If the expert quality of “Riding Halley’s Comet” is what we can expect from the Lioness 23 Theatre Initiative, then the New Orleans theater community is truly blessed indeed.
Presented at Mid-City Theatre’s simple, comfortable venue, and for all too short a period, this is actors’ theater at its very best.
Ava, played by the remarkably talented Idella Johnson, checks into rehab for drug addiction in a terrific scene with Yohance Miles as the therapist, and we are off on a tortuous exploration of adult children damaged by parents suffering from mental illness — a subject too often deemed as taboo.
It is often stated that the greatest drama originates from self-portraiture. Think “Long Day’s Journey into Night,” “The Glass Menagerie” and “Death of a Salesman,” dramas cut from the cloth of the playwright’s personal experience.
So too has New Orleans playwright Ann McQueen, in collaboration with high school friend Johnson, created a painfully honest portrait of two women struggling to overcome a homelife situation they discovered they shared.
The story centers on the saving-grace friendship of two women, Johnson and the equally talented Cherelle Palmer as Autumn, whose lives have been scrambled by a beyond dysfunctional childhood. McQueen’s accomplishment transcends race and gender, speaking to all of us brought up behind the closed doors in such a chaotic hell.
What is refreshingly beautiful about this play is that the concern for mental illness does not upstage the graceful humanity demonstrated by Ava and Autumn’s friendship. In fact, the destructive mothers are not introduced until we are well into the action.
Top to bottom the cast is excellent. The destructive mothers — Carol Sutton and Troi Bechet — could easily be portrayed as stereotypes, but instead they are harrowingly real.
At one point, Autumn’s mother says to her daughter, “Take a good look at your future. I ain’t s--- and you ain’t s--- either.” The moment stings like a blunt syringe plunged straight to the heart.
Much credit is due to the sensitive, moment-to-moment direction of Troy Poplous. Although the dramatic structure of the play is far from perfect (the episodic development wearies and the second act could use a healthy rewrite), Poplous delivers bring-the-heat acting from all the players.
The intensity of their listening compels as much as their speaking (which at times can be didactic). This cast knows this story in their bones and presents it with a passion that cannot help but blow the viewer away.
It all boils down to Idella Johnson, who could easily take her talents to New York or Los Angeles to become a major star.
The fact that she chooses to make relevant, issues-oriented theater in New Orleans, as well as her capacity to galvanize artists of equally significant talent, is a gift to all of us who revere theater in New Orleans.
“Riding Halley’s Comet” is presented in partnership with the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), an organization that offers assistance to those suffering from mental illness and gives support for their family members.
The production is supported by a grant from the New Orleans Theatre Association. Both organizations deserve credit for their roles in bringing such a hard-hitting topic to the stage.
Bruce Burgun is a retired professor of theater from Indiana University and a member of the American Theater Critics Association.