Heaven on Stage

UT's theater program is playing at a higher level than the football Vols this fall

I often fantasize about a Knoxville in which theater and football have switched places. Leading up to game days we would see Phillip Fulmer—or whoever the head coach will be—frantically pleading with small businesses for a few dollars in sponsorship, enough perhaps to buy a quarter-page advertisement in the local paper so people know the game is happening. A handful of forlorn fans, ignoring taunts that sports aren't for "real men," try in vain to explain that there's more to football than just watching a bunch of clumsy zealots squabble over a prolate spheroid.

Meanwhile, on Cumberland Avenue the cops are out in force, erecting barriers to hold back the unruly, dangerous mobs hell-bent on getting into the Clarence Brown, ticket or no ticket. After the play, downtown becomes a no-go zone as gangs of marauding Tom Stoppard fans go on the rampage, intimidating Sam Shepard supporters and vandalizing pro-Mamet storefronts.

We all know theater will never be this mainstream, but it's difficult to explain why. One traditional argument is that theater is elitist, but a quick comparison of season ticket prices will confirm it's sport that excludes the underprivileged. Another common suggestion is that theater offers less excitement, engagement, and immediacy. Yet even in an unabridged Hamlet play is stopped only twice; compare this to a football game's relentless drizzle of frustrating stoppages.

Whatever the reason, this state of affairs is a huge injustice. With the recent awe-inspiring The Secret Rapture at the Lab Theatre and now director Mace Archer's pretty much flawless The Marriage of Bette and Boo, University of Tennessee theater is enjoying the kind of season—and playing at the kind of level—that those poor football Vols can only dream of.

Christopher Durang's 1973 The Marriage of Bette and Boo proves you can be as indulgent as you like as long as you're funny enough. An examination of the horrors that either accompany or define family life, the play has an unnerving ability to wring a toxic sort of comedy out of ghoulish events, to the point that if you don't find yourself laughing at the increasingly unceremonious dumping of stillborn babies on stage, there's probably something wrong with you.

Actually, as far as Durang is concerned, there's probably something wrong with everyone. With an alcoholic father, a childish mother, and sadists and masochists spread fairly evenly across both sides of his family, our likeable touchstone Matt, in Seth Crowe's well-balanced portrayal, takes us by the hand and guides us through the confused emotional menagerie that is his home life.

Rachel Winfrey as Matt's mother Bette flips as regularly as a Gestalt duck-rabbit illusion between self-serving monster and sympathetic, bewildered victim trapped in an A. A. Milne obsession (and indeed her onstage mother, Dale Mackey, with gentle chin and horn-rimmed glasses, does look pleasingly Kanga-like). Winfrey's is a spiky, clever interpretation, bested only by an unforgettable performance from Lauren Pennline, who has the imperious tilt of the young Maggie Smith, as Joan Brennan. It's a small role, but in it one can glimpse the subtle promise of one of the better American actors of her generation.

Intelligently staged in the round, in an environment somewhere between nursery, circus and Punch and Judy show, the decor of Marina Raytchinova's set suggests an unholy alliance between Disney and the Catholic Church.

The sheer panache, the relaxed, seemingly effortless brilliance of this production and the earlier The Secret Rapture has given us a vital brace of dynamic, intelligent, challenging theater that will have significantly enriched the life of anyone fortunate enough to witness it. Bliss was it to see one show, but to see both was very heaven.