as someone who's spent several years in prison. But any actor would seem awkward when Raymond riffs on "This is Your Life" merely as a means to insert exposition, or calls Sara "baby" like an unintended lapse into slang. Where Sara's contradictions emerge naturally, Raymond's paradoxes -- like his compulsions for both truth and lies -- seem more like the contrivance of the writer.
Fascinating though Sara and Raymond may be, Nocturne often seems unsure what to do with them. Raymond picks fights over trivialities, like Sara's inability to accept a gift graciously, and each of the first act's three scenes end with him either leaving or being sent out in a state of pique.
The more we learn of Sara's life, the more Job-like her suffering seems. Nocturne flirts with knotty themes of why bad things happen to good people, but ultimately it endorses a message out of pop psychology -- that Sara needs to open her heart and come out of her shell. Raymond not only has a line about cocoons and butterflies, he also warns her not to end up like Mary Tyler Moore in the movie Ordinary People, which cheapens the play's otherwise effective use of Pachelbel's "Canon," which gained popularity as the film's evocative theme song.
Near the end of Nocturne for a Southern Lady we discover that one of the characters has a hidden agenda, the kind of secret that should retroactively account for inconsistencies in the play. But Nocturne's revelation offers a few answers while raising a whole new set of questions, and the play's compelling potential ends up feeling lost in the dark.
Nocturne for a Southern Lady plays through March 24 at ART Station, 5384 Manor Drive, Stone Mountain. Wed.-Sat. at 8 p.m. and Sun. at 3 p.m. $16-$22. 770-469-1105. www.artstation.org.
Little harsh, in'it?
Oh that's right...I DID say enjoy yourself.
Go to hell Kombo!
When will you be accepting applicants for the 2014 competition?
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