Dawn Ursula & J Paul Nicholas in Starving
(Photo © Stan Barouh)
Dawn Ursula & J Paul Nicholas in Starving
(Photo © Stan Barouh)
"I want to harvest something juicy," says a character in S.M. Shephard-Massat's Starving. With its poetic language and vivid atmosphere, this world premiere at the enterprising Wooly Mammoth Theatre Company in Washington D.C. contains several compelling moments. However, the work itself is awkwardly structured and ultimately tells more than it shows.

Set in an up-and-coming black neighborhood in 1950 Atlanta, the action takes place in and around an apartment building. In one unit lives Rosetta (Dawn Ursula), a single schoolteacher whose passions lead her to affairs with married men. The apartment below contains Archer (Craig Wallace), a recent arrival in the city who is determined to plant a garden full of tomatoes and other vegetables. His efforts are ridiculed by Freida (Lizan Mitchell), a nosy and vocal neighbor who lives with her husband Felix (Doug Brown). The last unit in the building is occupied by Meeker (J Paul Nicholas) and Bettie (Jessica Frances Dukes), a young couple with big dreams that are inevitably tempered as a result of events within the play. Rounding out the cast are Michael Anthony Williams as Coolbroth and Bethany Butler as his daughter Dolsiss -- both of whom do not live in the apartment building but come by with some frequency.

The sheer number of characters -- each with their own stories and secrets that are revealed within the play -- poses a challenge for the playwright that she is not able to completely overcome. Shephard-Massat relies too heavily on copious amounts of expository dialogue to reveal some of the characters' background details, and then curiously leaves other characters underdeveloped. Infidelity, drug addiction, secret prison records, memories of dead children, and internalized racism are all introduced into the play to drive the plot forward. While one or two of these might be sufficient, having all of them seems excessive, and at times even melodramatic.

On the positive side, Starving beautifully conveys the characters' hunger for something more than what they've got -- a theme implied by the play's title. Certain passages have a vibrant lyricism that works, and the relationships between the characters are consistently believable.

The ensemble cast is a little uneven, but still effective. Mitchell excels as Freida, who initially appears to be an interfering busybody, but whose strength and force of will prove admirable. Dukes is quite good as Bettie, capturing the character's initial sweetness and naiveté, which hardens into quiet resolve by play's end. Williams displays a quirky energy that serves him well as Coolbroth, but Butler has such a flatness to her delivery that it's difficult to concentrate on what she's actually saying. It's later explained that Dolsiss is a drug addict, which may account for some of her odd behavior, but surely that can be conveyed in a more compelling manner. Ursula conveys a dignified exterior that barely masks a more turbulent and emotionally vulnerable interior. Her scene with Nicholas's philandering Meeker is the play's highlight.

Daniel Ettinger's set design is at once naturalistic and abstract. Within the four apartment units he puts on stage there is a great attention to detail, but the designer strips away the building's outer façade so that we can actually look into each of the rooms even when most or all of the action is occurring outdoors. Dan Covey's lighting helps focus attention to where it's most needed, and also conveys the shifting times of day and even a fireworks display in the distance. Kate Turner-Walker has done a fine job with the costumes, which appear appropriate for the era, but not so period-looking that they become distracting. Most impressive of all, however, is the sound design and original compositions by Mark Anduss; he uses a combination of bluesy music, street noises, and other effects to create a subtle soundscape that helps to create the mood for each scene, yet is never overwhelming.

Directed by Seret Scott, the production is languorously paced, which works well with the stories Shephard-Massat is telling. Starving demonstrates a lot of promise, but needs a tighter focus, more substantial character development, and less exposition in order to fulfill its potential.