Human Race lives up to its name

By Jacqui Theobald

Maria Callas, a vaunted opera singer of the mid-20th century, had a life filled with turmoil and challenge. Terrence McNally, a prolific playwright, opera and musical theater lover, never created a play exactly like this one—part biographical, using recorded performances, and part introspective, imagined reflections. Each met the challenge and coped with it.

The Human Race has never had to accommodate the needs of an actress coping with certain effects of an illness, but they do so in a way that gives real meaning to one definition of humanity: demonstrating kind feelings and sympathies.

Mierka Girten, who plays Callas in Master Class, has been very open about having MS, a central nervous system condition, and how she continues to be competitive and to use her talents. That she can perform this demanding role and that the HRTC has been empathic and supportive of her needs is a remarkable story.

Even the plot line, conservatory students face famous star, hopeful yet terrified, is remarkable. Will she listen and critique them helpfully? How each reacts to this egocentric, needy person is an example of survival.

MS is an unpredictable illness, sometimes nearly invisible, sometimes presenting difficult symptoms: feeling too hot or too cold, constant thirst, sudden overwhelming fatigue. Worst of all is the effect of brain lesions that can wipe out a previously well memorized line or a whole scene, without warning.

Producing Artistic Director Kevin Moore and Director Scott Stoney have made some adjustments to support Girten’s needs. Their strategies include reference cards, binder pages and a music stand that holds part of the script. Stoney’s direction provides her with some leeway and flexibility, such as being able to cross the stage for a drink of water as needed.

Three young actors, all enormously talented, are her foils. Jeremy Carlisle Parker plays Sophie. She spends most of the first act trying to please the demanding Callas, or at least be heard. She gets to sing only a brief bit of aria, sadly. We want more. But her characterization, expressed at times only with fleeting facial reactions, is top notch and ranges from terrified to angry.

Blake Friedman as Anthony tries pleasantries, is mocked by Callas, exhibits some self-confidence and determination and continues to sing. She listens without comment to his fine tenor. The prima diva has already made it clear she doesn’t like tenors.

He shares the second act with Cassi Mikat as Sharon, who has to dash off stage, feeling sick from Callas’ emotional battering. When she returns, she gets to showcase her powerful voice. There is an arc to Sharon’s development as she finds her own confidence after perceiving the sad frustrations of Callas’ need to live her life on stage. Sharon gets the last line, rejecting with conviction all the fading star’s choices.

Director Stoney asks a lot of his young singers: During certain flashbacks, triggered by the real Callas aria recordings, the student must stand motionless in semidarkness.

Stoney has his own stage moment as a nearly silent stagehand, making several brief appearances, complete with bemused expression.

There may lurk in Sean Michael Flowers, musical director, a secret desire to explore more acting opportunities. He’s always on stage, seated at the concert Steinway as Emmanuel Weinstock, accompanist. He makes the most of his dialogue, creating a very kind character that reacts to others emotional needs with body language and a mobile face. Finally, he gets to play, beautifully.

In a pre-opening conversation, Girten talked about an early, little-known Tennessee Williams play called The Mutilated.  “In some way, all of us are damaged or changed,” she says. Her own experiences have given her insights into the self-sabotage and depression of Callas and relate to the singer’s need to always have control.

“I understand how devastating it was for her to know her voice was gone,” Girten says. “McNally has given us the essence of her story, not a chronology.”

She is at her best when projecting Callas’ own emotional issues on the students, ripping into them with passion.

Technical Director Scott J. Kimmins and Head Carpenter/Charge Artist Eric Moore have created a large academic practice studio, stage wide. Using color blocking, they indicate sound proofing. The colors continue along the exit walls, where new slammable doors have been added and are used effectively.

Large projections of opera house La Scala and Aristotle Onassis are full sized. He emotionally assaulted Callas, used her and then rejected her for Jackie Kennedy. They become part of the ambiance of Callas’ several emotional reveries.

Hyun Sook Kim designed the costumes, each a significant part of the plot. “Dress appropriately,” Callas snarls at the students when she sees they are not. “You have to have a LOOK,” she insists, calling out a random audience member.

As always, the technical staff’s work is superb and professional. Jay Brunner designed the sound, John Rensel, the lights; and Kristin A. Sutter managed the stage.

A character as brittle yet needy as Maria Callas, as McNally described, does not always elicit positive responses. The real person portraying her, whose own persona is warm and open, has achieved a tour de force. “You have to have mut,” she tells Anthony, not translating. It means courage, an essential part of our humanity.

For tickets or more information on Master Class, please call 937.228.3630 or visit ticketcenterstage.com.

Reach DCP theatre critic Jacqui Theobald at JacquiTheobald@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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Reach DCP theatre critic Jacqui Theobald at JacquiTheobald@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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