Saturday, November 8, 2008

Review of Sarah, Plain and Tall

ICCT - This weekend, Sarah Plain and Tall opened at the Iowa City Community Theatre. This show may be familiar to some because of the tv movie version, and may be familiar to others because of the book of the same name. Vaguely, I knew it was about rural life when women wore long dresses and men slopped pigs. Normally, I hear about a show involving pigtails and prairie grass and run the other way through the romantic, undulating fields, but I decided I’d attend this one.

I rolled up to the theatre, skeptical, but heard welcoming tones as soon as I entered. The director has chosen to have live pre-show music, a guitarist and a vocalist, and this touch established a warm rapport between the audience and the performers even before the show began. Since one of the recurring themes of the show is the comforting and uplifting power of singing, this was an even more appropriate introduction and nice choice.

The plot revolves around a Kansas widower who takes out an advertisement for a bride, which is answered by the title character, the non-conformist Sarah, Plain and Tall. Sarah’s digressions include inviting the neighbors for dinner and yearning to wear overalls while she works on the farm. The conflict in the show revolves around whether or not Sarah will marry the widow Jacob Witting and help him care for his two children. Will the children accept her? Will Jacob? Or is Sarah just too modern to fit in on this Kansas farm with her crazy driving-into-town-on-her-own ways?

Brian Tanner as Jacob Witting is warm and establishes a genuine and convincing relationship with his children, Caleb (Daniel Burian) and Anna (Annie Hartley). The only shortfall in his performance is that he comes across as too nice all the way through the show, even when we are supposed to believe that Sarah is feeling oppressed by his traditional no-overall-wearing rules. He doesn’t give Sarah enough reason not to stay, so the romantic outcome of the show is even more inevitable than it might have been. And Sarah (Kathy McDonald) could be a bit more confrontational in her manner and tone at these times of conflict as well if we are to believe she’s wavering in her choice to stay or go. Not that you attend a show like this for the surprise ending, but still.

Howard Meadows and Mary Ann Cozine as the neighboring farm family also put in strong performances. They are fun to watch, especially Meadows, as his big voice fills up the performance space and he trods around in old jeans and boots.

But perhaps the most impressive performances come from the children, who the script relies on to hold this show together, particularly Daniel Burian and Annie Hartley as Caleb and Anna Witting. They have good timing, they look natural onstage, they nail their lines and they put in earnest performances. There are some emotional moments that could have been rendered with a bit more intensity and paid a bit more attention, but these are minor flaws compared to the energy and honesty with which the rest of the show is played.

Also grabbing a bit of attention is a hand-made quilt hung on the back wall of the set. The quilt is a nice touch. It lends authenticity to the time-period. It’s also up for raffle. You can pay two dollars for a chance to win it.

Aside from the quilt, the set is handled nicely, with a stage area set up for Sarah’s family back in Maine and a different area used for the Kansas farm families. A rowboat off stage right does a lot to remind us that Sarah’s character is used to the sea and misses it when she travels to Kansas and leaves her old life behind.

This is not a thrilling play. There are no acrobatics, no stage combat. No one really even raises his or her voice—save one well-played outburst by Annie Hartley.

It’s a quiet show, one about building relationships and trust, one about accepting people for who they are, one about how generally good people are. The actors take on their roles with skill, affection and warmth, and if you don’t feel good when you leave the theatre after this show, you must have had a very bad day.

Sarah, Plain and Tall, like the book and the movie, is a solid piece of entertainment for the whole family.

--Vicki Krajewski

Vicki Krajewski has acted and directed with theatre companies in Chicago and Iowa including the Prairie Center for the Arts, Sandcastle Productions, Dreamwell, Catalyst, Iowa City Community Theatre and City Circle. Several of her short plays and monologues have been produced in Iowa City and Cedar Rapids. Along with her performance pieces, she does occasional newspaper reporting, freelance feature writing, technical writing, personal essays and even some poetry.

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