BOTTOM LINE: An ambitious new play about love, loss, and destiny, The Flower Thief will move you, surprise you, and possibly leave you wondering what it all meant.
It’s difficult to write about Pia Wilson’s new play The Flower Thief without giving too much of the story away for those who haven’t seen it; however, as the first full production of The Fire This Time Festival, an initiative to develop the work of black playwrights, it deserves to be discussed. This script is full of ideas and evocative images — reflections, doubles, dark water, blue blossoms, red high-heeled shoes — and is acted by an accomplished cast.
It’s also hard to discuss the play’s merits without getting into its problems. It may seem churlish to criticize a production for being too ambitious, but this tale of a man scarred by the loss of his twin brother seems like two and a half plays crammed into 90 minutes. The action moves back and forth in time and across a number of different tones that sometimes clash.
Larry Powell plays Clark, an African-American teen whose brother Jimmy dies tragically; Erwin E.A. Thomas plays Clark as an adult who is still coping with the pain of his loss. Recently released from prison, he is married to Angela (Lisa Strum), who stuck with him while he was incarcerated but is eager — even desperate — to create a “normal” life complete with kids and upstanding neighbors. Angela attempts to befriend Shelby (Allyson Morgan), a naïve young woman who also happens to be a rookie police officer; Clark is understandably nervous about this association, both because of his past and because he has a secret even Angela doesn’t know.
As the (frankly bizarre) relationship between Shelby and the troubled couple develops, we also see scenes of Clark and Angela in their high school days, when he was an angry troublemaker and she was a sensitive poet desperate for a boyfriend but not desperate enough to get one with sex. As played by the excellent Keona Welch, young Angela might be the most interesting and fully realized character in the play. She is sweet and shy but has an inner sense of self. As young Clark, Powell is also strong in his many monologues; speaking to his deceased brother, he expresses grief, affection, and even resentment as he remembers both the good and the tough times they shared before the fatal accident.
Navigating between these past and future worlds is a tricky feat, and director Heidi Grumelot sometimes loses her way. The tone of the play seems to shift from scene to scene to a degree that can’t be accounted for simply as the result of time passing. The older Clark and Angela, aside from the names, don’t feel like the same characters as the young man and woman we see struggling to connect in the past. Grumelot’s task is made more complicated by the fact that major revelations about the couple and their relationship are held back until the last moments of the play. This retroactively sheds light on elements of the story that feel odd or unexplained; however, it also runs the risk of leaving the audience confused while watching the play and shrugging “Too little, too late” at the end.
The Flower Thief seems to want to be a novel rather than a play; it’s full of the kind of details (Clark’s rituals of grief, his family background, and his love of old movies) that add color and depth to prose but muddy the waters on stage. It’s full of characters not often seen in the theater; I hope to see these characters again one day, this time making all the connections that are lying beneath the surface.
(The Flower Thief plays at the Red Room, 85 East 4th Street between 2nd Avenue and the Bowery, through August 18, 2012. Performances are Thursday through Saturday at 8PM. Tickets are $15-$18 and are available at smarttix.com.)