Jon Tuttle’s new play, The Palace of the Moorish Kings (based on the short story by Evan S. Connell) makes for a powerful and thought-provoking night of theatre. Tuttle is no stranger to Trustus Theatre – he’s their Playwright-in-Residence. You may remember him from such works as The Sweet Abyss, Holy Ghost, and The White Problem.
It’s Thanksgiving Day, 1970. Dave and Millicent, played by Gene Aimone and Christina Whitehouse-Suggs, are a seemingly happy upper middle class couple full of smiles with a lovely home (newly renovated!) and dear friends whom they’ve invited over for their traditional holiday feast. But there’s more than a hint of worry behind their cheerful expressions: there’s one guest that hasn’t RSVP’d. Their son has gone missing in Vietnam, but traditions must continue.
As the guests arrive, we learn theirs is not the only family in concealed crisis. Aileen and Art (played by Becky Hunter and Christopher Cockrell), have a marriage whose foundation is beginning to show its cracks. Leroy and his daughter Junie (played by James Harley and Erin Huiett) seem to be a content pair, but why has Junie dropped out of college? Barbara and Al (played by Kim Harne and Shane Walters) are still deeply in love after many years of marriage, but Barbara’s sporadically shaky right hand indicates trouble on the horizon. This coming-of-middle-age story explores what this group of friends, who have known each other since high school, has given up in their quest for the American Dream. They’ve all achieved their own levels of success, but still have become wistful and jealous when they hear from their friend J.D., a draft dodger who chose a life of travel and adventure over college, a job, and marriage. They all live vicariously through his letters from around the world, which curiously never ask about their own, considerably more predictable lives.
All of the actors do an excellent job with their roles. Huiett makes a wonderfully subtle Junie, which is perhaps the most important character in the play. We see her asking all the questions the rest of the group wishes they had asked themselves at her age. She’s not quite so easily sold on the idea of a marriage and a split level being the ingredients for happiness and fulfillment. Hunter’s Aileen is spot-on and sassy, with unwavering energy and passion. Aimone, Suggs, and Cockrell deliver powerful and dynamic performances.
Other characters, however, seem to exist merely as sounding boards for their more fleshed-out counterparts. James Harley does what he can with the role of Leroy, who doesn’t say or do very much, except get a little sad about his divorce, and worried about his daughter. Harne and Walters also fall victim to being good actors with weak characters. They make a convincingly loving couple, and Harne’s portrayal of a woman who is in the beginning stages of a serious illness is truly touching — but it seems like Al only exists to provide exposition about the adventures of the well-traveled J.D. Once again, Walters does what he can, but this script doesn’t give him anywhere to go. As director, Dewey Scott-Wiley has gotten the most out of her cast with this demanding script.
A great deal of dialog is dedicated to how beautiful and amazing Dave and Millicent’s home is, and the set really needed to show the 1970’s ideal of beautiful and amazing. I wasn’t feeling it. It seemed almost unfinished and quickly thrown together. An implied set would have worked better for this production if budget or time constraints were the issue.
The Palace of The Moorish Kings leaves you in a state of thoughtful contemplation. I would like to see this show 20 years from now, to see if I still identify with the youthful idealism of Junie, or if I find myself agreeing with the older, more conservative Dave. It’s a show I’d like to take my parents to see with me and discuss over dinner afterwards. Perhaps you’ll go see it with yours?
~ Jillian Owens
The Palace of the Moorish Kings continues its run on Wednesday, August 15th, and runs through this Saturday, August 18th. The Wednesday and Thursday night performances start at 7:30 PM, while Friday and Saturday nights begin at 8:00 PM. Note that half-price student tickets are available 15 minutes prior to every curtain. Trustus Theatre is located at 520 Lady Street, behind the Gervais St. Publix. Parking is available on Lady St. and on Pulaski St. The Main Stage entrance is located on the Publix side of the building. For more information or reservations, call the box office at 803-254-9732, or visit http://www.trustus.org .