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Review of Evie's Waltz and Charlotte Symphony's Variations 

Bringing us to a West Coast hacienda for an early-evening barbecue, playwright Carter W. Lewis has a lot on his mind. His questions in Evie's Waltz swirl around the unseen Danny Matthews, a troubled teen expelled from his high school for firearms possession with additional problems looming in his near future. As we enter the larger CAST theater at 1118 Clement Ave., through the lobby and barroom and (optionally) even the restrooms redecorated to evoke a high school ambiance, the unseen Danny is facing the stage from a distance. His presence occasionally registers on the action as the projected gunsight of his rifle pans across the patio -- with ominous pauses as the crosshairs settle on the vulnerable human targets.

Danny's parents, Clay and Gloria, want to know why Danny is now a sniping outlaw who has sketched blueprints for mass murder at his high school. But instead of Danny, his girlfriend Evie, decked out militaristically like Demi Moore in G.I. Jane (plus a splash of blood on her neck), takes a seat at the patio table as Mom and Dad cook up the kabobs. As the drama unfolds, occasionally sprinkled with rifle-fire, numerous possibilities come to light.

Maybe Danny's delinquency is the outgrowth of Dad's complacency. Or maybe we should point to Mom, whose eagerness to be a great parent has gradually soured into self-reproach before leaping to outright hatred of her son. Or perhaps Evie's the one who caused Danny to snap. There is a faint suicidal streak in her rebel persona. Yet it was she who engineered the confiscation of Danny's gun, leading to their joint suspension. And he knows it.

Amid the husband-wife bickering and Evie's sinister taunts, we zoom out to tick off other causes that may have triggered Danny's rampage. Bullied and beaten at school? Check. Easily obtained his gun online? Check. Additional weaponry at a convenient household? You betcha. And has Danny been fortified against a mass culture that constantly screams violence on video games, TV, radio, and movies? Naw, even his happy-go-lucky dad has seen every Sigourney Weaver movie there is.

These questions aren't new and were asked onstage as recently as this past December when Columbinus was presented at Spirit Square. Of course, the very frequency of such investigations and anguished soul-searchings -- after Dallas, after L.A. and Memphis, after Oklahoma City, after Columbine, after Virginia Tech, after Fort Hood -- suggest that we already know the answers but haven't acted upon them.

It's pretty difficult to dislike Thom Tonetti as Clay, even if his likability has been domesticated and suburbanized since his stint as the scruffy lead in The Pavilion back in 2007. No problem at all disliking Kristy Morley, who brought a stone-faced anger to Gloria for the better part of the evening. The difficulty was hearing a large chunk of her non-screamed dialogue. Has somebody corrupted her with a film role since I saw her in Suburban Motel last year at Pineville Dinner Theatre? Heard her fine then.

If director Michael R. Simmons wasn't quite vigilant enough on Morley's projection, he was certainly artful and detailed in his blocking for Karina Roberts-Caporino. Her restless rambles across the Matthews patio are the picture of anxiety and volatility. True, there were extensive patches of dialogue with Morley that were too private to be overheard, but the overall work was stunning.

Unfortunately, given all the hot air that has been vented in my lifetime about the pathology of American violence, I didn't find any fresh illumination shining on the subject in Evie's Waltz. Nor did I find an easy path to caring about Evie or Danny. Lewis takes a calculated risk in keeping Danny offstage for the entire 74 minutes, and it doesn't work.

Of course, CAST handles the cinematic thriller aspect of this drama with their usual technical aplomb. Robert L. Simmons' set design is wonderfully handsome, right down to the functional outdoor grill, and the special effects by Jeff Weeks explode convincingly. While I'd mildly admonish lighting designer Chris Socha for not giving us a credible transition from afternoon to sundown, the projections of Danny's target scope are big enough -- and unsettling enough -- for the war room in Dr. Strangelove.

Now that was a classic. But not a game-changer. There don't seem to be any in America.

It was eternal optimist Ernie Banks who brightly said, after his hopeless Chicago Cubs rattled off a string of eight or 10 losses to start a season, "We're just backing up for a running start!" Perhaps that was what Christof Perick and the Charlotte Symphony had in mind at last Friday's Variations concert, the first of the departing maestro's three final concerts. Although the program included works by two of the go-to composers of the Perick Era, Mozart and Strauss, the performance was as much an example of what yet remains to be done as it was a summation of what maestro has accomplished.

The variations half of the program, though somewhat adventurous, proved hit-and-miss in performance. Many listeners find Brahms dull and dour, and Symphony's performance of his Variations on a Theme of Joseph Haydn wasn't a particularly compelling refutation of that misconception. Especially in the opening theme and variations, tempos dragged, there wasn't punch in the punctuation, and we didn't have the Haydnesque sense of power and grandeur held in check. Perick was right to observe pauses between variations, but well-timed pauses would have added to the overall cohesion of the piece. So it was only when the trumpet and timpani artillery roared in -- tempered by the wee triangle -- that full satisfaction was finally delivered.

Boris Blacher's Orchestra Variations on a Theme of Paganini were another matter, a very modern yet never raucous jam on Nicolo's familiar Caprice 24. Principal flutist Elizabeth Landon and prince clarinetist Eugene Kavadlo had the tastiest licks, verging on jazzy over pizzicato basses, and the violins squealed a high riff that echoed Rhapsody in Blue.

Perick's final forays into Mozart and Strauss were also surprisingly, er, variable. In the instance of Wolfgang's Piano Concerto #22, performed for the first time ever by the orchestra, the bulk of the blame goes to guest soloist Shai Wosner who inexplicably found no delight or drama in the opening Allegro and only a portion of the lyricism in the ensuing Andante. There was some Viennese lilt to the closing Allegro, but not the sparkle that we heard when Perick & Co. turned to Strauss's Rosenkavalier Waltzes after intermission. That 12-minute morsel, the second sequence culled from the opera, disappointed only in its length. More, please!

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