May 19 2010 12:00 AM

LCP courtroom drama guilty of being overlong and unevenly acted

"Uncommon Good," the Lansing Civic Players’ production of a play by local writer Oralya Garza, is a well-intentioned but uneven morality tale in the guise of a courtroom drama.

Martavius Nelson (Derek Ovenshire) is on trial for assaulting attorney Sean Ruby (Tim Cody), the executor of Nelson’s mother’s estate. The play asks
the audience to weigh illegal but justifiable actions against immoral yet legally acceptable practices.

The LCP continues to utilize its “Underground” space in ways that play to its strengths. The space is an intimate black box-style venue that makes it easy to create an immediate emotional connection between audience and actors.

By choosing plays that actively engage the audience as part of the action — like “Uncommon Good” and the bar room comedy “Opposites Attract” from earlier this season — LCP provides unique experiences in the local theatrical scene.

For “Uncommon,” the Underground has been transformed into a meticulously detailed courtroom, with part of the audience seated in the jury box and the rest in observer-style seats. An especially notable effect is the seemingly natural light coming through the blinds of the
windows behind the judge’s seat. It is so realistic that as the second
hour of the play passes, one may start to daydream about lying in the
sun on the courthouse lawn that seems to be just beyond these walls.

Which brings us to one of the play’s major weaknesses: the length. It clocks in at about two hours and 20 minutes, with a recess for lunch (a.k.a. intermission).

At least 20 minutes could be trimmed from the script by eliminating redundant histrionics and letting the audience draw its own conclusions. Not every courtroom drama needs to be an epic.

The second weakness is the setting. The play takes place in Georgia, which means the cast affects sometimes cartoonish Southern accents. Overall, the cast eschews the stereotypical slow drawl for a fast-clipped Southern cadence, which keeps the play from topping out at three hours. Unfortunately, some lines get lost in the combination of speed and accents. The play could just as easily take place in an economically depressed Midwestern town and forgo the need for heavy accents.

When protagonist Nelson fumes “sometimes it just gets to be too much,” he might be speaking of Kendall Perry’s performance of prosecutor Daniel Whitmore. Perry plays Whitmore as a preening, prissy attorney version of Foghorn Leghorn, whose greatest skill in the courtroom is exaggerated righteousness.

Sarah Hauck plays defense lawyer Kathryn Sheffield as equally righteous and passionate, sometimes bordering on hysterical. Hauck seems hampered by accents as well, moving from a Southern accent to an Ivy League one to something slightly British.

Antagonist Sean Ruby is the lawyer who has been bilking Mother Nelson’s small estate with excessive fees. Ruby is a sneaky snake who can legally justify his thieving. Cody’s performance, while charismatic, is more naturalistic than those of the other lawyers. He is a caricature, but he’s also what the audience expects him to be.

On the flipside, Ovenshire as Nelson and Tobin Bates as town drunk/idiot Joel Stevens play their characters straight. This makes the tone of the play somewhat uneven.

The audience is supposed to be morally conflicted about the verdict, yet Perry’s portrayal of Whitmore as an unsympathetic clown prosecuting sympathetic everyman Nelson all but assures the jury won’t be out for long.

’Uncommon Good’

Civic Players Underground 2300 E. Michigan Ave.8 p.m. Thursday, May 20,
Friday, May 21 and Saturday, May 22; 2 p.m. Sunday, May 23 $10 (517)