Review: Souls on Fire

Review: Souls on FireSouls on Fire (MET Theatre; 99 seats; $20 top) The MET Theatre, Carrie Prods. and the Robey Theatre Co. present a drama in two acts by Patrick Sheane Duncan. Directed by Bennet Guillory. Cast: Oscar Arguello (Book), Jon Clair (Chick), Steve Hartley (Riley), Christian Keiber (MacLaughlin), Bernie Martinez (Z–Win), Skye McKenzie (Charles John Harvey), Trent Miller (Book), Pedro Pano (AKA), Jeris Lee Poindexter (Lenny), Sam Scarber (Miles), M. Darnell Suttles (Short Stack), Charo Toledo (Benita), Breck White (Dutch Boy), Ping Wu (Huong). First–time playwright Patrick Sheane Duncan (“Mr. Holland’s Opus”) fashions a powerful and well–drawn, if somewhat static, piece about a neighborhood bar in South Central L.A. during the April 1992 riots. Duncan succeeds in capturing the feel of the bar and many of its characters, but he never finds the deeper resonance of these events, which have been explored in other, more successful plays on this subject.

Duncan creates an ensemble of characters who share their lives, philosophies and dreams, as well as their reactions to upheaval raging outside the bar. There’s only minimal story, here; the bulk of the piece is an exchange of opinions and personal histories from each of the many characters, told in either monologue or in often cumbersome exchanges.

As the afternoon of the verdicts progresses to an evening of terror, both the victims and the villains of the riots end up in the bar owned by Miles (Sam Scarber). Barflies Short Stack (M. Darnell Suttles) and Lenny (Jeris Lee Poindexter) already are dispensing wit and wisdom from their barstools when two kids who work in the bar (Oscar Arguello, Trent Miller) arrive carrying stolen beanbag chairs. An injured white truck–driver (Steve Hartley), clearly modeled on Reginald Denny, is comforted by Benita (Charo Toledo), who sells tamales out of her Buick, which is promptly torched in the parking lot.

Others arrive in various states of distress: an injured firefighter (Christian Keiber); a tropical–fish store owner (Ping Wu); local gang members (Pedro Pano, Breck White, Bernie Martinez); and, most improbably, an out–of–work white banker (Skye McKenzie).

Duncan’s play is somewhat slow despite its fairly short length and the inherent drama. His gift for dialogue provides the characters with humorous and occasionally poignant observations, especially for Short Stack, the bar’s resident philosopher, performed sharply by the gifted Suttles. Duncan occasionally strays into preachy polemic — jarring in this setting — and the superfluous epilogue steals the thunder of the play’s climax.

Director Bennet Guillory crafts an effective and believable world on the stage, but never finds the deeper emotions either in the characters or in the script. There are fine performances from Poindexter, Hartley, Arguello and Miller. The cast will change on May 23.

Set design by Thomas A. Brown is wonderful, shaping the world of the bar with understated drama. Lighting by Marianne Schneller, costumes by Iona Marshall and sound by Charles Dayton round out an outstanding physical production.

Set design, Thomas A. Brown; lighting design, Marianne Schneller; sound design, Charles Dayton; costume design, Iona Marshall. Opened and reviewed, May 3, 1996; runs through June 16. Running time: 90 min.

Orriginal Review Post: Souls on Fire; Variety: May 6, 1996