Platonic Theater Date Review: Detroit Repertory Theatre’s ‘Ghost Gardens’ explores loss and hope

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Aral Gribble, Jenaya Jones Reynolds, and Leah Smith in Detroit Repertory Theatre’s production of “Ghost Gardens.”

As the final installment of Jenn McKee and Don Calamia’s Platonic Theater Date review series, the two critics attended the same performance of Detroit Repertory Theatre’s “Ghost Gardens” on June 7th, and followed-up with a conversation about the show. (“Ghost Gardens” runs through July 1.) Here’s their joint review:

New life, especially in the face of hard circumstances, always offers hope.

This is the reason people are happy to see baby pictures in their social media feed. They provide break from the anger, posing, and tragic news that otherwise clog our daily lives; and they suggest that no matter what, life will out. Steven Simoncic’s play “Ghost Gardens,” now playing at Detroit Repertory Theatre (directed by Lynch Travis), builds its story around this notion.

Set in a Detroit neighborhood that stands in the shadow of a old, chemical-spewing plant, “Gardens” begins with Lorelie (Leah Smith) at her baby’s grave on what would have been her tenth birthday. Lorelie’s been trying to get pregnant again for the intervening years, without success, and she’s not the only one. No children have been born in the neighborhood in years. So when Lorelie, on this tenth anniversary, announces that she’s pregnant, her underemployed husband Tryg (Aral Gribble), sassy best friend Myra (Jenaya Jones Reynolds), ailing mother Helen (Linda Rabin Hammell), and the local pimp-turned-preacher Powder (Cornell Markham) rejoice.

Indeed, a man named Lonnie (Will Bryson), just released from prison, who’s now working alongside Powder, hatches a plan to use social media to raise money and hopes around Lorelie’s good news. But as Tryg continues to sometimes go missing for days at a time, and Helen grows sicker – despite her new, blossoming relationship with Powder – Lorelie begins to buckle under the pressure of her community’s collective hopes.

DC: In my opinion, the Detroit Repertory Theatre is ending its 61st season with the type of show they excel at: stories about ordinary people struggling with their everyday lives. And what they also do quite well is cast their shows with a mix of longtime favorites and new faces to keep their shows fresh and energized. This show embodies both ideals.

JM: This was the first time I’d been back at the Rep since I last reviewed a show there a few years ago, and it reminded me of how focused they are on telling the kind of stories you describe.

DC: It’s also a theater I love going to because of how welcoming it is. At how many theaters can you find the founding artistic director still manning the bar after 61 years? And another cheerfully greeting you in the box office? And where else can you buy tasty cookies freshly baked based on recipes from yet a third co-founder?

JM: First, WHY DIDN’T YOU TELL ME ABOUT THE COOKIES?! And second, these touches are definitely part of what charmed me most the last time I visited Detroit Rep. But we should get to talking about the show. What were your overall impressions of “Ghost Gardens”? I wasn’t previously familiar with the work of playwright Steven Simoncic.

DC: That makes two of us – at least I don’t recall seeing any of his other plays. I enjoyed this one, though. While it didn’t have a really big dramatic arc, it was filled with numerous intimate moments in which we got to learn about the characters, their hopes, their dreams, their problems – and what happens when a community unites together for a cause despite their differences.

JM: For me, the play spreads itself a little thin. Though everything’s connected, the sheer number of stories within the play results in them all getting short shrift. We have the story of a beleaguered blue collar marriage, an ailing parent, a mature romance, an ex-convict finding his way in the world, an unexpected pregnancy, the deep friendship between two women, an examination of how hope gets commercialized and marketed online – there’s a lot. Maybe too much.

DC: While I can see your point, it didn’t particularly bother me. We had a lot of characters and relationships to sort through and understand, and I thought we were given just the right amount of information we needed about each character’s story arc to follow the plot and keep all the interconnected dots straight.

JM: There were some really nice moments between the actors, but the script itself felt like someone throwing all kinds of stuff at the wall and seeing what sticks. My point is, with so many different elements, I never felt invested in any particular one of them.

