The current production of the Clarence Brown Theatre, Rob Caisley’s The Open Hand, has an important background that deserves a bit of preface. In 2014, the playwright was commissioned by the CBT to work with University of Tennessee MFA in Acting students in the development of a new play written specifically for them. The process began with idea sessions, improvisations, and research into the given theme: generosity. In his program notes, the play’s director, Calvin MacLean, who is head of UT’s Department of Theatre and Artistic Director of CBT, explained the project’s completion.
“When [Rob Caisley] returned to UT’s campus in the MFA students’ second year of study, we read the draft, discussed our responses with Rob, who then worked up new drafts of scenes for us to read and discuss. Finally, by last summer (2015), a production draft was submitted to the CBT for me to begin work with the designers – also students in the MFA program in Design. The rehearsal period has provided new opportunities for revision and exploration. We now present this extended process before an audience, and these students will have enjoyed the experience of designing the first production, of being the original cast, and of finding much of themselves in the characters, action, and stage environment of a new play.”
I rather liked the title, The Open Hand. As explored by the playwright and the students in the development process, an “open hand” can be an offering of help, or the act of accepting it. But, it can just as easily be a slap across the face, literally or figuratively. In all cases, we learn, the nature of human generosity is defined by the underlying motives. This seems to have been a potentially fertile theme for Caisley, who excels at placing evocatively drawn characters in situations of social and personal conflict, all the while mixing comedy with angst, then mining the dramatic results. In the case of The Open Hand, though, the machinations of the characters and the underlying theme are sideswiped by uncomfortable contrivances of plot. And, as the admittedly fine comedic character banter turns to physical confrontation and personal secrets are revealed, a meaningful resolution never really makes onto the stage.
Nevertheless, despite the play’s flaws, this CBT production of The Open Hand does succeed as marvelously entertaining theatre, thanks to director MacLean and a truly excellent cast of five. The plot revolves around two friends, Allison (Lindsay Nance) and Freya (Melissa David) who, as the play opens, are having lunch at an expensive Asian restaurant. When Freya leaves hurriedly to make it to a job interview, Allison discovers she is without her billfold and unable to pay the check. Mysteriously, a well-dressed, middle-aged stranger, David Nathan Bright (Roderick Peeples) appears and gives Allison the money for the check, and an umbrella for the pouring rain, in a strangely fortuitous act of benevolence.
We later meet Allison’s boyfriend, Jack (Steve Sherman), a talented, if edgy young chef, struggling to get a break in the restaurant business, and needing one badly. We also meet Freya’s husband, Todd (Kyle Maxwell), an unhappy, but good-hearted Mercedes-Benz car salesman who is struggling with his wife’s combativeness, as well as his own lot in life. Both couples are in different levels of conflict in their relationships, but also struggle individually with their ability, or inability, to accept love/generosity or offer it. And, each one also struggles with the question of whether their motives—and those of others—are driven by selflessness or selfishness. The dramatic glue for the foursome, of course, comes from the character of Bright, whose appearances admittedly strain believability, but in a perverse, contemporary deus ex machina sort of way.
Art and craft abound in this production. The simple, but amazingly inventive set by Nevena Prodanovic serves as a restaurant, a park, two city apartments, and Bright’s townhouse, thanks to a system of benches that serve as all manner of furniture, and a kinetic video projection that creates location-specific walls, windows, and decor. Costume designer Marianne Custer has reflected the personality of the roles with a perfect slant on contemporary clothing styles. Lighting design was by Tannis Kapell.
The Open Hand deserves a hand for its devotion to the process of artistic creation and to the development of new theatre. There simply can’t be too much of that.
The Open Hand by Rob Caisley
The Lab Theatre/Clarence Brown Theatre
University of Tennessee
Thru April 17
http://www. clarencebrowntheatre.com or 865-974-5161