Could Be Verse

A flawed but diverting Stevie wrestles poetically with existence.

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Stevie Kennedy's Down Under, Playhouse Square Center, 1501 Euclid Avenue Through February 8; 216-241-6000.
While we are all destined to, in Tom Lehrer's words, "slide down the razor blade of life," the trip is clearly more enjoyable for some than others. You can almost hear the gods chortling, as we mortals struggle to balance life's random pains and ultimate fear (i.e., death) with all the good stuff: tax refunds, extra-dry martinis, dogs.

The entire life of English poet Florence Margaret Smith, known to her readers as Stevie Smith, was spent on this razor's edge, trying very consciously to resolve the sadism and gaiety of human existence. In Hugh Whitemore's Stevie, the quirky life of this minor scribe is captured in miniature. Whitemore's play is a seamless blend of narration, dialogue, and excerpts from Smith's poetry. But aside from two notable performances, the current Cesear's Forum production renders a Stevie that is less satisfying than the sum of its several interesting parts.

Born in 1905, Stevie Smith lived for decades with her aunt. Though she worked as a secretary for more than 30 years, she also wrote several volumes of poetry and three novels during that time, and was awarded the Queen's Award for Poetry in 1961. As Whitemore spins out Stevie's life in a skein of mildly amusing anecdotes, it becomes clear that she could never escape from the dreadful, throat-clutching imminence and permanence of death. Writing her memoirs as the years pass, she is supported by her "lion aunt," who keeps the meals coming and keeps Stevie grounded. A couple of men pass through her life, but Smith invites none to stay, for fear of losing her identity in a wave of suburban and marital conventions.

The words of both Whitemore and Smith can be engaging and evocative. At one point, weeks after parting company with a close male friend, Stevie muses ruefully on the aphorism about time healing all wounds: "Time is a slow worker and is no anesthetist." And Act One ends nicely, with Smith's poem "Not Waving but Drowning," a metaphor that displays a deft ironic hand.

As Stevie, Sheila E. Maloney inhabits the poet's mind -- the revealing clutter as well as the black moods -- as if she has lived there for years. Lee Mackey, too, is splendid, portraying the aunt who nudges Stevie along in the early years, then sinks softly into quizzical old age. In the largely thankless multiple role of The Man, however, Jon Kolibab's vocal and physical strengths almost work against the delicate mood. Director Greg Cesear makes the most of the small stage and must share credit for the actors' strong performances. Still, his pacing is at times too brisk to allow the full essence of moments to play out.

But while it feels a bit like being trapped in the parlor of a dotty relative for two hours, the production does convey the stark contradictions of Stevie Smith's life -- at once routine, mundane, and relentlessly creative.

About The Author

Christine Howey

Christine Howey has been reviewing theater since 1997, first at Cleveland Free Times and then for other publications including City Pages in Minneapolis, MN and The Plain Dealer. Her blog, Rave and Pan, also features her play reviews. Christine is a former stage actor and director, primarily at Dobama Theatre...
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