There's some real talent in the Baltimore Playwrights Festival's "Realtime."
Written by an assistant public defender named Mimi Teahan, this gritty prison drama isn't without flaws, but it introduces a first-time playwright who has a strong sense of dialogue, character development and dramatic tension.
That tension begins with a gunshot fired as soon as the lights go down at Fell's Point Corner Theatre. The first words we hear are 19-year-old Antwan Stokes' anguished cries of "Mama! Mama!" as he cradles his fatally wounded mother. Then, as a police siren sounds, Antwan yells -- in language unprintable in a family newspaper -- that he's been set up.
Initially, Antwan -- played with a riveting blend of boyishness and desperation by Devron T. Young, a senior at the University of Maryland College Park -- wins our sympathy. "Initially" is the key word since there are also some decidedly less sympathetic aspects of Antwan's character.
One of the most blatant is Antwan's attempt to frame his well-intentioned prison social worker with a charge of sexual assault. The social worker, Kara Scully, is a relative newcomer to prison life, and Teahan telegraphs Kara's vulnerability, even before Antwan files his charge.
In an overwritten scene between Kara and one of Antwan's guards, the guard repeatedly tells Kara that she cares about the prisoners too much, that she's too nice, that her attitude is too positive. The more we hear this, the more we realize she's going to be a target. So it's not surprising that her concern for Antwan backfires.
Still, the conflict between Kara and Antwan -- who each have a basic degree of decency -- is credible and compelling. Considerably less credible and compelling is the sudden change of focus in the second act.
That's when the thrust of the play, which had belonged -- deservedly -- to Antwan, shifts to the prison guard, a character who increasingly appears to be not only devoid of decency, but dangerously unbalanced. This character also brings about a resolution that is a little too pat, especially for a play about the jagged edges of real life.
Despite this blurred focus, Teahan does a number of things right in this debut effort. Her skill at creating forceful speeches reaches its apex in two monologues -- one in which Antwan gives a detailed description of the horrors he feels in prison and the other in which his mother, earnestly played by Debbie Bennett, explains what it was like to get off drugs.
And, it would be difficult to top the tension that erupts immediately after intermission, when we see the frightening circumstances of Antwan's mother's murder.
Director Regi Davis keeps the action taut and the characters involving, although as Kara, Marty Merritt seems a bit ill at ease -- not merely because of her character's unfamiliarity with prisons. For the most part, Michael Salconi wisely underplays the prison guard, resisting the easy temptation to turn him into a total cliche. But this is a character that would benefit from some rethinking.
In a program note, Teahan explains that she wrote "Realtime" to help identify the "racism, ignorance and fear" underlying violence in this country. That's pretty ambitious, and her efforts aren't always smooth. But she's off to a good start.
Pub Date: 8/10/96
Where: Fell's Point Corner Theatre, 251 S. Ann St.
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays; 7 p.m. Sundays; through Aug. 25
$ Call: (410) 276-7837