Star-Bulletin Features

Friday, November 23, 2001

Stefanie Anderson, left, portrays Aunt Geneva and Jayme Shirrell
is Geri in a reading of the Lanford Wilson play "Redwood Curtain"
being presented Sunday and Dec. 2.

Excellent acting make
‘Redwood’ stand strong

Readers Theatre hits a new high with the
story of a half-Vietnamese woman
searching for her soldier father

By John Berger

Vanita Rae Smith brings her ambitious "Sunday@2 Matinee Readers Theatre" series to a new level of excellence with the Hawaii premiere production of Lanford Wilson's "Redwood Curtain." It's one of the best stories she's picked thus far and she's telling it with an exceptional cast.

Jayme B. Shirrell makes an amazing debut as Geri, a young woman who was born to an American soldier and a young Vietnamese woman in 1973, brought to the US as a new-born, and bought and raised by wealthy adoptive parents in California. Geri has only a few scraps of information about her birth parents but is convinced that her biological father is one of the anonymous Vietvets who live in and around the redwood forest owned by her aunt and uncle.

Geri is a piano prodigy thanks in part to the encouragement she received from her adoptive father, but she's put her career on hold to seek out skittish mentally unstable men who may match the sketchy description she's memorized -- or anyone who remembers a solider named Raymond Farrow.

The role is a complicated one. Geri is vulnerable and appealing in some ways but also a bit obnoxious and a straight-up liar of Clintonesque stature. Geri is certainly not entirely likable on first encounter but Shirrell succeeds in winning us over while never falling out of character.

Readers Theatre veteran Dion Donahue is one of those rare actors who can do musicals or straight plays, kids' theater or serious adult dramas, with equal skill and finesse. He gives a tremendous performance with his portrayal of Lyman Fellows, the reclusive Vietvet who Geri believes may be the father she never knew. It is never fully resolved whether Fellers is mentally ill or possibly pretending to be a bit more unstable than he actually is, but the role calls for an actor who can hit a broad spectrum of emotions and attitudes. Donahue hits all of them.

'Redwood Curtain'

A Sunday@2 Matinee Readers Theatre production at Army Community Theatre.
When: 2 p.m. Sunday and Dec. 2
Where: Richardson Theatre, Fort Shafter
Tickets: $8
Call: 438-4480 (open between 2 a.m. and 2 p.m. weekdays)
Note: Admission is by pre-sale only. Tell the sentry you have tickets waiting and you will be directed to the check-point where the tickets are held.

"Redwood Curtain" is also a fine showcase for Stefanie Anderson. She isn't seen often enough in mainstage shows these days but follows a strong performance in Smith's Readers Theatre staging of "The Debutante Ball" with her portrayal of Geri's wealthy Aunt Geneva. A subplot about a hostile take-over of the family corporation and probable clear-cutting of the redwoods adds heft to the story and helps fill out the aunt as a character. Anderson again does remarkable work.

Subplot aside, the focus of the story -- and the key to our interest in it -- is Geri's relationship with Fellers.

Director Smith tells the story with more visual cues than usual. She started Readers Theatre strictly as "theater of the mind" in which the performers wore black and read the dialogue while seated. Her approach to "Redwood Curtain" includes having Donahue start performing while still off-stage and spend much of a later scene standing behind Anderson and Shirrell; he and Anderson are also both dressed in character.

Readers Theatre stalwart Richard Pellett presides with his usual entertaining style as the narrator. Pellett doesn't play a second role but provides a running commentary on the various whoppers Geri tells Fellers when she first encounters him in the forest.

Some of her outlandish statements are apparently true. The story veers off in odd and fanciful directions once it seems that her boasting about possessing supernatural powers has some basis in fact. It would be one thing if Geri thought she had supernatural powers but obviously did not. The possibility that she does adds a bizarre note to the story and is an unnecessary device in an otherwise excellent script.

That point aside, "Redwood Curtain" is riveting and well-constructed theater, and a good story well-told. It is the strongest and most substantial show in the Readers Theatre series since Eden-Lee Murray, Stephanie Curtis Conching and Jo Pruden shared the stage in "Agnes of God" in 1999.

Anderson, Donahue and Shirrell make "Redwood Curtain" well worth seeing.

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