THE BLOG
05/01/2014 10:36 pm ET Updated Jul 01, 2014

First Nighter: James McManus's "Cherry Smoke," Oni Faida Lampley's "Tough Titty"

It's not too often that great passion doomed--make that Great Passion Doomed--hits the boards. There's Romeo and Juliet and Antony and Cleopatra and Cyrano de Bergerac and West Side Story with its Romeo and Juliet bow. Add to the list, though maybe not quite on that lofty level but nothing to turn a nose up at, either--James McManus's Cherry Smoke.

The lovers in this depiction of an affair that looks hopeless from the get-go are Fish (Vayu O'Donnell) and Cherry (Molly Carden), who meet in a patch of western Pennsylvania land alongside what's probably a polluted river. He's 13 and she's 10 and, as abused and/or abandoned kids, they decide they don't want to be parted ever again.

They are separated, however, because Fish, an agile boxer unable to control his violent temper, is imprisoned several times and returns from one of his three-month visits to learn Cherry is pregnant with, she's convinced, a boy. Hoping the couple somehow finds a way to a contented relationship are friends Duffy (Patrick Carroll) and Bug (Julie Jesneck), who have a far more normal, not anywhere as intense relation, marred by her inability to conceive and his basement level self-esteem.

McManus follows the couples through several months of their current emotionally and financially deprived lives and flashes back to their previous selves. Though he shows them in various locations, including a boxing match on which Fish's future rests, Cherry and Fish repeatedly return to that barren patch of land they think of as their own. Among the tires and other detritus there, they, too, fit in as society's discards.

It may be that Cherry Smoke observers are reminded of Tennessee Williams's one-act This Property is Condemned. If they are, it might not seem familiar only because it features characters who regard themselves as condemned properties but because of the language that has what is nowadays called "street cred" and at the same time is grittily poetic.

As almost her first words, Cherry declares, "See, the sun's kinda piss yellow round here and warm beer makes guys look at you funny." There's no call to comb through McManus's script for other pungent utterances, but they come out at regular intervals. Just when these four sound like any under-privileged young adults and, in the jumps back to the past, like under-privileged youngsters, they also sound like people you've never heard speak in quite the way they do.

At regular intervals each of them saunters to the edge of the stage and harshly challenges patrons for acceptance or timidly appeals for acceptance. Their shared problem is that they each have had it drummed into them from childhood that they have little worth. Yet, they're capable of manifesting sympathy and empathy for each other.

McManus simply has a gift for this kind of mesmerizing dialogue, but it's not just the writing that makes Cherry Smoke highly recommended. (The title's meaning is explained at a crucial moment.) The playing, under Tamilla Woodard's tense direction, is first-rate ensemble work. Not one of them can be faulted for the smallest lapse. They all wear their weary hearts on their soiled sleeve.

If there's a star turn, though, it's O'Donnell as the fiery boxer forced when he was 9 to compete in a local match where he learned not only that he could prevail but also that authority, in the guise of his bullying father, was going to cut him no slack.

Incidentally, O'Donnell might be considered to have prepped for this part while appearing as one of the supporting players in the recent Golden Boy revival. He's got the physique (his biceps look like oval rocks), and he knows how to access molten fury. He's such a convincing Fish that his years as a Yale undergraduate where he was a Whiffenpoof and often performed in white tie and tails are something no onlooker would be likely to suss out.
*********************************************************************

Oni Faida Lampley's autobiographical Tough Titty is about how Angela (Ami Brabson) fights the initial breast cancer that spreads over several grinding years. In other words, it cuts to the bone in more ways than one.

To categorize it as harrowing hardly begins to suggest the toll it's taking on Angela and the far less toll--but toll, nevertheless--it takes on an audience following the progress of the affliction.

Tough Titty premiered in 2005 at the Williamstown Theatre Festival and is only now premiering in New York at the Paradise, which may be due to potential producers worrying that the unforgiving subject matter is too much to ask audiences to endure.

But if Lampley, who died in 2008, could battle what befell her, audience members will benefit from watching the demonstration of gallantry against worsening odds that involve the cancer's inexorable progress, the vagaries of medical treatment and the conditions unsettling Angela's marriage to Shaka (Victor Williams).

The two-act play shows Angela in every imaginable mood as she undergoes a mastectomy and chemotherapy, is required to use crutches and consigned to bed for periods of time. Lampley gets around to Angela's (Lampley's own?) wranglings with doctors, dealings with understanding nurses and the sometimes welcome and sometimes unwanted ministrations of friends.

What she compiled is the diary of an illness with perhaps the most hard-hitting scene the one in which Angela and Shaka finally confront each other about their imperiled union. By the end of this sequence Lampley has charted the mixed signals spouses can send each other under these circumstances and how easily they can be misunderstood. Worse, she implies that frayed nerves are almost inevitable when one partner both wants help but is also inclined to turn it away as a show of continuing independence.

With Awoye Timpo directing Brabson, Williams, Christine Toy Johnson, Antoinette LaVecchia (sometimes as St. Agatha to whom Angela regularly prays), Nikkole Salter, Richard Topol and Elizabeth Van Dyke authoritatively, Tough Titty comes off quite well.

The odd element is Jason Sherwood's set, a thrust stage painted blue with black borders. Cut into it are square and rectangular recesses. Traveling around the layout to wherever Angela, Victor and the others are meant to be (hospitals, home, a supermarket, et cetera), the actors have to negotiate their way as if in a labyrinth.

Maybe that's the point. Maybe Sherwood and Timpo mean the set to represent the life-threatening metaphorical maze Angela and the late Lampley encountered when cancer struck.

Subscribe to the Culture Shift email.
Get your weekly dose of books, film and culture.