Time is the most valuable gift we can give to one another. Whether out of love, duty, or respect, to take the time to go out of one’s way in service of another should be cherished above all us, because when it’s all said and done time is all we have. But it’s not just a matter of being there for someone that gives time substance. No effort is given merely being in someone’s presence; it’s about listening. Caring. To hear what one has to say with attentive respect so that their thoughts and words live on through you, that’s how time is valuable. An academic mentor of mine once told me that without taking influence from one another there would be no art. The same is true of time. Without taking the effort to listen to one another there’s nothing to pass on. Stories and knowledge would simply fade away serving no purpose. It’s not always easy; listening to some people presents a challenge for a range of reasons. Still, shouldn’t it be within the effort of the listener that the value is found?
Terminus by Gabriel Jason Dean follows Eller Freeman, an older Georgian woman with a deteriorating mind in the process of losing her home through eminent domain while being haunted by the ghosts of past trauma, and her sole surviving descendant Jaybo Freeman, her 17-year-old grandson struggling to provide for Eller while coming to terms with being mixed-race in America and what it means to be a man. As stated in the program, “Terminus is the second of a projected seven play collection called The Attapulgus Elegies… the collection chronicles the disappearance of a small town in Appalachia.”
As a world premiere production, Terminus was expertly crafted. Every character had a unique voice, imagery and visual motifs created superb yet subtle foreshadowing, and no one was made out to be outright villainous. What we are given is a portrait of desperate individuals who do what they can to look out for their own, even if that’s not what they want. As the title suggest, these characters are nearing an endpoint at which they’ll need to make some heavy decisions. I dare not spoil any more of the plot for you, but, suffice it to say, Dean’s script left me excited for the continuation of The Attapulgus Elegies.
That being said, the true stars of the production are (appropriately enough) the lead actors: Jennifer Underwood as Eller Freeman and Jacque Colimon as Jaybo Freeman. Where do I even start with these performances? ‘Marvelous’ comes to mind, as does ‘outstanding,’ but that doesn’t do them justice. One at a time then.
From the first scene Underwood, as the mentally diminishing Eller, proves her multiple B. Iden Payne Awards as she swings from scared to certain to confused to hopeful to grateful to surprised and so on with astounding ease. Eller’s mood is always on the move, and Underwood never drops a beat. Her erratic behavior creates a sense of true awe when she speaks clearly and throws genuine terror upon you as she becomes livid. Habitually plagued by the spirits of her past (performed by Cara Canary, Matrex Kilgore, Jennifer Coy, and Errich Peterson), Underwood is often tasked with dividing her attention between the actions of the physical world (i.e. having a conversation with Colimon) and the repeating memories of her youth (i.e. reliving past traumas). It’s at these moments that Underwood’s talents shine, as do those of director Rudy Ramirez and playwright Dean. Scenes overlap in such a manner that the audience has no choice but to follow two concurrent events, yet not once did Underwood or the rest of the cast lose clarity. However, what was truly incredible was the grace with which Underwood’s face could lighten with ease and twist with desperation. The scene that struck me the most, in this regard, was a brief moment in which Eller expressed desire to go home to which another character had to calmly inform her that she was home. I’ve seen that very scenario play out within my family; the similarities between that scenario and Underwood’s performance were uncanny enough to make me shiver. But don’t think that Underwood’s performance is nothing but gloom and misery. On the contrary, the frenzied manner in which she switched from delighted to irate at a moment’s notice (not to mention the bluntness with which Eller often spoke) kept the audience laughing at all the right beats. As I observed in my recent viewing of The Boys Next Door, there’s an elegance required in writing and performing mentally troubled characters that can generate laughs through their condition without mocking them. As you probably expected, Underwood and Dean took to that task remarkably, permitting us to laugh at Eller’s quirks while allowing the tragedy of her predicament rise to the surface when needed. What else can I say? Underwood’s warm yet chilling performance is absolutely impeccable.
