By Lisa Panzer
Inspired by actual events in history filled Philadelphia, Thomas Gibbons’ thought-provoking play explores race, politics and colliding perspectives on the past, among other issues of current relevance, through a clash of his character’s viewpoints. In ‘A House With No Walls’ the discovery of the remnants of an out-building on the new Liberty Bell Center site, formerly George Washington’s presidential mansion, sends African American activist Salif Camara (Maurice Tucker) into action. He wants it known that the small square area housed several slaves belonging to Washington, and insists the house be reconstructed and memorialized before the past can be buried again, touching off a series of ardently eloquent dialog, debate and accusations among the play’s various personae.
African American author and academic, Cadence Lane (Jael Brown), represents a moderate conservative republican viewpoint, and Allen Rosen (Daniel Ostrov), who has ties to both Camara and Lane, finds himself caught in the crossfire. Former Congressman Steven Gardner’s (Ken Wilson) position is to weed out differences and mediate in order to avoid turning the location into a political battlefield, and above all, keep the museum to going forward. Beautifully juxtaposed with the present are voices from the late 1790s embodied by Oney Judge (Ciara Williford), her brother Austin (Hyresh Davis), both Washington slaves, Quaker Tobias Humphreys (Daniel Ostrov) and Jacob Easton (Tim Richardson), who each articulate how they see things in their time, and what may be for the future.
A few moments levity appearing in the piece are leveraged from the obvious ironies, and making them even more pronounced, however, Gibbons’ didacticism doesn’t allow for much. The serious question of how does the past touch the future arises, as well as who decides what and how the past is re-presented, but no definitive answers are offered. As with his similar work, ‘Permanent Collection’, the audience is supplied with facets from all sides, and must make up their own minds.
Director Carla Childs takes full advantage of the intimate Old Academy stage space by way of strategic blocking, smooth scene transitions, and a bi-level set, fitting the multilayered issues raised within ‘A House With No Walls’ to the venue’s capacity. Along the upstage wall images projected onto a scrim illuminate time and place for the audience, with the superbly lighted ‘square’ taking center stage. Each setting location adroitly squeezed into the venue is tightly lighted as well, and the superb soundscap and effects serve to augment a surreal sense of concurrent time and space. Set, lighting and sound are all designed by the director and Technical Director, Jesse Friedman. Costuming, both period and present day, is tastefully accomplished by the director, Helga Krauss and cast.
The cast are well versed in their roles, and the pacing is spot on. Solid, touching performances by Williford as Oney Judge, and Brown as Cadence Lane, create yearning for an ultimate connection between them. Tucker’s pervasive charisma as Salif Camara’s shouts from the stage, needing no bullhorn as he persuades others to believe. Ostrov’s physical and facial expressions are nicely nuanced and speak volumes for his characters, especially that of Allen. Davis gives Austin just the right the air of energetic innocence, and Richardson imbues Easton with world weighty wisdom. Wilson balances his portrayal of practiced politician Gardner with a touch of friendly persuasion, and a persistent edge of tenacity. George Webster, plays a park ranger and a George Washington reenactor with pluck enough for both.
Performances of ‘A House With No Walls’ continue through September 24 on Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00pm and Sundays at 2pm.
Old Academy Players is located at 3540–44 Indian Queen Lane, Philadelphia, PA 19129
For tickets, visit https://oldacademyplayers.org/shows/a-house-with-no-walls/ or call 215–843-1109