Thursday, May 3, 2012

THEATRE REVIEW: "Brownie Points" at Lambs Players

Minority Matters:

Its race relations around the campfire in Janece Schaffer’s intelligent and insightful “Brownie Points”

By Donnie Matsuda

In all honesty, I wasn’t looking forward to seeing the Southern California premiere of Brownie Points at Lambs Players, as I assumed the play would essentially boil down to a sappy, feel-good celebration of motherhood as five women from all walks of life gather together to gab about…well… the things that women gab about.  

In fact, I even started to roll my eyes during the first few minutes of the play as four of the five women burst onto the stage – a rustic and cozy North Georgia cabin interior designed by Michael McKeon and earthily backlit by Nathan Peirson – and began passing out yellow kerchiefs with each woman’s name embroidered on the back.  “How kitchy and unsophisticated is this female-centric, Midwest-minded gaggle of middle aged moms going to get?”  I wondered.  

(L-R) Kaja Amado Dunn, Cynthia Gerber, and Karson St. John in "Brownie Points."  Photo courtesy of Lambs Players Theatre.

Well, I didn’t have to wonder very long, as in a few minutes time the fifth mother – a strong-willed, pompous and imposing black surgeon named Deidre – stormed into the cabin and turned the entire warm and fuzzy camping trip into a wicked war of words concerning the sensitive subjects of race, religion, and regret.

This bitter battle begins when exasperated Deidre (a tour de force performance by Monique Gaffney) is several hours late to the girls camping trip, which doesn’t sit well with obsessive/compulsive “Type A” troop leader Allison (a tightly wound Karson St. John) who has the entire weekend’s festivities scheduled in perfect 15-minute increments.  Then, when it is revealed that Allison has put Deidre and Nicole - the only two black women on the trip - on kitchen duty for the entire weekend while the white women get off relatively scot-free, the entire topic of race relations gets blown wide open and it becomes quite clear that there’s no salvaging this kind of hurt with a simple band-aid and a motherly kiss.  

What follows is a somewhat forced series of scenes in which the women begin to open up to each other about their racial baggage (“For you to say you don’t see color negates everything I am” and “You think we start at neutral, but we don’t.  We start at white”), their overt prejudice (“the only thing worse than calling a liberal white woman a racist is calling her a pedophile.  A fat pedophile.”), and their incredibly heart-felt insecurities as they struggle to raise their little Girl Scouts the best possible way they know how.  And as these den mothers start to confront issues and tackle topics they never had voiced before, it becomes quite refreshing to watch them grow, empathize, react and commiserate in ways they (and I as a skeptical male theatre critic) never thought possible.      

Cynthia Gerber and Kaja Amado Dunn.  Photo courtesy of Lambs Players Theatre.

In time, we learn the real reasons why Deidre is late and why Allison is so anal-retentive (they are much more poignant than you think), and we also delve deeper into the hearts and souls of the other women in the quirky quintet.  While the fierce fighting between Deidre and Allison is the centerpiece of the show, there are three more “real housewives” thrown in to balance out the perspectives and the personalities of the drama-filled, reality-inspired cast.  As each carefully constructed scene unfolds, we learn a little more about who they are, what makes them tick, and how they fit into the racially and religiously diverse scheme of things.  There’s wealthy stay-at-home mom Nicole (a bright Kaja Amado Dunn) who brings a certain calm and sophisticated demeanor to the table, which is balanced out by the harried, people-pleasing antics of poor Jewish mother Jamie (a daffy Erika Beth Philips) as she unabashedly wears her heart on her sleeve.  And then there’s struggling single mom Sue (a winning Cynthia Gerber) who constantly grounds the piece with her sardonic wit and earthy sensibility as she tries to find the heart and humanity in every situation she’s in. 

Atlanta-based playwright Janece Shaffer deserves major brownie points for turning out a pseudo-comedic, but mostly smart and serious look at what contemporary American women think of race, religion, and above all, their roles as mothers just trying to do the best they can to provide for their families.  While Shaffer’s scenarios can seem a bit contrived at times and her 90-minute one act play sometimes suffers from an unnatural ebb and flow, it does provide an interesting platform from which to spark debate and discussion long after one has left the theatre.  And in Lamb’s Players top-notch production, director Deborah Gilmour Smyth does what she can to tone down the play’s rough patches and highlight the compelling stories of her uniformly spot-on cast, so that every quip, slight, and emotion comes across as naturally as possible.

(L-R): Kaja Amado Dunn, Cynthia Gerber, Monique Gaffney, Erika Beth Philips, and Karson St. John in "Brownie Points."  Photo courtesy of Lambs Players Theatre.

In the end, Brownie Points does not offer up any artificial, overly simplified, neat-and-tidy conclusion.  Instead, things remain as messy and complicated as real life itself (with a final gesture that suggests hope for their future friendships), as these five Midwestern mothers continue to understand their own emotional insecurities and unleash their perspectives about some very sensitive subjects.  But whether or not what they say hits some frayed nerves or pushes some buttons, their honest dialogue definitely provides some important food for thought and hopefully sparks some equally-honest discussions about color, creed, and compassion long after the last burnt marshmallow is devoured.

Things to know before you go: Brownie Points plays at Lambs Players Theatre through May 27th, 2012.  Running time is 90 minutes without an intermission.  Performances are Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7:30pm, Thursdays at 7:30pm and 8pm, Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 4pm and 8pm, and Sundays at 2pm.  For more information or to purchase tickets, call (619) 437-6000 or visit

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