McKeever and Mom

Whatever else may be said about the South Florida theater scene, certainly there's a whole lotta playwrighting going on here. The place seems to be jumping with premieres just about weekly, and several area companies focus on new works, each in its own way. Florida Stage in Manalapan is dedicated to new plays from writers far and wide, the New Theatre in Coral Gables regularly produces new works from a trio of writers, and Miami's Mad Cat is devoted mostly to plays written by company members. In all this activity, one local writer, Michael McKeever, appears to be everywhere at once.

The prolific McKeever has plays popping up all over South Florida. His A Town Like Irving just opened at the New Theatre. Another premiere, Running with Scissors, leads off the fall season for Florida Stage. Last year, McKeever's Velveteen Undertow premiered at the Palm Beach Dramaworks, and his Open Season debuted at the Hollywood Playhouse. McKeever is on view yet again with a bill of one-act plays, strung together as Apron Strings: Six Plays About Mothers at the Hollywood Playhouse The playlets all revolve around mother/child relationships but range widely in style and substance. Some are slight, whimsical character studies; some are broad comedy; some are brief, painful tales of sorrow and loss.

In a number of these miniplays, McKeever uses a conceptual technique known in Hollywood as a "reverse spin," a typical narrative situation that is set on its head: In Knowing Best, a mother (Lisa Morgan) is aghast when her daughter (Jacqueline Laggy) tells her she is no longer a lesbian. In Act of Confession, a young man (Patrick Armshaw) wants absolution from a priest (Andy Rogow) for not killing his mother. In Unsinkable, a sly riposte to the romantic sentimentality of James Cameron's Titanic, we meet one couple (Morgan and Rogow) on that doomed ship whom we really don't want to survive. Three other less-schematic plays round out the evening: In Francine, Saved from Drowning, a harried young husband (Armshaw) must calm his jittery pregnant wife (Laggy), who refuses to give up her wine and cigarettes. In the evening's most challenging play, Objects in the Rearview Mirror, a long-divorced couple (Morgan and Rogow) return from the funeral of their murdered teen son to face the emptiness of a future without him. The evening ends with the wackiest tale of the lot, Peter, Paula, Mom, and Mary, in which a brother and a sister (Armshaw and Laggy) discover that their mother (Morgan) is baking cupcakes in the kitchen with the Virgin Mary (Rogow).

All of this makes for a decidedly eclectic program that's appealing if not dazzling. Kim St. Leon directs the capable cast with clarity: Certainly McKeever's text has been given the central spotlight, as well it should. But the acting ensemble is too willing to surf along on this material rather than confront it seriously, and St. Leon seems far more comfortable with the lighter-weight stories. The oft-honored Morgan, who last week picked up the New Times Best Supporting Actress award, is certainly not at her best here. Morgan, who has heretofore been known for detailed, grounded characterizations, seems more interested this time around in one-liners and comedic shtick, and the rest of the company appears to follow her lead. This TV-sketch comedy style works for some of these tales -- the Mary/cupcake saga and the Titanic riff, especially. But McKeever isn't fooling around in Objects in the Rearview Mirror, the play about the parents who confront their son's death. This material requires detailed character and relationship work and nothing less than complete emotional honesty. The same applies to Act of Confession, wherein the young man reveals the deep grief and guilt that cancer often brings to a victim's family. These two plays, however short, should be devastating, but St. Leon and company don't quite get the job done. Overall, there's a general gloss to each play -- funny, serious, silly -- but the company hasn't found many grace notes and emotional counterpoints.

Some of this is to be expected. McKeever is prolific, but he hasn't yet hit his stride as a writer. He is capable at many tasks but singular, so far, at none. He's also hampered somewhat by a somewhat vague public perception of what it is that he does, really, and this might lead some to underestimate him. Another drawback is McKeever's "local" branding, local as in: He's not really first-rate, because he lives here. Were McKeever's work given the respect afforded to, say, Neil LaBute or Nicky Silver, we might start seeing some productions of his plays that offered some edge and bite. My advice: First, I suspect McKeever would prosper working over time with just one director who could prod, nudge, and provoke him to the next level of development. Second, McKeever's plays could use sexier, edgier titles. Apron Strings? Velveteen Undertow? A Town Like Irving? I don't think so. Third, McKeever needs to get outta town for a while. I suspect he'll get more respect -- and his plays will be delivered with more punch -- when he's fresh back from Seattle, Denver, New York, and London.

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Ronald Mangravite