Prison play starts with bang, then falls flat

Peter DeAnda’s play “Ladies in Waiting,” written in 1968, could be an inspired treatise on prison overcrowding, segregation, deplorable conditions of prison life, and how incarceration changes a person. With permission, or done by the playwright (in attendance opening night), the script has been restructured for this joint effort by the Off Strip and TwoCan production companies. It could remain relevant today in all aspects except for the forced segregation. But, under the direction of Audrei-Kairen, it doesn’t.

The production starts with a bang as The Matron (Lisa Illia) marches her three black inmates, Agrippa (Kim Russell), Carmen (Rachale Marie), and Lolly (Martha Watson), through the theater. At the outset, Jake Copenhaver’s lights work ingeniously with David Sankuer’s excellent set. A patchwork of bars across the proscenium and separating the cell from the prison proper effectively cast shadows across the action to infuse the sense of being closed in. Unfortunately, the minute the cast is in place on the stage, the production falls flat and never regains steam.

Addressed as Mama by her charges, one could imagine that the character of Mama Morton in the musical-comedy “Chicago!” was lifted from DeAnda’s script. But, here, the character should be thoroughly mean and menacing, even when pretending to be sweet to get what she wants.

Prison life can be boring and tedious and the dialogue of the play addresses this with aplomb. When arguments among the inmates break out, as they will when people live in such close quarters, tension should build and things should get ugly. When fresh meat shows up in the form of the lily-white Lana (Amanda Kraft), sentenced to thirty days for protesting in front of the very prison she’s now entering, issues arise that should slowly turn from smolder into flame.

There are very brief moments in which characters bloom. When Russell’s Agrippa comforts Marie’s Carmen, we see the heart, sorrow, and regret beneath the bravado of both characters. When Watson’s Lolly drifts off into mental instability and sings softly in her sleep we feel her need to be protected. When Kraft’s Lana manipulates The Matron to get the food and medical care her cellmates need, we know she’s learned the reality of life behind bars. We believe Illia’s Matron when she angrily conducts a surprise inspection for contraband.

Outside of those few glimmers the performances are stagnant; nothing builds. Audrei-Kairen hasn’t dug deep enough into the undercurrents of the story or characters to bring them to life. Her staging is stilted, without motivation; she doesn’t pay attention to details. We only know a character is about to reveal something important because the actor walks to center stage and turns to face us.

An e-cigarette, standing in for the real thing and as marijuana, is smoked without being lit, carelessly stuck into hair, and casually tossed onto a bed. A cup of salted ice-water, obviously empty, comes from an inmate’s locker. Physical confrontations within Sean Critchfield’s well-staged fight choreography come across as fake because they’ve been grossly underrehearsed. Then, Lana presents a v-fingered peace sign instead of the rightful solidarity of a clenched fist — after the curtain call.

This production disappoints because the potential is there for fiery, gripping drama, with five very capable actresses.

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