Clifton’s ‘Road Through Damascus’ is ‘Our Town’ Lite
Posted On June 23, 2017
Review by Sheldon Polonsky of The Road Through Damascus: Clifton Performance Theatre
An unremarkable small town represented on stage with no scenery and few props. An omniscient narrator presiding over three time periods of the town’s inhabitants, including a blossoming relationship between two young protagonists, one of whom yearns to leave the town for college and expanded horizons. A final act in a graveyard filled with chairs and the dead discussing what life was all about.
Sound familiar? No, this is not Grover’s Corner, the setting of Thornton Wilder’s classic American play Our Town, written about 75 years ago, but Damascus, North Carolina, and the professional premiere by the Clifton Performance Theatre of The Road Through Damascus, written by recent NKU graduate Robert Macke. I’ll have more to say about the play’s relationship with Our Town later but in the meantime let’s focus on the play’s merits as it stands on its own.
The Road Through Damascus is certainly entertaining and witty enough on its own, using pantomime, self-deprecating humor, and breaking the fourth wall to engage the audience throughout its two acts. Miranda McGee, one of my favorite Cincinnati actresses and always a consistent performer, is well-cast as the play’s narrator, with a sense of irony and dead-pan delivery that match her skills well. The narrator’s true nature will be gradually discovered by the audience as the play unfolds (for me it became clear by the end of the first act, unless it was meant to be obvious from the beginning but I was too dense to realize it). Carter Bratton, a Clifton mainstay, portrays the town’s drunken mayor earnestly but a perhaps a little too broadly, unless that was the intent. Andy Simpson is intensely amusing as the town’s admittedly solipsistic doctor (better look it up if you don’t know). Emily Fry, a newcomer and recent NKU graduate, portrays a young girl struggling to escape the confines of Damascus and sharpen her writing and drawing skills in New York. She was the most authentic character and her performance was accessible and touching. Rounding out the cast was Kyle Taylor, as her over-eager boyfriend, and Matt Krieg, as the stranger passing through town who sparks her interest. Finally, I would be remiss not to mention Bob Allen, the Cincinnati veteran whose role as the town historian is short but unforgettable, commanding the stage as only he can. Nate Netzley directs the piece competently and effectively, and lets the play’s somewhat enigmatic nature and unanswered questions gradually percolate throughout the production.
That said, The Road Through Damascus cannot be appropriately appreciated or reflected on without considering its relationship to Our Town. In an interview with Jackie Demaline in the River City News, Netzley and Macke call the piece a “critique” of Our Town. For me, that is where the play falls short. Damascus is so similar to Our Town in so many ways, some of the lines practically lifted from the original in a paraphrased manner, that I struggled to understand how it was trying to differentiate itself in sensibility. Perhaps Road to Damascus is a little more cynical, a little more focused on the role of fate and free will. But this would have worked better for me if I felt it were more finely honed in its intentions, bringing something more modern or innovative about the small town play. In the end it seemed to pale in comparison, with fewer and less-developed characters and a less mature and comprehensive philosophical world-view. I look forward to seeing Robert Macke, who is clearly a clever and competent writer, try out his playwrighting skills on something more wholly original.
One more note, in the spirit of artistic self-disclosure, I wish that CPT would have prominently referenced the play’s roots in Our Town in its program, website, or other promotional materials. I was very uncomfortable with its unabashed and uncredited similarities until I (later) read Jackie Demaline’s interview where its debt to Our Town was properly and specifically recognized.
All that said, The Road Through Damascus is a thought-provoking and evocative look at small-town life—and life in general—that is definitely worth your time and effort to see, effectively produced in Clifton’s intimate setting. The Road Through Damascus runs through October 1st and tickets can be obtained through the box office at http://cliftonperformancetheatre.com.