When you know that the star of a one-man show is artistic director of the company putting it on – and he's being directed by his wife, who runs that company alongside him – nasty words such as “self-indulgence” and “nepotism” swirl inevitably around the brain.
Well, let them swirl awhile. They'll be chased out of any open mind by the witty, well-executed phrases of playwright Lee Blessing, once you see “Chesapeake” at Duke Energy Theatre.
Asheville-based N.C. Stage Company hasn't mounted a vanity production. Charles McIver is a fluent, agreeable narrator through two 45-minute monologues, first as a performance artist known only as Kerr and then as a performer of a different sort who's more of a cur.
His wife, Angie Flynn-McIver, has shaped his performance carefully and/or found an unobtrusive staging that lets Blessing's words shine or sting as they should. (I have no idea, for instance, who thought up the laugh-out-loud joke about his drinking from a glass of water. Might even have been the playwright.)
The show takes place on a stage bare except for that water glass, which provides respite for McIver's voice and occasionally acts as a prop, and two wooden boxes on which he sits. A video screen hangs behind him, sometimes remaining undistractingly blank and sometimes reinforcing his words with pertinent images. (See the photo at right.)
In act 1, Kerr describes a boyhood spent as a lonely, closeted bisexual in an unnamed Southern state, which begins to sound like North Carolina after he describes its homophobic U.S. senator. (Just FYI: Blessing, who's married, grew up in Minnesota.)
Sen. Therm Pooley rides into office by attacking homosexuals and the National Endowment of the Arts. His favorite whipping boy is Kerr, who used NEA grant money to mount an act in which he read from the Old Testament – the sexiest parts of “The Song of Solomon,” of course – while audience members removed his clothes, one piece per verse.
Kerr decides to get revenge by stealing Lucky, the Chesapeake Bay retriever who accompanies Pooley everywhere and serves as an adorable canine photo op. The dognapping goes wrong, and after a series of events both amusing and slightly horrific, Kerr dies and is reincarnated as another retriever Pooley adopts. Kerr has just enough human left in him to try to change the senator's mind about life.
Blessing explores many an idea in these two rambling but ear-catching monologues, from the spiritual value of art to a dog's changing concept of loyalty. (My favorite saying about retrievers, not from this playwright: “You can order a Labrador or ask a Golden; but you must negotiate with a Chesapeake.”)
We think we know where Blessing stands from the outset: Pooley's the bad guy, Kerr the good one. He's the narrator, right? Iago aside, aren't we generally supposed to side with a guy who addresses us confidentially?
Yet that's too simple. Blessing suggests Kerr may be something of a poseur, with his silly insistence that no sensible person could find his biblical striptease salacious. And Pooley may have room in his soul for a reconsideration of ideas, perhaps even a minor conversion. (The play came out in 1999. If Pooley is based on Jesse Helms, who had softened his tone on both homosexuality and the NEA by then, art may be imitating life.)
Blessing fires off enough clever similes – “his mouth opened like the drawbridge of a surrendering medieval town” – and one-liners to amuse himself and us. But he saves his real sentiments for the few serious, even emotional moments.
McIver is easygoing, even matter-of-fact, in most of his confessions. So his quietness at crucial moments catches us by surprise and draws us in. As Kerr's doggy instincts begin to dominate his dwindling human side, the narrator realizes he doesn't fear this change: It will open his mind to a new set of possibilities worth considering. The play does the same thing for us.