Honor Song

By - Feb 5th, 2007 02:52 pm
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Milwaukee’s theatre season has been host to a higher than normal concentration of single-person shows, and some rather lofty figures have been conjured to the stage this season including Charles Dickens (James Ridge in Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s Dickens In America) and Harry S. Truman (Don Devona in Boulevard Theatre’s Give ‘em Hell Harry). Single-person autobiographical monologues can be really tricky to pull off, requiring the right actor matched up with the right historical figure animated by the right script in the right space. It’s a tall order.

If it works, there’s an alchemy between actors, stage an audience that is among the most primal theatre experiences imaginable. If it doesn’t, it’s an audience trapped in a room with a single actor for a period of time no watch could accurately quantify. Thankfully, In Tandem Theatre has found a satisfying combination of the right elements with its production of Honor Song: The Dr. Rosa Minoka-Hill Story.

In the cozy basement of the historic Brumder Mansion, Laurie Birmingham stars as Wisconsin’s first female Native American doctor. Only the second Native American ever to receive a medical degree, Dr. Rosa Minoka-Hill spent much of her time with the Oneida in northern Wisconsin in the first half of the 20th century. Birmingham cleverly delivers the thoughts and feelings of Minoka-Hill as carefully written by local playwright Carol O. Smart, Minoka-Hills granddaughter, who used to spend summers with her.

The life of one of the country’s first female doctors has got to hold many more fascinating stories than could fill a single monologue. Smart’s composition here is well thought-out and well paced. The script has been evolving since it was first produced in 1993 in collaboration with Carroll College, and when Minoka-Hill speaks through Birmingham, one gets a sense of that journey peering out between Smart’s words. There are only a few dry stretches in the story, which covers the events of Minoka-Hill’s life played out steadily with no intermission.

The historic Brumder mansion’s basement is an excellent space for this production. One has a sense of walking into history when entering a place contemporary to the real Minoka-Hill. The modest set amidst much grander trappings from the same era is a bit disorienting at first, but once Birmingham takes the stage the illusion begins to settle in. The audience loses itself in the story of the many difficulties of being a doctor for the poor and the impoverished in the rural Midwest from the perspective of a very, very compassionate woman. It’s a thoroughly engrossing, compellingly concise single-person drama. Actor and character mesh, with Birmingham dedicating more than enough of herself to the role to capture the audience’s attention for the entire length of the monologue. VS

In Tandem Theatre’s production of Honor Song: The Dr. Rosa Minoka-Hill Story runs now through February 11 at the Brumder Mansion. Tickets can be purchased by calling In Tandem at 414-444-2316. Form more information, visit In Tandem Theatre online at www.intandemtheatre.com.

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