Where Underwood has to balance on the lines of confusion vs. clarity and past vs. present, Colimon is continually grappling with the late-teenage double-consciousness of youth vs. manhood as well as the internal dichotomy of being part black and part white and what members of each race expect of him. Though boyish in appearance, Colimon, as 17-year-old Jaybo, comes across as the weariest and most mature character in the show. He always looks after Eller with a languid sense of duty and fatigue that should be reserved for adults many years his senior. He reiterates his daily cycles with Eller with an almost mechanical familiarity to each conversation. Though every other character knows some things about life more than he does (which they don’t hesitate to use against him), Colimon remains stalwart in defense of his grandmother and their home. Of course, like Eller, Jaybo isn’t continually serious and melancholy throughout the show. Colimon elicits his fair share of laughs both as the drained provider to his household as well as the rare moments in which his youth slips through in his attempts to be smooth. Together, Colimon and Underwood create a brilliant dynamic. Beneath their respective frustrations with one another it is clear that there is genuine love, only wanting what’s best for one another. Their mutual desperation is as touching as it is heartbreaking. They’re wonderful performances, and I eagerly await seeing them onstage again soon.
Don’t think that Underwood and Colimon steal the entire show; the rest of the cast also give top notch performances. Most notably, Hayley Armstrong, as Atlanta-bound runaway Finch, offers some much needed nerve and levity to the production. Her sly and snarky attitude towards Colimon, as well as her enthusiastic open-ear towards Underwood’s tales, mix-up the generally genial manner in which the Freeman’s speak with one another. Otherwise, Armstrong carries herself with the utmost confidence in her actions and knowledge that supersedes her character’s youth. Furthermore, as arguably the largest questioner of Jaybo’s racial identity, Armstrong is given plenty of opportunities to simultaneously act well-meaning and painfully persistent in her inquires of Jaybo and who he wants to be. Following Armstrong in the supporting cast is Samuel Grimes as the churlish Bones Boyd. The strength in Grimes’ performance comes from the indecision one feels towards him. From his entrance, in which he’s trying to get the Freeman’s to sell their home while they can before eminent domain takes it from them, Grimes comes off as brusque, rude, and possibly harboring racist tendencies, yet his later appearances suggest that beneath his easy-going vulgarity is a man who, like every other character in the production, honestly wants to look out for those he cares about in the only way he knows how, even if it hurts them. It is debatable how admirable Boyd’s intentions are, but I struggle to believe a script as well-written as Dean’s would contain a stock-standard, greedy villain who only cares about money. It’s open to consideration, and I appreciate that both on Grimes and Dean’s part. The second half of the cast consists of the aforementioned spirits that plague Eller. They rarely have time to act individually, but worked beautifully as an ensemble with an honorable mention to Matrex Kilgore (Blondie/Henry) who made each line delivered count.
As for the technical aspects of the show, Ann Marie Gordon’s set, depicting the dilapidated Freeman home, is a beautiful construction both on its own right and as a representation of Eller’s mind. The home, once undoubtedly intact, is skeletal in its appearance, exposed frames shown between the tattered, sinewy wallpaper barely holds it together. Deteriorated holes in the wall act as doorways for living and dead characters alike. What meager decorations and furnishings are offered are solely for practical use or nostalgic value. Moving on, Patrick Anthony and David DeMaris’ (Light and Sound Designers respectively) effects on the set greatly add to the haunting tone of the production. Most notably, any ‘train’ scene (you’ll know what I mean when you see it) within the production paired the slow and steady crescendos of light and sound to such a seemingly subtle degree that I was unsure at first if the changes I saw were actually happening until it was obvious, at which point my senses were overwhelmed by the cacophony of lights, sounds, and emotions.
Let it be said that I am not an individual who is easily shaken by art, live or otherwise. To do so it takes something tremendous. That being said, I hope it carries some weight that by the finale of Terminus I was not merely shaken; my jaw had literally dropped. I found myself unable to take notes as my eyes remained transfixed on the spectacle I was witnessing, awaiting the curtain call so that I may breathe deep once more. Terminus is a phenomenal production, and I don’t use that word lightly. It’s a beautifully written, powerfully acted, and expertly produced piece of theatre that I could not recommend more. I can only pray that Dean allows Ramirez and the rest of the Vortex crew to continue his anthology in the near future. Go see it. That’s a demand, not a suggestion.
Terminus continues playing at the Vortex Repertory Company every Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday at 8pm until February 6th with a special ASL-interpreted performance on January 23rd.