The going-nowhere existences of a quartet of 20somethings living in an unemployment-plagued Donora, Pennsylvania are brought to painfully vivid life by playwright James McManus in his award-winning Cherry Smoke, now getting a first-rate West Coast Premiere by the brand new Lucky Mellon Collective, an exciting addition to the Los Angeles theater scene.

McMannus grew up in Donora, twenty miles south of Pittsburgh, a town whose population shrank from 14,000 in 1920 to just over 5,600 in 2000, the result of steel mill closings that plunged most of its citizens into poverty virtually overnight.

Fish (Robert Maxhimer), Cherry (Tro Shaw), Duffy (Tristan Farmer), and Bug (Rebecca Rivera) are Cherry Smoke’s young victims.

We get one of our first glimpses of Fish as a nine-year-old forced by his father into boxing a boy three years older, egged on with “hit him in the balls” and “punch him in the throat” until, in the child’s own words, “I stood over him and kept hittin’ him till they hadda pull me off.”

It’s anyone’s guess what kind of man Fish would have grown up to be in another time, another place, with a different kind of dad. As is, the twenty-three-year-old has been in and out of juvie since his teens, and has little likelihood of staying out of adult jail in the years to come. Violence has become a way of life for him, picking fights, fighting dirty, fighting rough, the only bright spot in his life the homeless runaway he’s called Cherry since they met ten years ago when she was ten.

Fish’s only blood family these days is his “Irish twin” Duffy, born nine months after Fish and currently his “cut man,” so called because it’s up to him to stop the bleeding when Fish gets punched in the face, something that’s been happening more and more lately, bleeding that’s getting harder and harder to stop. Like Fish, Duffy has a woman in his life, his boyish, scrappy wife Bug, studying to be a nurse’s aide and unable to bear Duffy the child they both want.

McMannus tells the story of these four outcasts in a series of scenes that move back and forth in time, scenes in the present more or less in chronological order, flashback scenes less so, yet despite Cherry Smoke’s non-linear structure, the play remains remarkably easy to follow, from its dramatic opening scene to its shattering climax, one which is at once devastating yet somehow hopeful, at least for some of its characters.

Cherry Smoke isn’t a “feel-good play,” but there’s enough humanity and even warmth in its relationships that it’s not a “feel-bad play” either. McMannus’s characters are so richly drawn that we forget that these are people we’d ordinarily keep our distance from on the odd chance that we might happen to cross them in the street.

The playwright received his MFA from Carnegie Mellon University in 2006, two years before director Dana Friedman got hers, and all four cast members earned their BFA degrees at CMU as well, Rivera just last year—hence the Lucky Mellon Collective moniker. Los Angeles theater is the richer for their presence in our midst.

With only limited stage directions in McMannus’s script, it’s up to director Friedman to fill in the blanks, which she does splendidly on Benoit Guerin’s appropriately grungy set. Characters rarely if ever leave the stage, becoming integral parts of the surroundings, even as other characters take center stage, addressing the audience directly in some particularly well-written monologs.

Maxhimer does work of frightening intensity and considerable depth, a feat made all the more noteworthy when a post-performance conversation with the talented actor reveals an entirely affable young man who has nothing in common with Fish but the beard they both sport. (A more childlike voice for pre-teen Fish would help differentiate flashback sequences from present day ones, though.) Farmer gives a memorable performance as the sweet-natured Duffy, ever his older brother’s champion even as he attempts to build his own independent life in his Fish’s considerable shadow. Rivera makes a strong impression as Bug, the actress’s ready-for-prime-time prettiness hidden under baggy clothes and tough girl exterior, which she lets slip at times to reveal the big-hearted young woman inside. Shaw has effective moments as Cherry, but the character’s quirks could be better defined and the performance could benefit from greater vocal variety.

Guerin’s junkyard set has been ingeniously adapted from the one designed by Sarah Krainin for the concurrently running Wallowa: The Vanishing Of Maude LeRoy. Jordan Groves lights it with imagination, providing visual cues as to whether we are in the past or the now and upping the dramatic tension when need be. Gregory Cruz’s sound design is first rate as are the unbilled, character-appropriate costumes. Guerin doubles as stage manager. Cherry Smoke is produced by Friedman and Shaw in association with Son Of Semele Ensemble. Alexandra Nurthen is assistant producer.

In his playwright’s note, McMannus writes “I’d like to think that my characters’ cravings for a family they never had…led them to you tonight.” Though you probably wouldn’t want to live in Donora, or even pay a visit to its Monongahela River shores, thanks to a talented young writer and his fellow CMU grads, theatergoers can get a glimpse into four Donorans’ souls and hearts.

Son of Semele Theatre, 3301 Beverly Blvd, Los Angeles.
–Steven Stanley
April 20, 2011

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