Cynthia Watros packed a wallop of twisted fears, resentment and despair into a tumultuous whirlwind performance as Patience Malarkey in the world premiere of Breathing Under Dirt. Entering on a roll of thunder, she tore through this performance with the speed and fierceness of a massive destructive tornado taking out everything in its path.
In Michael O’Leary’s first full length play, I found myself on an often jolting roller coaster ride through the mind, heart and broken spirit of Patience, a midlife southern Irish heroine fighting demons at every turn in her Georgia hometown, nestled in the not always so sweet sunny south.
Patience introduces herself to us as a former beauty queen turned Sunday School teacher, but that is just the beginning of her southern masquerade. Tragedy viewed through the foggy eyes of addiction set the play in motion but, shocking and jarring plot twists land an awe inspiring emotional conclusion of redemption, reconciliation, love and forgiveness.
The simplicity of the scenic design by Kathryn Redden set the perfect backdrop for energetically powerful performances that projected into unnervingly sharp focus at times. Redden’s transformation of the center orchestra floor into a garden centerpiece I found especially creative and intimate. Both Kathryn Redden and Beth Sharpley provided skillful and experienced leadership as producers. Costume Designer Rhonda Dausman created an authentic southern wardrobe, while consistently meeting the metaphorical aspects of the play. Breathing Under Dirt reunited the Emmy Award-winning cast of CBS’ Guiding Light in performance together for the first time since the show’s ending seven years ago.
The opening scene took me straight to church, quite literally, as we the audience became members of the congregation of a 1954 Macon, Georgia southern Baptist church to which Watros delivers an assaulting sermon in a nearly perfect southern drawl as the voice of interloper Patience. This cleverly devised interactive hook reeled me in early in preparation for some dark and dirty garden tending of the southern variety.
If you were Patience, you might have dirt in one eye. Why? Because she eats it. The woman literally eats dirt. And, trust me, Watros makes you believe it. Watros is so convincing in telling us her earthy garden is her church, it conjures images of Kevin Spacey delivering a big juicy delicious deception in House of Cards.
She is soon joined in the garden by her mother, Grace, played to brilliant perfection by Tina Sloan. Somewhere between Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and Steel Magnolias, Sloan delivers Grace with a spine of steel and a cane to be reckoned with and aptly waved when necessary as if to swat a fly. It seems there are smoke and mirrors in the garden of good and Patience.
Michael O’Leary’s Chuck is the spitting image of a down home southern church leader tending his flock, down to the last piece of sinfully proportioned homemade pie he and Lucy manage to messily consume.
Young actress Meredith Taylor is a delightfully sassy young Lucy, or Lucifer, as she insists she be called to the absolute horror of her bible toting father. O’Leary’s inner leprechaun comes out to play, bringing side-splitting laughter and comic relief to the tension and tone of the play.
The use of color becomes skillfully woven in the following scene as under devilishly red smoky lighting magic by Cory Mason, Patience twirls into a jazz club high on her red heels and meets Jack, an Irishman just back from war, played with flawless intensity by Grant Aleksander.
Through a brilliant use of projection, Aleksander as Director, reveals a riveting fast forwarded flashback of terrorizing details that left me shocked with discovering the deeply buried truths of Patience’s past. In addition to this scene and throughout the play, projection is craftily used as the glue to bind the sets and story together superbly.
Patience is spiraling and slipping when she hears the voice of Daddy, played so sensitively by Robert Forester, and is also greeted by the spirit of her sister, played so gently and genuinely by Watros’ real life daughter, Emma Gilliland.
Tina Sloan as Grace delivers female southern resilience with passionate detail in an all knowing southern mama, who mirrors her own daughter’s name in the life long patience she reveals in the powerfully emotional final scene. Sloan mesmerized me as she seemed to tap and harmonize the divine energy of all the southern Irish females in my family tree with perfect ratio of strength and gentility.
O’Leary’s winding, gritty and bumpy dirt road of an American tale leads us finally to grace and it is through grace, we find nourishment for our souls and learn to breathe again. Breathing Under Dirt shows us it is not a physical dilemma, but a spiritual one we must resolve. Because what we see on the outside is a mirrored manifestation of our spiritual inner selves.
I can not imagine anyone seeing this play without being touched or changed in some way by the mirror it provides for healing reflection within our own families. Cynthia Watros is to be exalted for her astounding capacity to reach beyond limits to bring us Patience with a passion and energy surpassing my wildest imagination. At times, spellbinding and other times quite scary, she cracked the shell I like to think I keep around myself for safety just enough that I might get used to the light shining in a bit more now. This brings me to a rich and final take away and that, in a word, is gratitude.
Patience gives us much to ponder when early on she says, “The redemptive message you’ll find in this play, you won’t find in any church.” I sure hope this play finds its next home sweet home soon, because I sure would like another piece of that pie. More sweet tea, anyone? And would ya’ll just look at those pretty flowers!
Running Time: 80 minutes, with no intermission.
Breathing Under Dirt played on August 13, 2016 at 2 and 7 PM and on August 14, 2016 at 2 PM at Lower Shore Performing Arts Company, performing at the Ella Fitzgerald Performing Arts Center on the campus of the University of Maryland Eastern Shore – 1 Backbone Road, in Princess Anne, MD.
Behind the Scenes of ‘Breathing Under Dirt’ at Lower Shore Performing Arts Company: Part 1: Playwright Michael O’Leary.
Behind the Scenes of ‘Breathing Under Dirt’ at Lower Shore Performing Arts Company: Part 2: Director Grant Aleksander by Cynthia Bledsoe.
Behind the Scenes of ‘Breathing Under Dirt’ at Lower Shore Performing Arts Company: Part 3: Actors Robert Forester and Tina Sloan.
Watch an interview with Michael O’Leary and Grant Aleksander.