Given the wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am nature of theater producing, Sightlines earns a pat on the back for devoting an entire season to a single playwright. George F. Walker, an award-winning Canadian scribe with sparse local cred, deserves the exposure — but not in the shape of this amateurish production of “Criminals in Love,” the first of six plays being done (three of them as readings) in a festival format under the apt rubric of “The East End Plays.”
To be fair, Walker isn’t an easy playwright to stage. His plays (he has written more than two dozen) tend to be edgy studies of people barely functioning on the margins of society. In the six that Sightlines has lined up, fathers are absent, abusive or in jail. Mothers are tense, anxious and given to acting out in weird ways. As for the kids, they’re pretty much on their own, looking for love in all the wrong places, picking up a tough education on the streets and, inevitably, getting into trouble with the law.
What makes Walker’s plays so hard to get a handle on is his attitude toward these marginalized individuals and dysfunctional families. He feels sympathy for society’s victims, sees hope in the young and has a soft spot for colorful crackpots. But a sentimentalist he is not; his mix of scorn and affection for stupid, poor people who make witless life choices give his plays a bitter humor that’s tough to capture.
Helmer Eileen Phelan, who is also the artistic director of Sightlines, doesn’t get a bit of this nuance in her staging of “Criminals in Love.” From the generic here-we-are-in-the-slums setting to the let’s-see-how-loud-we-can-yell performances, her directorial hand is blunt and heavy on this tragicomic tale of young love diverted by the criminal interference of elders.
Although you’d never know it from the awkward fumbling of the young leads, Junior (Franklin Clay Boyd) and Gail (Lila Donnolo) are a couple of sweet innocents whose romantic happiness is put into jeopardy by Junior’s obsession with the concept of destiny. An observant lad, Junior is well aware of the legacy of poverty and criminality handed down to him by his jailbird father, and he fears his future is predetermined to be just as brutish.
Although Junior befriends a fast-talking, worldly wise street bum named William (in a bombastic perf by David Colacci), he fails to follow William’s sage advice and gets sucked into a dumb criminal enterprise engineered from jail by his father, Henry (John R. Taylor, in another heavily belted out perf).
While Gail shows some initial resistance to the cockeyed scheme of knocking off a Salvation Army mission, the kids are steamrolled by Wineva, the flamboyant mastermind behind the robbery and a shock to the central nervous system in Melanie Rey’s screeching perf.
In this company of overacting thesps, only Faryl Millet, as Gail’s streetwise best friend, comes across with some measure of wry humor and sanity.
Walker is not the subtlest of writers; his characters don’t always know what they’re talking about, but they do speak their minds with a directness that can be comical or pathetic, depending on what they happen to be doing when they are mouthing off. Although that combo of pathos and absurdity accounts for the quirky appeal of Walker’s work, it’s a tricky thing to nail down in performance. So credit Sightlines for its ambitious reach — but don’t think for a minute that they pulled it off.