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THEATER REVIEW The Last Pair of Earlies
by Mary Shen Barnidge
2021-11-10

This article shared 1152 times since Wed Nov 10, 2021
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Title: The Last Pair of Earlies. Playwright: Joshua Allen

At: Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark St. Tickets: $40; RavenTheatre.com . Runs through: Dec. 12

Is there any story beginning more romantic than lovers fleeing hostile authority figures? The fugitives, in this case, are Wayland Early—a shoemaker blessed with talent, ambition and a trade ensuring a means of livelihood—and his loyal wife, Della Rose, already pregnant with their first child. Following their hasty departure from rural Mississippi in 1921, precipitated by racist vigilantes incensed at Wayland's proposal to start his own business, the runaways ride the boxcars (burying their stillborn child by a Tennessee roadside en route) to arrive in Chicago, where they live—what?—happily ever after?

The secret reason that romantic stories so often end once dragons have been slain, villains foiled and parents placated is that the rewards of faraway kingdoms where Dreams Come True—whether they're Mantua, Moscow or Hollywood—are often insufficient to defeat the day-to-day boredom and loneliness of forging a new life in an alien culture. By 1939, Wayland and Della have achieved modest prosperity in the city's South Side—dwelling in a rented room, furnished with a Murphy bed and a bathroom down the hall—but Wayland must peddle his handmade shoes door to door while Della ekes out a cottage-industry income baking cakes.

Among their neighbors are handyman Jimmy and waitress Myrna, neither of whom looks farther ahead than the moment, squandering their paychecks on lottery tickets and jazz joints. Despite Wayland and Della's efforts to keep the faith, the long separations necessitated by the former's search for customers cannot help but exacerbate the latter's longing for her childhood home.

This is not the scenario that audiences schooled in love-conquers-all fancies want to hear, but Joshua Allen's bittersweet fable of dreams deferred through erosive attrition, rather than overt opposition, is more inclined to find its counterparts in historical fact, and while his text, in its present incarnation, sometimes overexplains itself in its microcosmic echoes of American Realistic authors such as Arthur Miller, Eugene O'Neill and August Wilson, there is no denying the importance of acknowledging, in 2021, the insights into the Great Migration provided thereby.

Raven Theatre's premiere performance still harbored traces of the restrictive development inflicted by the recent shutdown, but under Wardell Julius Clark's direction, the six-member ensemble—Shadana Patterson and Marcus D. Moore as the grown Della and Wayland, Demetra Dee and Jonny Morrison as their youthful avatars, and Tarina Bradshaw and Keith Illidge as their roads-not-taken counselors—proudly acquit themselves in fulfilling the demands of a script considerably heftier than the current crop of post-pandemic one-acts.


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