Last spring, Covid threw a monkey wrench into the carefully laid plans of theater companies across Atlanta and the world. Some of those companies improvised and offered streaming versions of their work; others pivoted and staged outdoor productions. Many, though, waited until they were able to host regular performances again — or at least what passes for regular these days.
After canceling its 2020 annual Play Festival, Essential Theatre has returned this season with its first live shows since summer 2019. Now in its 22nd season of producing new work by Georgia playwrights, the company has kicked off with Erin K. Considine’s world premiere play Raising the Dead. It’s now running at the West End Performing Arts Center through November 21 in repertory with Anthony Lamarr White’s Calming the Man (opening November 12) and High Risk, Baby (November 17-18), written and performed by Shelby Hofer.
Co-winner of the 2021 Essential Theatre Playwriting Award along with Calming the Man, Raising the Dead is a comedy-drama that feels a little underdeveloped but has two captivating, intriguing characters, both of whom are looking for some kind of escape. Harlowe (Ellen McQueen) and Myra (Laurie Beasley) are neighbors who have lived next door to each other in New Orleans for a decade. Myra works at home, and Harlowe largely has been stuck inside as well, so the two cross paths a lot. Both are also dealing with loneliness.
As the play opens, Harlowe barrels out of her home to announce that her husband has confessed to cheating on her — and she is now free to play around and do whatever she pleases. She has tied her husband up inside and boasts that she has written MANSLUT on him with lipstick.
The play takes place over the course of one warm night, with Harlowe realizing she has had enough of taking care of others, including her jailed daughter, and wanting Myra to pull a Thelma and Louise and run away with her. Myra has some reservations, however.
Raising the Dead, which clocks in at 85 minutes with no intermission, is directed by Essential Theatre’s founding artistic director Peter Hardy and McQueen. It has plenty of atmosphere, with Joshua Woods playing saxophone and music director Rodney Allen on piano during the performance and a realistic streetscape set design by Gabrielle Stephenson, with clothes strewn outside in yards and near trash cans.
The characters of Myra and Harlowe are distinctive. The two seem like polar opposites, types who’d never in a million years be friends unless they lived in close proximity. Harlowe is freewheeling and Myra is more repressed and afraid of the world around her, made even more so by recent protests and quarantines. Myra seems hesitant to speak, while Harlowe makes every thought she has public.
The production is a bit uneven, though. A veteran of several Essential Theatre shows, Beasley brings depth to her role as a woman who has missed out on much in life. The character of Myra seems to be fighting some inner demons, which Beasley beautifully conveys. While McQueen has strong comic timing and instincts, she overdoes her performance at times. Even though the character is supposed to be a force of nature, Harlowe doesn’t always seem real. McQueen’s best moments are the quiet ones she shares with Beasley, as they two women talk, listen to each other and profess their jealously of each other. Eventually, a secret comes out.
Considine is a prolific playwright whose Raising the Dead was a finalist this year for the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Playwrights Conference. Her play Riding Bicycles in the Rain also had its world premiere at Wyoming’s Relative Theatrics in September. Considine started off as an actress but turned to writing after a major illness. She calls this play a “love letter to the women who held my hand and kept me from slipping under the waves.” It’s full of complications, observations and tart dialogue, yet it feels like it could use a bit more detail on its characters, especially Myra.
Raising the Dead is one of the first theater productions I’ve seen in person since early 2020, and it’s certainly comforting to be able to attend in person and feel secure in doing so. Essential Theatre is requiring proof of vaccination upon entrance (or proof of a negative Covid test taken with the past 72 hours) and masks during performances.
Over the years, the company has featured more than three dozen new works by area playwrights, including former Atlantan Lauren Gunderson, named the most produced playwright in the country in 2017 and again in 2019. Avery Sharpe’s Woke, my favorite Atlanta play of 2018, is also a recent highlight. Because the company places such focus on Georgia playwrights, it’s easy to cut it some slack. Raising the Dead doesn’t gel the way it should, but it does seem like a play that’s a few tweaks away from making a deeper impression.
Jim Farmer covers theater and film for ArtsATL. A graduate of the University of Georgia, he has written about the arts for 30-plus years. Jim is the festival director of Out on Film, Atlanta’s LGBTQ film festival. He lives in Avondale Estates with his husband, Craig, and dog Douglas.