For the second consecutive year, Castaways Repertory Theatre is staging the work of Ohio playwright Nancy Kiefer for its winter production, and the author again plans to see how the group has handled her work.
"The Eighth Order," a warmhearted drama with a substantial spiritual aspect, opened last weekend, a follow-up to last year's successful production of Kiefer's "Could Angels Be Blessed?" which the playwright also saw. The two plays are not related, although both are set in America's past and anchored in family relationships.
"I'm very impressed with the quality of Castaways' work," Kiefer said from her Cleveland home. "I'm very fond of this play, and look forward to seeing a new production of it. Of course, like any playwright, the closer the interpretation is to my vision, the happier I am."
"The Eighth Order" takes place during the Depression, the setting for many of Kiefer's 14 plays. A family headed by a single mother struggles in a small Midwestern town. While Charlotte Steele tries to overcome her bitterness over two failed marriages, an archangel visits her devoutly religion son, Philip, and gives him the power to raise the dead.
It is not a lurid tale of the deceased coming back, or one of a flamboyant mystic. In fact, Kiefer maintains such a low key that dramatic intensity is often drained away, leaving it to the actors to provide the energy.
The wondrous things that Philip experiences all happen offstage, leaving the characters to wade through a lot of exposition. Still, the play is gently humorous at times and absorbing at others, a story of faith and how we deal with not having total control over the things that happen to us.
Directed by Mary-Anne Sullivan, "The Eighth Order" is a stylish, well-paced production that generally maintains tension.
Kimberly A. Gowland offers a finely etched portrait of Charlotte Steele, a woman who is forced to confront issues she has denied for many years. She successfully manages light comedy and the more dramatic moments as she deals with her character's fears.
"Sometimes there's a fine line between being a lunatic and being a holy man," she says, spitting out the words like little comic bullets.
Charlotte also grapples with mundane issues such as her disapproval of the man her daughter wants to marry, a man who coincidentally works in a cemetery.
In an understated and effective performance, Brad Minus is the ethereal Philip, whose gift leaves him lonely and isolated. Jennifer Reitz displays carefully calibrated frustration as Pauline Steele, who wants to marry the slightly oafish and much older Cliff Foley, broadly played by Scott Olson. Marvelous character actor Mary Brick creates an indelible impression with the relatively small role of Clara, a neighbor who is decidedly from the wrong side of the tracks.
Despite the 1930s setting, so important to the playwright, a self-described history buff, the production has little period atmosphere aside from an ancient radio and a few old dresses. Sullivan's set design, a sturdy and well-appointed house interior, has an improbable dappling of garish color on the walls that shouts 1970s rather than the '30s. It is not inappropriate, however, as the themes are timeless.
Kiefer will attend shows Friday and Saturday and will share her reactions with the audience after the performance Friday. Meanwhile, she is not concerned that her presence might put undue pressure on the cast.
"It may be nerve-racking for the actors," she said, laughing. "But their presence is nerve-racking to me as well."
"The Eighth Order" will be performed by Castaways Repertory Theatre through Feb. 1 at the A.J. Ferlazzo Auditorium, 15941 Donald Custis Dr. in Woodbridge. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. For reservations, call 703-508-5418 or visit www.castawaystheatre.org.