City Players is up and running again, taking the kind of risks community theater can and should take, and it's a welcome return. The company's current production at the ArtLoft Theater is Connections, a one-person performance piece with music, written and performed by Austin, Texas-based actress/writer/songwriter/singer/guitarist Allison Downey. It's an earnest, very personal piece about life, death and Allison Downey.
Downey calls the genre "performance ethnography"; it takes firsthand personal accounts and presents them verbatim, as monologues, in the character of the person who originally told them. Downey gathered the material while working with a group of seniors citizens in Austin. She delivers their words with nothing but a hat or pair of glasses and her own physical instrument to create a character. These portrayals are engaging and entertaining; Downey captures the rhythm and music in the human voice and creates distinct and real portraits of the individuals she came to know. Photos of the actual seniors help make these people even more real for us, and Downey's voices uncannily seem to match their faces. Especially enjoyable is her portrayal of 80-year-old African-American Guthrie D. Johnson, who has a poetic and funny story of how he got his name. When portraying the seniors, Downey honors them with an understated delivery that captures the innate beauty of their language, never stooping to caricature.
Unfortunately, these portrayals take up far too little of the evening's 90-minute running time. Downey has chosen to tell a parallel story from her own life and intertwines the senior material with a re-creation of herself observing her grandmother's illness and eventual death, taken from the journal entries Downey kept at the time. Though Downey is very good at portraying other characters, she has a harder time playing herself. Instead of taking a cue from her seniors and telling her story in a simple, straightforward manner, her writing is florid and her acting overly theatrical. The subject matter is heartbreakingly personal (we see a photo of her "Ditty" as well), yet for some reason the show never becomes intimate, never draws us in. In the program notes, Downey says intimacy is not her goal; rather, she wants to share "the experience of trying to grasp her (grandmother's) process." I'm sure that when Downey sang "The River Is Wide" to her dying grandmother, it was a moving experience, but re-creating it here turns it into a performance, and it's hard to connect to emotionally. Oddly, the very act of keeping a journal about a dying person seems to have disconnected her from the event; we hear her observations and thoughts, but it all seems at arm's length. As Chekhov noted, the writer is never really involved because he's too busy observing. Thinking this was perhaps the ironic intent of the title, I kept waiting for the inevitable moment when Downey would throw the journal aside and realize that to truly connect with her grandmother, she had to stop being an artist and be a person. But there is no irony at work here. Perhaps, however, Downey ended up telling us more about herself than she planned.
Connections is not, strictly speaking, a play, but it could still benefit from some sort of dramatic forward movement. As it is, the shuttling between stories, with a cappella song phrases as transitions, becomes repetitious. No director is listed in the program; perhaps an objective eye could have helped shape the evening more. At the end, the talented Downey sings her song "Connections" to her own guitar accompaniment. It's a good song and states succinctly in four minutes what the rest of the evening never quite manages to articulate.