Scripter-thesp John Cochran Jr. (Warden Christie on "Monk") has concocted three intriguing slice-of-life vignettes, all set on an elevated picnic area in a city park. Cochran's agenda is to offer a commentary on American life, but "Higher Ground" lacks a thematic undercurrent to bolster the relationships of the colorful menagerie of city folk who populate his tales.

Scripter-thesp John Cochran Jr. (Warden Christie on “Monk”) has concocted three intriguing slice-of-life vignettes, all set on an elevated picnic area in a city park. Cochran’s agenda is to offer a commentary on American life, but “Higher Ground” lacks a thematic undercurrent to bolster the relationships of the colorful menagerie of city folk who populate his tales. Aided by a talented ensemble, helmer Chris Anthony keeps the action moving at a brisk pace but can’t instill substance that isn’t there.

Each of the scenes is set up by a philosophical, often poetic Groundskeeper, played with understated charm by Michael Teigen. He also provides whatever support is needed, whether it is the sound of a chirping bird or an added character.

The opening playlet features middle-age Roland (Cochran), who has come to the park to indulge in a little Tae Bo-like exercise while his boom box blares out the soft rock sounds of “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You).” Before long his space is invaded by the ragingly hyper, superpatriotic street urchin Lorna (Alysan Marie), who slashes into his psyche, forcing mild-mannered Roland to revisit some dark, repressed memories of his former life as a combat soldier in Vietnam.

Cochran and Marie offer interesting contrasts of people whose personalities are so at odds they will never find an area of understanding though they do manage to briefly find neutral ground when Roland’s boom box turns them into tentative dance partners. As quirky as the pairing is, scripter Cochran doesn’t allow enough information to flow between Roland and Lorna to truly affect either of their lives.

In the most satisfying scene of the three, a gentler scenario takes focus when long-married Carl (Walter Addison) and Hazel (Juanita Jennings) revisit the picnic area to reminisce about the sweet memories of a park that has played such an important role in their lives.

Neither is comfortable living in the contemporary world: Hazel laments that society doesn’t work anymore and that “this (Iraq) war is the worst thing that ever happened to us.” Carl is at a loss to know what to believe because “nobody is saying what I want them to say.”

Addison and Jennings are quite believable as elderly partners in love whose lives are inexorably entwined.

The least satisfying vignette is the sadly tragic confrontation between emotionally damaged Vietnam vet Joe (Jed Grant) and kindly, empathetic mounted police officer Rodney (Bruce Beatty), who attempts to keep the seemingly harmless ex-soldier from squatting in the park.

Joe’s fragile mental stability has snapped due to the events of 9/11, setting him on a collision course with society that Rodney is desperately attempting to avert.

Since Cochran emphatically establishes that the officer has no ability to get through to Joe, the violent conclusion to the scene is as predictable as it is arbitrary.

Higher Ground

The Actors' Gang El Centro Space; 30 seats; $10 top

Production

An Actors' Gang presentation of a play in one act by John Cochran Jr. Directed by Chris Anthony.

Creative

Sets, Sandy Adams; costumes, Dori Quan; lighting, Jose Lopez; sound, Gabe Lopez; choreography, Teri Vore. Opened and reviewed April 2, 2004; closes April 24. Running time: 60 MIN.

Cast

Groundskeeper - Michael Teigen Roland - John Cochran Jr. Lorna - Alysan Marie Carl - Walter Addison Hazel - Juanita Jennings Joe - Jed Grant Officer Rodney - Bruce Beatty
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