"The Arts" section, "Overnight"

Sunday, October 13, 1996, p. 41A

Theatre Review

"Positives with a Few Negatives: TABULA RASA Laments Loss of Past and Hope" by Edward Hayman, Special Contributor to THE DALLAS MORNING NEWS.

"New York -- Dallasite Molly Louise Shepard's poignant TABULA RASA, finishing a brief off-off-Broadway run Sunday, is a deeply personal drama about scars on the soul and how they get there.

The extremely minimal, but well acted production, capably staged by Philip Hernandez, was produced by the fledgling Judtih Shakespeare Company and housed in a tiny upstairs space west of the midtown theatre district.

The Latin title of Ms. Shepard's play, TABULA RASA, meaning "blank slate," refers to the playwright in her student days when her young spirit was still pristine and her faith in life's possibilities was unspoiled. She invites us to share her disappointment and eventual rally, and we do so gladly. Though her story isn't always smoothly told, it's moments of truth, particularly in the second act, are forceful and clear.

Most of those moments involve the elderly "Toxie" (a dynamic Marlene C. Chavis), a woman of complex Creole and American Indian lineage who is seen by the white population of the late 1970's Vandalia, Texas, as a generic black, to be treated accordingly. "Toxie" finds a friend in young "Tad", (played with a nice sense of innocence by Jennifer Chudy), who works in the photo studio where she takes her precious torn family photograph for restoration. Drawn to the old woman and facinated by the lifelike images of the handsome young man and little girl in the picture, "Tad" takes on the restoration as "possibly the most important work of my life".

The figures in the photograph are "Toxie's" late husband and daughter, both killed many years previously when their car was struck by a train. The picture, tattered from years of handling, is her sole tangible link with those loved ones. With it, she literally conjures them up, and they come to her, ([Godfrey L. Simmons, Jr.] the young husband, ["Samuel"], Joia D. Bradley as the daughter ["Jynx"]) to comfort her as the time slowly passes until she can join them. A proper restoration will assure their continued life in her memory. The loss of the picture, therefore, is unthinkable.

Ms. Shepard clearly loves photography and understands it's power to capture what actor James Stewart called "little pieces of time." It's only fitting, then, that the villains of her piece are the enemies of photography as art and historical record. They are Mr. and Mrs. Desmond, owners of the shop and purveyors of production line wedding and graduation photos. He's the "nice" one who hasn't the guts to do the right thing. She's a racist harridan. As played by Jeffrey Shoemaker and Linda Tvrdy, they're as loathsome a pair of soul-murderers as in any memoir ever produced.

Ms. Shepard's play is on solid ground when it revolves around "Toxie's" picture and it's fate. Its proceedings are a bit uncertain otherwise. She tells her story through a narrator, "Tad" all grown up into "Thadia", a professional New York photographer. Joanne Zipay plays her soulfully, looking out at us with sad, knowing eyes that are turned to the past, but Miss Shepard hasn't given her much of substance to tell us. Beyond her aversion to New York winters and a vague reference to having had too many men in her life, we're not sure what "Thadia's" problem is. Likewise, "Tad's" first boyfriend, ["Paul", Matthew David Barton] also is undersupplied with grist for his mill. Finally, the stories of "Tad's" life choices and "Toxie's" painful loss don't mess as, presumably, they are intended to.

But, TABULA RASA is a rewarding, worthy effort, a work-in-progress that deserves developing.

{Edward Hayman, a New York based writer and critic, teaches journalism at New York University.}"

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