DC: I’ll agree with you on that last point. Because of how each character is given so much time in the spotlight, you’re never quite sure whose story is the primary one. I think it’s Lorelie’s because it’s her pregnancy that starts the ball rolling, but there’s some competition for that honor. The focus; not the pregnancy! (laughs)

JM: Right. And that’s the driver of many events and conversations. Oh! I forgot that the play’s also got a public health thread, by way of the chemical-spewing plant located near this neighborhood. The surprise and hope her pregnancy provides everyone stems from that.

DC: But like you said, the story meanders across so many plot threads, that it takes focus away from Lorelie. She almost becomes a sub-plot in her own story.

JM: Yes. I agree. That having been said, what performances did you find most affecting?

DC: That’s a tough call, since this was a pretty strong cast. Personally, I loved Cornell Markham as Powder, the pimp-turned-preacher. He had such honesty in his characterization, always with a twinkle in his eye. Jenaya Jones Reynolds as Myra was the show’s comic relief, yet you could totally feel her love for Lorelie, her best friend. And who couldn’t love Aral Gribble’s very convincing Tryg? He plays these “blue collar everyman” roles to perfection. And Leah Smith, one of my favorite actresses, brought such sensitivity to her role!

JM: Yes, and the actors have an extra challenge because filling in a lot of blanks (regarding character) in the script is ultimately up to them. That’s one reason why Gribble wowed me. He wasn’t on stage all that much, but when he was, he poured way more into his scenes, just by way of his choices. Similarly, Hammell imbues Helen with an irresistible feistiness that made her, as a character, come more alive, too.

DC: That’s why it’s so tough to pick a favorite or highlight a specific moment to discuss. They all do such great jobs filling out and giving heft to what the playwright gave them. There are so many little touches…

JM: I loved Reynolds’ no-nonsense sassiness, and Smith has some really powerful moments. But again, unfortunately, it didn’t add up to cumulative impact.

DC: That’s indeed a problem when a playwright uses somewhat of a scattershot approach to storytelling: the focus becomes the many rather than one or two clearly defined lead characters, so you’re not sure whom to root for.

JM: What did you think of Harry Wetzel’s set? It looked as if the “garden” of the title had taken over every inch of this world, including its interiors.

DC: Yes, indeed. I interpreted it to mean that seeds planted in the hearts and minds of this neighborhood took root and spread throughout the entire community. But I could be wrong. (laughs)

JM: Huh. I saw a darker meaning – which may just be my twisted personal filter at work. But it seemed to me to emphasize how in this neighborhood, there was no separation between outside and inside. What’s happening “out there” – with the nearby plant, and the harmful things coming from it – long ago infiltrated everything. Though things are verdant and green, and somewhat beautiful, there’s also something haunting about the way the greenery is pervasive.

DC: Could be. I didn’t see that, but I guess I didn’t give it that deep of a consideration. I just know it’s another of Wetzel’s well-executed designs.

JM: Meanwhile, Thomas Schrader’s lighting design had a colorful, watery quality at times.

DC: It sure did. I was quite impressed with his work.

JM: Quite a lovely effect. And Sandra Landfair Glover’s costumes place us more firmly in this blue collar Detroit neighborhood – but the real stars of her work were Helen and Lorelie’s red dresses, of course. Both frocks convey an air of individual defiance and pride.

DC: I loved the scene where we see Gribble’s Tryg quickly change clothes to show his life’s progression up to this point. It was very creative and required some careful planning on Glover’s part, since he had to get in and out of various items very quickly. So overall, what’s your bottom line?

JM: Some good performances, with solid direction from Travis, but there’s only so much the artists can achieve with a scattered script.

DC: I found it to be entertaining, more so because of the performances, direction and tech work than the script, which is ultimately not a very memorable one. But overall, it was yet another enjoyable evening at the Rep, and I can’t wait to see what they have on tap for season 62!

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