It’s a shame to begin the blog this way but I think it has to be said: Little Lamb is a stinker. On stage through June 28 at the Adrienne Theatre (2030 Sansom), this is the first production of InterAct Theatre Company’s 20/20 New Play Commission Project, which will produce 20 new plays focusing on the hot issues of the next 20 years. Playwright Michael Whistler received $2,500 to work out this drama.
InterAct has a history of producing works that border the line between cutting-edge and pretentious and it makes a welcome addition to the Philadelphia theater world. The last piece I saw of theirs was the Kiss of the Spiderwoman, a vastly superior exploration of the interplay between homosexuality and contemporary politics by Argentine playwright Manual Puig. Curiously, I saw two productions of the same play within a few weeks of each other, as BCKSeat was also staging its own interpretation at the same time.
I came away from the InterAct version with further admiration for actor Frank X, who I’ve seen in several performances by the Latern Theatre Company, including excellent roles in Harold and the Boys by August Wilson and Shakespeare’s The Tempest. In fact, I think I want to see Frank X in every Shakespeare production I ever go to see.
He is sorely let down by Little Lamb, and I wonder why he agreed to do it. The play shows of none of his range. I talked him up to my guest before the show (she hated it) and I was left apologizing for him, assuring her he could do much much more. His costar, Ames Adamson as Denny, has a meatier role and shows of his comedic flamboyance and dramatic edge. It is Adamson’s first role in Philadelphia, but on the basis of this performance I would welcome his return.
A quick synopsis, from InterAct: LITTLE LAMB tells the story of Denny and Jose, a gay couple who want to be daddies, so they decide to adopt. They ask their adoption agent, Cathy [a hesitant Kaci M. Fannin], to help them procure a baby. Trusting her inital instincts that they would make great parents, Cathy finds Denny and Jose an African-American baby girl from Texas and the happy family begins its new life together. But when Cathy receives an unexpected visit from the birth mother [a naïve but solid Katrina Yvette Cooper], who has strong opinions about the placement of her daughter, Denny and Jose must face the unthinkable and Cathy is forced to choose between her progressive values, her African-American heritage, and her devout Christian beliefs.
That doesn’t really sound all that good, does it? Read my review of InterAct’s Little Lamb Now Onstage at the Adrienne Theatre at philly2philly.com.
The play is timely: November 4, 2008 saw the election of the nation’s first African-American president, an epochal landmark in American civil rights. On the same day, voters in California, perhaps the most progressive of these United States, narrowly passed a resolution denying arguably one of the most basic human rights — the right to form free marital unions — for a sizable proportion of its population. Though liberal pundits may have overstated the role of African-American voters in the passage of Proposition 8, the numbers are revealing: the same African-American electorate that turned out in record numbers to elect Barack Obama voted 70% to amend the California constitution to ban gay marriage.
This confounding political interplay between two of the nation’s historically discriminated populations lies at the heart of Little Lamb, but there are so many issues here — gay adoption, race relations, secular vs. religious thought, and absent black fathers — that the resultant plot become a muddle of social didacticism at the expense of natural dialogue. It’s hard to feel sympathy toward any character. Denny comes across as petty and immature, unsuitable for fatherhood; Jose is weak and meek (why does he stay with Denny? why doesn’t he sing anymore? he’s Latino, so what?); Cathy is trying to find white homes for black babies, but seems to think black babies should be raised by black parents; Ashlee’s motivation for giving up her baby is as unconvincing as her change of heart; and the paternal grandmother, Francie (a talented Cathy Simpson), is very unsympathetically written as a sinister religious fundamentalist. I am an atheist, but I found the portrayal of religion naïve; I found myself laughing whenever religion came up. This was partly due to the Adamson’s comedic reactions, but I think Whistler intended most of it to be taken seriously.
InterAct can be applauded for supporting Philadelphia playwrights and for tackling tough social issues and Whistler should be praised for his ambition. My guest hated this play. I have a lot of tolerance for the immediacy of the stage, but if this was onscreen (it might fit as an after-school special or lifetime movie) I’m sure I would hate it. A play that touches upon social issues must do so in the context of human drama, not build a barely believable plot around them.