Review: ‘Big Love’ at American University

The cast of American University’s Big Love, written by Charles L. Mee and directed by Isaiah M. Wooden, was masterful in communicating the big and complex issues raised in the play. Without harangues or preachiness, they explored themes of individual rights vs. those of a group, justice, marriage, and how one person’s power can exert undue pressure on others.

The cast waving farewell to Lydia and Nicos. Photo by Emily Pound.
The cast waving farewell to Lydia and Nicos. Photo by Emily Pound.

Most simply, this is a story of love, or the lack thereof, between 50 greek brides and 50 of their cousins from America. Big Love has as much to say about major philosophical issues today as in the time when Greek Aeschylus wrote The Suppliant Women, on which this play is based.

Four women, representing the 50 brides (who have great chemistry on the stage), led by the indomitable Hannah Ruth Wellons as Thyona, escape to an Italian villa to avoid marriage. She is strident in her anti-male stance and belief that women should stick together through thick or thin. Stripped to her briefs and T-shirt, while the other women were more fancied up, reinforced her strong clear-cut positions and rigidity. Wellon’s performance lit up the stage.

Thyona is accompanied by three of her sisters: Lydia (Emily Smith), Olympia (Sarah Yoney), and Sister (Kate Anderson-Song). Lydia showed spunk throughout and was the only woman to defy Thyona’s edicts, eventually marrying her betrothed, Nicos, (Tristan Salvon-Harman). Unlike his three compatriots, Nicos was able to express to Lydia all that he admired about her.

Olympia was as expressive in her delight of the company of males and the adoration they showered upon her. Yet she was easily swayed by any idea that was cast her way, and, to the detriment of her betrothed, followed Thyona’s edicts. Sister was nearly mute throughout the play, perhaps representing the lack of power held by women in situations such as forced marriage. She was the perfect counterpoint to Thyona’s overpowering indignity and rage.

The betrothed men, seeking their ‘rightful’ wives, arrived by parachute, a perfect illustration of their machismo. Constantine (Hugh Raup), Thyona’s betrothed, is a perfect match in terms of rigidity of though and clear idea of how relationships between man and woman should work. Unfortunately for all, these were the opposite of Thyona’s opinions on the subject. Brothers Oed (Jianfeng Chen) and Brother (Patrick McLaughlin) toed the line drawn by Constantine. Only Nicos showed how the pure ‘macho thing’ would not work for him by expressing his emotions to Lydia.

 Lydia (Emily Smith) enjoys a bath upon arrival in Italy. Photo by Emily Pound.
Lydia (Emily Smith) enjoys a bath upon arrival in Italy. Photo by Emily Pound.

One ‘ideal’ couple brought great humor to an otherwise serious scenario. Eleanor (Izzy Smelkinson) and Leo (Jacob Gallo) romped about the stage and frolicked to their hearts’ and bodies’ desire. Their behavior was in stark contrast to the restrained actions of the other characters and let it be known that coupling, in any manner, was not something to be feared.  Smelkinson and Gallo brought great zest to their roles.

 Giuliano (David Brewer) with one of his many Barbie dolls. Photo by Emily Pound.
Giuliano (David Brewer) with one of his many Barbie dolls. Photo by Emily Pound.

My favorite performance was given by Robin Weiner as the grandmother, Bella. While playing a relatively minor role at the beginning, her soliloquy in the final scene powerfully wraps up the issues of personal freedom, communal obligations, justice, freedom, and love.

Grandma Bella’s grandson, Giuliano (David Brewer), was a perfect foil for the macho men. Giuliano made his lifestyle preferences clear through mannerisms, expressed love of styling and playing with his Barbie and Ken collection, and the fondness of which he spoke of a man he met on the train some time ago. His father, Piero (an emotional and convincing Patrick A. Kavanagh), after expressing a modicum of sympathy for the women, later made a pompous speech about how he could not be the shelter for the worlds’ refugees, asking the women why he should protect them rather than any other random group of five people.

Sarah Yoney, Jacob Gallo, Kate Anderson-Song, Izzy Smelkinson, Tristan Salvon-Harman, Emily Corinne Smith, Patrick Kavanagh, Hannah Ruth Wellons, David Brewer, and Robin Weiner. Photo by : Emily Pound.
Sarah Yoney, Jacob Gallo, Kate Anderson-Song, Izzy Smelkinson, Tristan Salvon-Harman, Emily Corinne Smith, Patrick Kavanagh, Hannah Ruth Wellons, David Brewer, and Robin Weiner. Photo by Emily Pound.

Twice as many people aided behind the scenes as there were actors on the stage. Director Isaiah M. Wooden, aided by dramaturg Lucette Moran, did a marvelous job keeping the play interesting while the action proceeded slowly and methodically – showing the gravitas associated with issues being explored. Meghan Raham designed a simple and elegant white space that served as the perfect backdrop.

The costumes designed by Barbara Tucker Parker were particularly interesting on the women, including Grandma Belle and the feisty Eleanor. Each one personality came through via the type of white clothing they wore. Thyona was plain and totally lacking in any femininity, Olympia was all layers of chiffon reflecting her bubbly personality, Lydia gown was beautiful and smooth without much embellishment, and Sister’s gown was quite unremarkable. Giuliano’s suiting reeked of gentile refinement.

Audio Designer Christopher Baine’s selections ranged from the sound of waves and seagulls to chamber music, big band music and heavy metal in order to set the tone for the scene. Equally impressive though not as obvious was the lighting designed by Tyler D. Dubuc. With only slight changes in intensity or filters, the stage could look like a day filled with sunshine or an ominous storm.

Share the love with this vibrant cast of young performers and make the trip to The Greenberg Theatre this weekend.

Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.

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Big Love plays at through Sunday at The American University Deparment of Performing Arts at the Greenberg Theatre – 4200 Wisconsin Avenue, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 885-2587, or purchase it online. There are two performances left – tomorrow, Saturday, February 13, 2016 at 8 PM and Saturday, February 14, 2016 at 2:00 PM.

RATING: FOUR-AND-A-HALF-STARS11.gif