Cherry Docs - Acropolis Stage Company

Cherry Docs - Acropolis Stage Company

Pictured: Eliott Purcell and David Anderson

Pictured: Eliott Purcell and David Anderson

Cherry Docs – Acropolis Stage Company

Review by James Wilkinson 

Cherry Docs is presented by Acropolis Stage Company. Written by David Gow. Directed by Evan Turissini. Scenic Design by Eliott Purcell and Evan Turissini. Costume Design by Olivia Dumaine. Lighting/Sound Design by Jeff Bousquet. Props Design by David Anderson. Law Practice Consultation by Will Korman. Judaism and Culture Consultation by Becky Price.

When we first see Mike Downey, he sits like the Buddha, cross-legged, on a metal table. He appears, bathed in blue light and in his first few lines he’ll refer to Reflexology, the belief that the foot is an entry point that connects to the rest of the body. It’s an image of tranquility, but not a lasting one. We’ll soon be exposed to the reserves of rage and hate bubbling somewhere beneath that calm surface. Mike, you see, is an unabashed white supremacist currently awaiting trial for the murder of a Pakistani man. The character is one half of playwright David Gow’s two-hander, Cherry Docs, now being presented by the newly-formed Acropolis Stage Company. The other half is Danny Dunkelman, the Jewish lawyer who has been charged with defending Mike in court.

On the surface of it, the premise, (Jewish lawyer defends skinhead), sounds like the kind of contrived plot a hack writer comes up with to create high-stakes drama. You could certainly imagine the version of this story that builds to its own “You can’t handle the truth!” courtroom moment somewhere in the third act. Don’t get me wrong, Cherry Docs has its moments of yelling and high conflict, but what opens initially presents itself as a legal drama soon morphs into something much more personal and human. The premise is just the bait. What the play is actually concerned with is the idea of redemption for its characters. Gow’s play doesn’t avoid all of the potential writerly pitfalls and at times its metaphors are a bit too neatly wrapped for my taste, but what makes it worth engaging with is the creative team at Acropolis Stage Company. Together they manage to meet the challenges of the piece to produce a really solid piece of work that’s honestly and thoughtfully put together.

I may have issues with some of the mechanics of the story (more on that in a sec), but I also have to admit that it’s the initial curveballs of the plot that hooks us. In their first scene together, Danny (David Anderson) immediately expresses his distaste for Mike (Elliot Purcell) and for everything that he believes in. There’s no pretense of Danny being the archetypal idealist lawyer, a neutral party who believes that everyone accused of a crime deserves his day in court. And while we might go into the play wondering if there’ll be some question of Mike’s innocence, that possibly is dispensed when he comes out and cops to the crime. So what are we doing here? As it turns out, Mike wants to have his crime separated from his identity as a skinhead, to be judged on what he did, not who he is. It’s a tall order, but Danny agree to try and keep Mike from receiving a life sentence provided that Mike can come up with a legal defense for his actions.

Watching Purcell and Anderson interacting with each other is a fascinating study in contrasts. The two bring such different energies to their performances and director Evan Turissini keeps them bouncing off of each other. (The fact that the checkered pattern on the floor at the Rockwell makes the stage look like a chess board is probably a coincidence, but still a nice touch.) Purcell finds a steady center to his character that holds your attention when you’re watching him. It’s not just that his character holds hateful views, it’s that he’s so clearly confident in the correctness of those views. It’s unsettling. You believe that this is a man (a child, really), that has used his ideology to build walls around the most human part of himself. Late in the play, when those walls begin to crack and the ideology collapses, Purcell lets us in on every shattering moment. Anderson, meanwhile, digs into a more frantic, emotional energy. It’s appropriate since he spends much of the play furious with Mike, but he does get the chance to calm down and bring some touching emotion to a monologue about his father’s prayer shawl.

However, despite the best efforts of Anderson, I left the performance not entirely convinced that the Danny character as conceived by Gow really works. We’re never really given clear insight into why it is that Danny keeps coming back to work with Mike when he so clearly hates him. Eventually you just want to know what keeps bringing him back to the room. Is it the liberal humanist philosophy that Mike accuses him of having? Is he just using the case to get ahead in his job? Is it guilt because he recognizes some aspect of Mike’s hateful ideology in himself? Is it that he sees Mike as the son he never had? Does he just believe so fully in the potential for redemption? At different points, the script seems to hint at all of these possibilities but never lands on an answer. What’s fascinating about the character, though, is the way that he becomes a kind of audience surrogate. Most audience members that attend Cherry Docs will not subscribe to Mike’s hateful ideology (at least, dear God, I hope so). That means when the lights come up, Danny’s in the same position as us, angry about Mike’s existence and unwilling to budge an inch. But while many of us may “give up” on the Mikes of the world, Danny pushes through, eventually leading Mike up the path to something approaching grace.

These qualms, though, don’t stop Acropolis Stage’s production from being an engaging one. You want to believe in its portrait of redemption, in its idea that the ideology of white supremacy can be broken down. Can it? (dear God, I hope so). It’s a good first showing by this young theater company, one that establishes Acropolis Stage as a company willing to directly engage with the contemporary world. It makes you eager to see what’s next.

Cherry Docs is presented by Acropolis Stage Company  at The Rockwell in Somerville, August 23-September 1, 2019

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