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Swank Gets Cranking 

While Flaming Guns blaze down the street

After months of anticipation, Oscar winner Hilary Swank finally stands before us taking on much of the heavy lifting in an enterprising Charlotte Repertory Theatre revival of The Miracle Worker. The new production of William Gibson's 1959 classic, reimagined under the direction of British hotshot Marianne Elliott, is here for tryouts through March 30, hurtling toward Broadway previews beginning on April 8.Unfortunately, last Wednesday's Press Night performance made it painfully clear: after lopping off a full week from her Charlotte run -- and calling timeouts for Oscar Night and the premiere of her newest film -- Swank may need to work a miracle of her own before she can successfully shoulder the full load of Annie Sullivan.

It's no party getting the measure of that intrepid teacher who tames Helen Keller and opens the deaf-blind girl's mind to the miracle of language. After five preview performances at Booth Playhouse, Swank's portrayal of Keller's visually-impaired mentor had grown less feisty through much of the moribund first act.

Part of the difficulty, no doubt, stems from the radical departures Elliott decrees. This is not the tough-love Annie Sullivan pioneered by Anne Bancroft. Swank is attempting to break through to a more youthful, inexperienced, rude, and undisciplined Annie Sullivan, one who is enriched by the encounter with Helen and the Kellers almost as much as Helen herself.

The physical grind appears as difficult for Swank as the headwork. By last Wednesday, the epic dining room battle between Annie and Helen, masterminded by fight choreographer by David Leong, was unfolding more naturally. But the upstairs brawl that precedes it -- saddling Sullivan with a galling defeat and kindling her disciplinarian crusade -- has been radically trimmed. That electricity is sorely needed.

Technical refinements are definitely in the works. After composing eerie music for Sullivan's flashbacks, Scott Myers has subtly tweaked his sound effects. Scenic designer Lez Brotherston has stripped the Booth stage down to its rear wall of cinderblocks. With Paul Gallo's lyrical lighting knifing through the air, Brotherston has built a magnificent, skeletal, three-story edifice to represent the Keller homestead. We get the full Gotham grandeur of the scenes that take place inside the home.

But I suspect that Charlotte is only seeing the rest in embryonic form. Those slick three-sided electric curtains aren't closing for Annie's arrival at the train station, and the scene change to the unused cottage occurs inexplicably -- and clumsily -- after intermission rather than during.

Most of the rough edges in Elliott's directing have vanished. But the famed water pump scene still needs to build more compellingly. Now that Elliott has erected an entirely new edifice without reference to the Arthur Penn film classic, she needs to pop a DVD into a player and get some pointers.

What Swank does best is convey the youth and vulnerability of the orphaned Annie. You never know when her Boston Irish accent might wander off to Brooklyn, and -- perhaps because she's so intent on avoiding Bancroft's cocksureness -- Swank tends to soft-pedal Annie's stubbornness and defiance. The quandary of getting through to Helen is fresh and authentic, but still underpowered before intermission. There's new urgency and intensity in Act 2 as time grows short and Sullivan begins bonding with her pupil. That's a significant improvement.

Ultimately, Gibson's script trumps Swank's tentativeness, sweeping the star up -- and us along with her -- when Helen finally discovers language. Until Swank catches fire, our headliner is upstaged by 10-year-old Skye McCole Bartusiak. Riding a normal learning curve through the remainder of the Charlotte run, Bartusiak could become an overnight sensation when her Helen arrives at Broadway's Music Box Theatre. The physicality of Helen's restless probing, her prideful resistance, and her moments of infantile joy are all convincing.

The rest of the cast had jelled nicely by Press Night. Southern drawls were securely in place, and pacing was at full throttle. While the father-son antagonism at the Kellers' is somewhat muted, Elliott gets a finer detailing of the family dynamic, largely because the age difference between Helen's father and mother -- the Captain's second wife -- is preserved.

As Helen's mom Kate, Mireille Enos delivers a sharply contoured performance, indulgent toward Helen, elegant and proper at dinner, and credibly flushed when frustrated. Stephen Markle was the most likable Keller patriarch I'd seen when he arrived in town, and now he's capturing more of the Captain's rigidity and insecurity. That's helping Jeffrey Carlson to be more forcefully sullen as James, Helen's elder stepbrother.

