“Confronted with the impossibility of remaining faithful to one’s beliefs, and the equal impossibility of becoming free of them, one can be driven to the most inhuman excesses.” — James Baldwin
How does one describe Jonathan Norton’s “a love offering?” We can perhaps start with the basics. “a love offering” is currently playing at Kitchen Dog Theater at 2600 N. Stemmons Freeway through Sunday, Oct. 27. But beyond that, we run into difficulties because how do you describe a fast moving 90-minute play that feels like a beautiful epic poem?
I don’t use that term lightly, but it’s rare to find a playwright that can create characters that have a past, a present and a future as well as actors who can bring them to life in such an astonishing way. The story, centered on Mr. Turner (played by Chris Messersmith), is mostly about a catatonic Alzheimer’s sufferer in an assisted living center. Norton allows his characters to work together like a perfectly rehearsed string quartet, building and relieving tension in a masterful way.
Mr. Turner’s children Stewart (Max Hartman) and his sister Josie (Brandy McClendon Kae) play off each other, with Stewart continually trying to de-escalate the exasperated Josie. Mr. Turner’s caretakers T’wana (Whitney LaTrice Coulter) and Miss Georgia (Rhonda Boutte’) are the targets of both Josie’s phrenetic emotions and Stewart’s attempts at manipulation, but also have to work out their long history together and navigate a world that provides roadblock after roadblock to any attempts at happiness.
There are racial and religious undertones and overtones throughout the play, but deftly done. Stewart and Josie are religious, white upper middle class business owners. T’Wana and Miss Georgia are African-American women working for little more than minimum wage and spending a significant amount of that work literally and figuratively cleaning up after the mess created by their white clients. But I say “deftly done” because there is little of the overt “Here be Racists” written on a map for the audience or “Look at these Christian hypocrites” emblazoned in neon above the characters heads. These are fully three dimensional characters that are trying to navigate their circumstances, have an internal value system that possibly even they don’t fully understand and while trying to utilize their reason as much as they can, are still human and can react to stress with violence and anger as often as love and charity.
The direction by Tina Parker allows all these subtle nuances as well as peaks and valleys to bring out the full emotion of the play. Clare Floyd DeVries set design allows us to immerse ourselves in the story, and the light touches from Melissa Panzarello (costume design), Claire Carson (sound design) and Lisa Miller (lighting design) all add to the show without being distracting.
This is one of those plays that in a seemingly simple setup bring out a tremendous depth of story, art and character development. It is a poem that we feel like we have heard somewhere before, but want to hear another stanza and then another after that. Norton and Kitchen Dog Theater should be rightfully proud of their artistic accomplishment and you should make the time to see the fruits of their work.