by Richard Sanford
Red Herring Productions teams with PAST Productions for a moving, righteous production of S. M. Shepard-Massat’s Waiting to be Invited, directed by Patricia Wallace-Winbush.
Waiting to Be Invited follows three friends and co-workers, Ms. Odessa (Julie Whitney-Scott), Ms. Delores (Patricia Wallace-Winbush), and Ms. Louise (Demia Kandi), in Atlanta in the early 60s, leaving work to take part in a lunch counter sit-in. Shepard-Massat’s play — among many other strengths — knows that most of life comprises the moments leading up to the moment everyone talks about.
In the first act, the friends take their usual bus route driven by city institution Palmeroy Bateman (Harold Yarborough) and run into Ms. Grayson (Josie Merkle), a well-meaning white woman. It’s difficult to sell the idea that characters have known each other for a long period, but Wallace-Winbush’s direction and the chemistry of her cast don’t leave the audience the slightest doubt how long these women have known one another or the depth of their affection. The rhythms of their speech fit together in a way that feels natural — teasing, in-jokes — while every line is as stuffed with multiple meanings and works on as many levels as Pinter.
The chemistry of the characters sparks from the first moment and never dies down. It’s easy to believe anyone would walk into battle behind Ms. Odessa’s; Scott’s wicked sense of comedic timing and her gravitas sells the character’s tight reins as the worldliest of the three. Kandi’s Ms. Louise electrifies her scenes, a little younger of the two and she feels a fresher pain at the wounds and slights of America, with her children just starting college. Her deference to the other women never feels like surrender.
Wallace-Winbush’s Ms. Delores is the most intriguing character in the play, throwing assists and implying a deep loneliness. The monologue where we see her character’s core shaken is a tightrope act that drew me to the edge of my seat.
Waiting to be Invited also has a bone-deep understanding that nothing ever happens unless the first person shows up. The three convene with their preacher’s wife friend Ms. Ruth (Cathy Bean) on a park bench outside of the department store they’re going into, in the second act. Ms. Odessa’s children had guard dogs turned loose on them outside of the office they all work in, driving home the visceral and obvious danger just through those gleaming glass doors.
Scott’s fiery wake-up call to Bean’s Ms. Ruth is as gripping a confrontation as you’ll see on a stage, with Bean parrying and riposting, giving as good as she gets. In a couple short scenes, Bean’s Ms. Ruth establishes herself as an equal of this character who already had the first hour-long act to awe us.
Shepard-Massat wrote Ms. Grayson with some allegorical elements that threw me out of the play to an extent. It’s a testament to Merkel’s nuanced performance that her Ms. Grayson always feels like a flesh and blood, charming, sympathetic character and a stand-in for a society that gave white people a leg-up even a few streets over in the same town. Yarborough’s Bateman gives a clinic in how subtle counter-rhythms can take a scene up or down and a reminder of how much richer life is if we take a few minutes to know the people we see every day, driving the bus, at the counter at the coffee shop.
Waiting to be Invited uses the specifics of its time — Ms. Dolores mentions the Barr v. City of Columbia decision — to remind us that there will always be systems to use people as grist for the mill and these systems have one interest: perpetuating themselves. In the face of that, emphasized by Wallace-Winbush’s direction and the amazing cast assembled here, it reasserts the basic humanity of all of us.
This tight two-hour (with an intermission) production of Shepard-Massat’s play, overflows with empathy and vitality. I haven’t been so happy to be in tears in quite some time.
Waiting to be Invited runs through May 11 with performances at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. For tickets and more info, visit http://www.redherring.info.