Monday, October 12, 2015

Theater Review: Third -- TheaterWorks

Kate Levy and Conor Hamill. Photo:
Prejudices Get Scrutinized Center Stage, and In Theater Seats
By Lauren Yarger
When’s the last time you admitted you could be wrong, or that you might have misjudged someone simply because they hold an opinion different from your own?

That’s the challenge presented by playwright Wendy Wasserstein in her thought-provoking play Third, kicking off the 30th anniversary season at TheaterWorks, Hartford. The themes and issues brought into the light are just a relevant as they were when the play first premiered in 2004 – perhaps even more so now as the nation seems increasingly polarized by political and religious thought.

Kate Levy (who won last season’s CT Critics Circle Outstanding Lead Actress Award for The Other Place) returns here as Laurie Jamseon, a liberal, women’s rights champion and pioneering professor at a small New England college. She dismisses one of her students, Woodson Bull III, as a super-privileged white male, whose political views get him labeled as a Republican, though he claims no official ties with the party.

More interested in his wrestling schedule and the sociological studies of athletes in pursuit of a sports-contract management career, Bull doesn’t fit in with the serious academic student Jameson feels should be admitted to the selective school, which not too long ago was only for women.

The professor labels him as shallow and suggests that he transfer to a different school. So when Bull turns in an insightful paper discussing a new take on the anger of King Lear, she accuses him of plagiarism, convinced he could never have come up with such a fresh and academic approach on the subject. Bull claims reverse prejudice – athletes like him are only admitted so they can be photographed for college propaganda to urge donors to give the college money. They aren’t taken seriously as academics, he claims, then goes on to defend his astonishing sociological study of Lear.

On the review board is Jameson’s best friend and co-women’s libber Professor Nancy Gordon (a terrific Andrea Gallo who gives a touching portrayal laced with humor), who is going through a second round of breast cancer treatment. Fighting for her life has given her some new perspective and Gordon challenges Jameson to rethink some of her long-held opinions and to embrace life.

Jameson begins to examine her life and discovers to her shock, that she might not always have been right about everything. She seems to have taken some missteps in her marriage, which is not as strong as she’d like to think, and daughter Emily (Olivia Hoffman) has no trouble telling her mother where she’s gone wrong – especially with regards to Third, the nickname by which Bull goes. She might even be able to repair her relationship with Gordon who is enjoying the third portion of her life to the fullest.

As she cares for her father, Jack (Edmond Genest) slipping ever more frequently into the memory loss of Alzheimer’s, Jameson struggles to hang on to “know what she knows.”

It’s a thought-provoking piece that challenges us to consider whether we are just as prejudiced and unwilling to change as the people we accuse of the same offense. What are the consequences of labeling people and dismissing them when don’t agree? If you’ve ever decided that supporters of Donald Trump or listeners of Rush Limbaugh shouldn’t be allowed to vote, perhaps you should head to the TheaterWorks Box Office….

Rob Ruggiero coaxes fully developed performances and assembles an able creative team to help tell the story: Michael Schweikhardt’s rotating set easily switches scenes and John Lasiter’s expert lighting adds focus and mood.  This is a favorite work by Wasserstein: She makes her points by developing interesting characters instead of creating stereotypes and gives them room to grow, which they do here through the solid performances, especially by Levy and Gallo.

Third runs through Nov. 8 at TheaterWorks, 233 Pearl St., Hartford. Performances are Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays: 7:30 pm; Fridays and Saturdays: 8 pm; Saturday and Sunday Matinees at 2:30 pm. Wednesday Matinees Oct. 15 and 21 at 11 am. Tickets $15-$65; 860-527-7838; www.theaterworkshartford.org.

Additional offerings:
Talk Back Tuesdays
Free Student Matinee Oct. 17 at 2:30

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Lauren Yarger with playwright Alfred Uhry at the Mark Twain House. Photo: Jacques Lamarre)

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