In 'Whistle the Devil': Dealing with family is an emotional business


Afamily business is as much about emotion as business, a character remarks in Kathleen Barber's "Whistle the Devil." The comment is typical of the wisdom permeating this dramatic dissection of a family business, currently making its debut at Fells Point Corner Theatre as part of the Baltimore Playwrights Festival.

Ms. Barber -- a veteran of two previous festivals -- has captured the dynamics of both families and businesses. The relationship between the three sisters who run the fictitious MacFayden Company rings true, and so do their dealings with employees, salesmen and customers.

From our first glimpse of the dingy tool-strewn set -- co-designed by director Susan Kramer and cast member Tony Colavito -- we have a feel for MacFayden's tool and die works. This is a hands-on, long-hours small business, a place devoid of career-girl glamour.

Ms. Barber skillfully conveys a sense of the ongoing history of this family and this business. Although the three sisters couldn't be more different, we never doubt the blood bond among them.

Essentially, the play belongs to the middle sister, Gail; Trisha Blackburn portrays her as complex, driven and intriguing. A born businesswoman, Gail lives to work. The play begins on the morning she returns from a rare vacation, only to discover that, in her absence, her older sister has put the company up for sale -- and found a buyer. Not only is the future of MacFayden's at stake, so is the tenuous balance among the sisters.

The reluctant peacekeeper of the family is Bonnie, the youngest sister, tenderly played by Michele Montagnese. Pregnant with her fourth child, Bonnie readily admits she'd rather be minding the kids than keeping an eye on her share of MacFayden's.

Margaret, the oldest sister, has never liked the business, and now it's getting in the way of her involvement with the Presbyterian church. Marilyn Warsofsky overplays Margaret -- though the fault may be largely due to the fact that this character's self-righteousness is grossly overdrawn. Prudish, preaching Margaret is a cardboard figure in a play peopled with flesh-and-blood human beings -- even Mr. Colavito, as the would-be buyer of MacFayden's, comes across as more than a crass stereotype; he actually has heart.

The major shortcoming in the character of Margaret -- and the play -- reveals itself in the melodramatic twist in the final scene. Without giving away the ending, suffice it to say that Margaret commits an act so out of character, it all but defeats the subtle insights that illuminate the rest of the script.

However, with the exception of the last few pages, "Whistle the Devil" is a highly promising work, characterized by strong writing and characters that inhabit a recognizable world filled with charged emotions. As to the final scene, well, maybe the devil was responsible for that.

"Whistle the Devil" continues at Fells Point Corner Theatre through July 21; call 276-7837.

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