You pay your insurance premiums, budget for broken chairs, and maybe lose a tooth along the way when you stage The Miracle Worker. Although it sparked an unintended laugh at her first performance, it was good to see Swank yanking the dinner bell so hard it clanged to the floor. Working out the kinks is what tryouts and previews are all about -- part of what makes Charlotte Rep's new backstage role in American theatre so exciting. But make no mistake: this Miracle Worker needs work before it can conquer Broadway. And more of Swank's reckless, spontaneous energy.

While the minions of President Bush are busily rolling over Iraq and bombarding Baghdad with our high-tech six-shooters, there's an alternate take on the Code of the West at Spirit Square. The mysterious Jane Martin's Flaming Guns of the Purple Sage is the most lethally hilarious and incurably silly farce to hit Charlotte in years. This Actor's Theatre frolic, buoyantly directed by Dennis Delamar, would be purely irrelevant were it not for its merciless skewering of Americans' insatiable appetite for blood and guts.The scene is a small ranch on the outskirts of Casper, Wyoming, where Big 8 (nee Lurleen) runs a ministry of healing -- mostly sexual -- for broken down broncobusters on hiatus from the professional rodeo circuit. Big 8's latest ward is lanky Rob Bob, Silverado Cowboy of the Year. But young RB is wrested from aging B8's thrall with the unexpected arrival of Shedevil.

Truth to tell, the pink-haired nose-pierced She D is a bit wilder than the Wild West. Daughter of Frontload and Meritorious, Shedevil declares that she is on the run from a Ukrainian biker wielding a hatchet and that she's carrying the spawn of Lucifer -- who owes her 17 grand in drug money. As the wayward Luce's mom, Big 8 feels slightly beholden.

Never the shyest of actresses, Johanna Jowett endows the gothic Shedevil with enough squints, spasmodic twitches, and Tourette's syndrome yawps to populate a three-ring circus -- and an accent that ranges from Savannah to the San Fernando Valley. Yup, this gal has been around.

But amid this bizarre rogues' gallery, she's hardly the whole show. Pam Hunt-Spradley and Polly Adkins, as over-the-hill sisters Big 8 and Shirl, serve up a wonderfully warped rapport, seasoned with impeccable timing. As the kitchen fills with gore, Adkins' Shirl, a meatcutter by trade, brims with glee as she brandishes a bloody femur. "I'm switching to bourbon," Hunt deadpans as Big 8.

Theories that Jane Martin is the nom de plume of a male playwright get forcibly deflated by the thuggery -- and cluelessness -- of every man who appears. Nathaniel Gaw is lovably nave as Rob Bob, and Ralph Mangum is trouble personified in his motorcycle leathers as the beer-craving Ukrainian, Black Dog. Craig Spradley, as the Deputy Sheriff who eyes the crime scene, can best be described as a Yosemite Sam in serious need of Viagra. No wonder. He was wounded below the waist defending a bulk grocery.

All the strategically destructible elements of Chip Decker's set design work flawlessly. The huge chopping block that dominates the stage probably gets more of a workout than any piece of furniture in comedy history: butchery, speechmaking, and copulation all occur on the same surface -- plus an uproarious new use for Cheerios beyond your dreams.

Flaming Guns is hearty fun, right down to its closing "Hi-yo, Silver!"

Ordinarily, we don't pass judgment on college theatricals until the CL Theatre Awards for the College/Teen categories. But the current Davidson College production of Angels in America, Part One far surpasses the ordinary -- and you can still catch the second week of its run at beautiful new Duke Family Performance Hall.Joseph Gardner, who designed sets for Charlotte Rep's landmark 1996 production, has a totally new vision of Tony Kushner's "Gay Fantasia on National Themes," one that exploits the Duke stage's awesome height. And director Anne Marie Costa gets incredible, threshold-of-revelation performances from nearly all of her gifted cast.

The brisk-paced odyssey ran slightly over three hours on opening night without ever bogging down. Beth Gardner and Parker Dixon are exemplary as Kushner's tormented Mormons, Harper and Joe Pitt. The AIDS victims are often sensational. Alan Stevens brings a rapid-fire Dan Ackroyd glibness to arch-McCarthyite Roy Cohn, and Bill Neville is adorably swishy as that unlikeliest of prophets, Prior Walter.

Well worth the drive north to Exit 30.

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