I’m disappointed in Pamela Sterling’s new play “Blue Willow,” which is receiving its world premiere at Fresno State.
The theme is noble, the intentions are good, the cast is diverse, and there is some good acting. But the script is a weak and preachy attempt to salute migrant farmworkers – to be “Fresno’s ‘Grapes of Wrath’ ” – while offering little depth and complexity. The production sags under the weight of its surface-level sincerity. Director J. Daniel Herring does his best to latch onto any semblance of theatricality in terms of a narrative or meaningful conflict, but he struggles.
The result is often didactic, rarely emotional and scrupulously earnest. I was bored.
Sterling was “inspired” – her word – by the 1940 young-adult book written by Doris Gates, a Fresno librarian who worked with migrant children. The book is the Depression-era story of the young white daughter of migrant farmworkers who move to the Valley from Texas. Janey Larkin (played by Chlorissa Prothro) has one prized possession in the world: a china plate depicting a blue willow tree. Carefully packed away, the plate represents a sense of normalcy and stability in a constantly changing world.
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Continuing the plot thread of the “Blue Willow” book, Janey and her parents (a sturdy and compelling Patrick Regal and Lia Christine Dewey) move next door to a friendly Latino family, whose daughter, Lupe (Karina Rodriguez), is about Janey’s age.
What happens in the play, narrative-wise? Not much. There are some colorful vignettes: Janey and the Romeros go to the Fresno Fair; her dad competes in a cotton-picking contest; her mom gets sick and she has to run for the doctor. There is a (not-very-well-developed) plot thread involving a menacing hired hand (Jacob Wilson, doing a nice job as the “villain” of the piece), but it’s all very tame. Everyone gets along famously.
A play, confined to a finite space and time, needs something stronger and more compelling in terms of a conflict to drive it forward.
Adapting a book (or being inspired it) for the stage, particularly a book geared toward younger readers, can be tough. A book can be episodic in nature and consumed in separate readings, and the cumulative impact can be more about an atmospheric sense of place than a strong plot. (The book was ahead of its time simply for portraying working-class children.) A play, confined to a finite space and time, needs something stronger and more compelling in terms of a conflict to drive it forward.
Presumably to do just that, the playwright sprinkles throughout the play a series of biographical monologues delivered by 10 members of a sort of Greek chorus. At times the actors sing, sometimes with very nice voices. Overall, however, it’s a clunky and unwieldy device. Here, evidently, is where we’re supposed to encounter the grit of working in the fields, the strain of a nomadic life, the social and economic impact of essential but poorly paid jobs. The monologues aren’t just from the Great Depression but span all the way to the Great Recession of 2007.
Individually, these moments delivered by the members of the chorus (who also double roles in the play’s main narrative) can be compelling. (Ellie West, Cha Yang and Alyssa Benitez offer strong interludes.) This is where we get a sense of back-breaking labor, strong work ethic, dreams for the future and the will to succeed. But the way the monologues are structured, without any sense of chronology or geographical cohesion, is abrupt and confusing. And our inability to get to know any of these people as characters, rather than just talking heads, distances the audience from their worthwhile observations.
As for the issue of race, an essential part of any exploration of migrant workers, there’s little complexity.
Consider the interesting racial dynamic at work in the narrative: The Latino family actually has greater clout than the white family. The Romeros, played by Jose Gomez and West, live in a better house, have more disposable income and greater economic security, thanks to the father’s job as a labor contractor. It could have been an interesting wrinkle.
(And if such contemporary nuance wasn’t part of the original book, the playwright could have added it – she certainly tinkered structurally with lots of other things – or chosen another way to write about migrant workers.)
Yes, there is a monologue about a black sharecropper being lynched in the Deep South, but, again, even that moment feels detached and distant, and at the same time too sweeping, as if the playwright is furiously trying to cram too much in, as she does when extending her scope to people who lost their homes less than 10 years ago.
In terms of the production, Noah J. Files’ set, inspired by the graceful lines and wooden hues of agricultural packing boxes, is smooth, comfy and gorgeous. Exactly the wrong look, I say, for a play about the grittiness of the fields. Stephanie Bradshaw’s vaguely period field-work costumes – the chorus includes characters over a span of decades, remember – feel snappy, vigorously clean and crisp, right down to the pressed cuffs on a pair of men’s overalls. (Again, perhaps not the best statement.) JC Bardzil’s lighting design tries to bridge the gap between the warmth of the set and the crisp, hyper-realism of the projected images, a challenge.
For a play set in our own backyard, the production design feels generic and sterile.
Liz Waldman’s projection design ranges from striking, when she uses vintage black and white photos, to interesting, when she offers video clips in motion, to clunky, when she attempts animation. (A Noah’s ark-style clip is eye-rolling, and an opening effect of “wind” feels straight out of an old “Monty Python” film.) I’m glad to see Fresno State try to forge ahead using digital technology for scenic design, but the stakes are high. In a visually charged society, eyes are sophisticated these days. We spot images and techniques that are out of date in a microsecond.
Again, “Blue Willow” has a noble theme, and Herring tries to make the most of it. The theater department should be commended for giving students the opportunity to be part of an original work. But the script is problematic. I don’t think this play was ready for a full production.
- 7:30 p.m. Thursday, May 12-Saturday, May 14
- John Wright Theatre, Fresno State
- www.fresnostate.edu/artshum/theatrearts, 559-278-2216
- $17, $10 students