Riverside - Cancer is never an easy subject for an audience to embrace. We want to be entertained on a Friday night, not depressed with stories of pain and suffering. Fortunately, Ron Clark understands that and injects enough humor into his script Coffee and Hope to keep the audience entertained while still pulling our heartstrings.
As the audience first enters the space, they find a perfect re-creation of a doctor's office waiting room. Actors are already sitting, sipping coffee, entering and exiting; all of that action adds to the reality of the setting. The shows opens with the only successful song, which is a wonderfully funny ode to coffee sung by Clark. There are a couple of other songs in the show, but they seemed to be pushed into the show unnecessarily. One of them, the song about an anesthesiologist "passing gas", was particularly painful to endure. It made me wonder if Clark really liked the coffee song and thought he couldn't have just one song in the show and so added a couple more.
Each of the principal actors, with the exception of Clark, plays three different characters. All of the actors do an extremely good job of creating rich and interesting characters. Timm Budd's portrayal of a man with aphasia and John Watkins as the brother of a dying woman were particularly strong. However, and this highlights the one flaw of the show, I left the the theater wanting to know more about those characters. The way the show is created we only get snapshots of each of these characters and how they deal with a loved one's struggle with cancer. Any one of those stories could have been tremendously satisfying. As it stands, there's a sense of frustration from getting just enough of each story to make us long for more.
That said, one has to take the play as it is. It is a series of wonderfully written and performed monologues about a central theme that touches everyone, whether they've personally dealt with the pain of loving someone with cancer or not. The monologues range from the humorous - a man's attempt to create a false boob for his wife - to the brutally honest - one man admitting that his wife's mastectomy does matter even though he knows in his heart it shouldn't. These are honest and heart wrenching glimpses into these characters' souls brought to life by five incredibly talented actors.
A number of excellent directorial decisions by Kevin Harris kept the action moving and the audience interested. Sound was used effectively to separate the monologues from the central action. Action described in the monologues was often performed behind a scrim adding a memory-like feel to the moment. This is a first rate production of a brand new play. Despite a desire for more, what's there is definitely worth seeing.
Matthew has a Bachelor's degree in English from the University of Iowa. He has directed, acted in, and produced theater in the Iowa City area for over ten years. He has worked with the Iowa City Community Theatre, City Circle and Dreamwell, of which he is a founder. Two of his plays have been produced in the Iowa City area. In another brief life, he also worked as a technical writer.