"Fairfield," by Eric Coble, is such a play. Seen at a preview performance Thursday night on the Phoenix Theatre's Basile Stage, the two-act comedy delved deep into the contemporary American dilemma. But it rose to a climax of pure farce, and — for both good and ill — never quite transcended a certain sit-com superficiality.
The title denotes an elementary school in a "liberal suburb," the program tells us, during Black History Month. By the end, the annual dedicated focus on African-Americans seems to be occupying the longest month rather than the shortest.
|Over the intercom, Principal Wadley tries to exert control.|
Milicent Wright gives to Wadley a cheerful, stentorian authority. The character's facade will eventually shatter as things go awfully wrong at the school. The cheerfulness will fade, and her response to an incident in Ms. Kaminski's classroom will eventually defenestrate her instincts toward moderation. Also reduced to tatters is the idealistic banner lofted high by the first-grade teacher, played with an overflowing ebullience by Mara Lefler.
|First-grade teacher Laurie Kaminski has some explaining to do.|
Coble achieves quite a lot in that direction. The dialogue is witty and often laced with irony. Characters tie themselves in knots to make it evident they are on the side of the angels. Sometimes they seem closer to the fallen angels at home in Dante's hell, to which Coble makes a couple of allusions. Two couples emerge as the center of parental anger at the turmoil that grips Fairfield. They carom between offensive and defensive positions stemming from a classroom fight between their sons.
|The parents of a son involved in a classroom fight confer at home.|
Both couples are at odds internally as the tension increases; both try to free themselves from
|The other couple mulls over a proper response to the problem.|
I'm tempted to think Coble might have chosen the name of his school, and his play's title, from the most famous phrase in the Middle English poem "Piers Plowman." There William Langland's narrator awakens from a dream (he thinks) to see "a fair field full of folk." From that sight (and site) the allegorical poem is launched and the dreamer adventures among these folks as they fan out across the landscape into all the joys and troubles that are the human lot in life. At its best "Fairfield" wants to present a vision of all good things that may lie ahead of us along the bright horizon; but, in racial matters, it shows we can't yet resolve all the contradictions as we drag our identities behind us.
At the other end of seriousness, the script has touches that I think of as laugh-track lines. These are
|The principal is in the hot seat as her boss upbraids her.|
Ansley Valentine directs this adept cast, which is occasionally required to stitch together line fragments and overlapped dialogue with the precision and speed of tennis doubles teams volleying at the net. Moving in and out among Zac Hunter's set, with its large, pale, geometric forms dominated by a tower of letter blocks, the actors are nearly flawless, with one exception: An odd paradox about farce is that when the action turns chaotic, the actors have to work with machine-tooled precision. At the preview, this cast wasn't quite there yet in the astonishing final scene. The violence looked approximate; everything in the play that led up to that was spot-on, however.
[Photos by Zach Rosing]