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Theater review: ‘Stand’ Eloquent Portrait of Human Life

Stand 1Jim Reyland’s Stand offers an eloquent portrait of human life at its most unsettling, uncomfortable and unrelenting…and most forgiving, loving and extraordinary.

It’s inspired by Reyland’s 13-year friendship with John Ellis, a man whose decades-long battles with mental illness and drug addiction were eventually compounded with the daily struggles of being homeless and HIV-positive. Reyland has taken that personal experience and fashioned it into a 75-minute single-act drama that provides a rich and balanced look at two men who both grow to care for and need each other.

Stand 7Mark (Chip Arnold) has the outer trappings of a successful man, but his dysfunctional personal relationships and nagging doubts have left him wondering what his life is all about. Outside the church he attends is Johnny, aka J.J. (Barry Scott), a homeless man who’s not looking to connect with his new acquaintance:

MARK

I can get you a pillow. Come on, I’ll buy you a burger.

JOHNNY

I ain’t your lunch buddy. Why you making me work so hard?

MARK

So you’re afraid of a little hard work?

JOHNNY

No, I mean yes.

MARK

Get a job, like ninety-one-point-eight-percent of Americans. Get a stack of those homeless papers, sell ‘em on the corner.

JOHNNY

I beg a dollar I keep a dollar; it’s a better business model. For you, I’ll put this in my food pocket; buy my drugs with money from the next loser; put that in my crack pocket. You can give me a dollar mister, you can even help me but the sad truth is you can’t save me.

Stand 9The two do get to know each other better, though trust and true friendship build (and are often torn down and rebuilt) slowly over the course of 10 engaging and edifying scenes. For each there’s recognition of the other’s humanity; no more passing each other by with prejudices and ignorance unchallenged.

Reyland takes us inside the flawed and vulnerable hearts and minds of his characters, but Stand is not just a searing look at human frailty; it’s often funny and lyrically uplifting as well. Horrific descriptions of Johnny’s early childhood and the emotional pain of being shunned are coupled with humorous – and revealing – exchanges like one that occurs during a car ride:

MARK

…I wanted to be a singer back in the day.

JOHNNY

Get on outta here.

MARK

I was in an a cappella group in college.

JOHNNY

No kidding? What’s that? Like naked? Bunch a dudes standing around naked, singing?

MARK

No.

JOHNNY

Come on now, show me what you got.

MARK

You don’t want to hear me sing…

THE FIRST TIME I LAYED EYES ON YOU,

I THOUGHT THAT YOU WERE AN ANGEL,

YOU STOLE MY HEART WHAT COULD I DO,

SO I FELL IN LOVE, WITH HEAVEN ABOVE.

JOHNNY

You know what they call that?

MARK

We called it pretty darn good…?

JOHNNY

Begging; when you sing like that it’s begging like you’re begging for something, like come on baby, come on baby, come on now. It’s begging.

Stand 10Arnold and Scott are justly admired actors who’ve both put four decades of their lives into their artistic work. Here they play with each other (and the audience through various soliloquies) using vivid expression without visible artifice. Putting Reyland’s marvelous words into the mouths of two such masterful performers provides entertainment that enlightens and enthralls.

Director David Compton certainly has own lengthy list of theater credits onstage and off. His sensitivity toward the piece – he has insightfully noted that the two men’s relationship is much like the push-and-pull of a marriage – and  gentle pacing allow his actors and Reyland’s script the unencumbered range they need and deserve.

Reyland’s remarkable work will be presented regionally as part of a partnership between his Writer’s Stage company and several area theaters. It’s the best drama this fine playwright has ever written, speaking not just to those who are aware that human suffering has many faces, names and histories but to those of us who often turn away when we should reach out to those in need.

“Every second of your life has value,” Mark tells Johnny at one point in Stand. Yes, and the reminder of that value flows through the living veins of this beautiful play.

Stand 5Stand by Jim Reyland continues through Nov. 10. The schedule (including Writer’s Stage theatrical partners in this artistic project) is as follows:

August 25 & 26 *Belmont University Black Box – Actors Bridge     Ensemble

August 31, September 1 & 2 * The Next Level – The American Negro Playwright Theater

September 6, 7 & 8 *Lipscomb University Shamblin Theater – Blackbird Theater – Circle Players

September 13, 14 & 15 *Bethlehem UMC Performing Arts Center

September 20, 21 & 22 * Darkhorse Theater – SistaStyle Productions – Shades of Black

September 25 * MTSU Tucker Auditorium – Murfreesboro

September 28 & 29 * Woods Hall at W.O. Smith School–Tennessee Repertory Theatre

October 5 & 6 * Actor’s Point Theatre – Hendersonville

October 12, 13 & 14 *Renaissance Center– Dickson

October 18, 19 & 20 * Cheek Hall at Christ Church Cathedral – Downtown Nashville

October 25, 26 & 27 * E. Alexander Looby – Metro Parks –Nashville Shakespeare Festival

November 1, 2 & 3 * Street Theatre Company – East Nashville

November 8, 9 & 10 *Boiler Room Theatre – Franklin

Times vary; a full listing is available online at the Writer’s Stage website. Stand contains some adult language and is recommended for ages 16 and up; for more information on the show visit www.writersstage.comClick here to buy tickets ($15) online at ticketsnashville.com. A portion of the proceeds   benefit the J.J. Ellis Foundation at Room at the Inn.

Stand 8*Photos by Thomas Staples courtesy Writer’s Stage.

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About Evans Donnell (ArtsNash)

Evans Donnell is the chief theater, film and opera critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He wrote reviews and features about theater, opera and classical music for The Tennessean from 2002 to 2011. He was the theater, film and opera critic for ArtNowNashville.com from 2011 to 2012. Donnell has also contributed to The Sondheim Review, Back Stage, The City Paper (Nashville), the Nashville Banner, The (Bowling Green, Ky.) Daily News and several other publications since beginning his professional journalism career in 1985 with The Lebanon (Tenn.) Democrat. He was selected as a fellow for the 2004 National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, and for National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) arts journalism institutes for theater and musical theater at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in 2006 and classical music and opera at the Columbia University School of Journalism in 2009. He has also been an actor (member of Actors Equity Association and SAG-AFTRA), founding and running AthensSouth Theatre from 1996 to 2001 and appearing in Milos Forman's "The People vs Larry Flynt" among other credits. Donnell is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (www.americantheatrecritics.org).