The Constellation


Editorial Review

In "Constellation," historic preservation meets homelessness in a feel-good way

By Nelson Pressley
Friday, Feb. 5, 2010

The title of "The Constellation" refers to a ship permanently anchored in Baltimore's Inner Harbor, a sloop of war that had a role in busting up slave-running vessels. The USS Constellation is a ship to fall in love with, which is what happens in Gwydion Suilebhan's gently inspiring play for all ages.

The show, staged by Active Cultures Theatre at Joe's Movement Emporium in Mount Rainier, is an amusing, instructive melodrama, as kids' shows tend to be. And despite an obvious plot obstacle (a money-mad exhibit supervisor) and a roughed-in set (a park bench and a ship's deck), it jabs its way to a quirky, heroic finish.

That's thanks largely to the understated flair of Suilebhan's dialogue and to a Baltimorean mash-up of charm and funk. Where else would historic preservation intersect with homelessness in such a feel-good way?

The play's four characters are unnamed: the Tour Guide, the Boss (both white) and a homeless Man and Woman (both black) who act out their own drama against the backdrop of the underappreciated ship and its evocative past. The street dialect isn't the most compelling aspect of Suilebhan's script, and the Woman's short fuse seems drawn by numbers, notwithstanding the compellingly feisty performance by Lolita-Marie.

But the Man's role develops nicely as he follows his loopy scheme to hijack the Constellation and sail to Jamaica. The plan takes time -- the ever-wary Woman wants amenities, namely a washing machine -- and as the increasingly confident Man secretly stocks the ship's hold by night, fate decrees that the lively young Tour Guide will catch on.

Suilebhan gingerly sidesteps platitudes as these two become oddball allies. The bulky ex-Navy guy and the plucky white kid are dreamers who pin everything on the neglected ship, and their repartee is shipshape.

Jason McIntosh is tightly focused but soft-spoken as the Man, and Ben Kingsland's Tour Guide has a lovely fervency; Suilebhan makes them both so sweetly delicate that you can't believe he'd let them crack against each other.

Suilebhan also shows a bit of ingenuity in the way he fashions jokes from nautical terms, chiefly during the disagreements between the cold-souled Boss (played with breezy arrogance by Bethany Hoffman) and Kingsland's all-but-pixilated Tour Guide. The kid loves the lingo, and before you know it, we're feeling the spirit of the ship the way he does.

"The Constellation" starts slow and is really only a modest success -- Suilebhan's a Washington area writer who has flashed a good deal more sophistication before this consciously provincial project -- but there's still a pleasant spark in the way the piece adds up, gradually evolving into a caper and sweeping you to the brink of wish fulfillment.

By Gwydion Suilebhan. Directed by Jessica Burgess. Set and lights, David Ghatan; costumes, Alli Lidie; sound, Kenny Neal. About 70 minutes.