Peggy Sue Dunigan
Review

‘I Just Stopped to See the Man’ at Steimke Theater

By - Apr 22nd, 2009 03:21 pm
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blues
Whether an individual actually walks side by side with the Devil or only faces personal demons during his life, the human soul suffers — needing to sing “the blues”. In the Stiemke Theater’s final selection of the season, I Just Stopped By To See The Man, all three of its characters sidestep tragedy in order to gain greater self-understanding through songs played from the strings of a guitar named Angela.

Striking chords of a story that blends both American music history and broken humanity, renowned British playwright Stephen Jeffreys concentrates on myths surrounding ‘the devil’s music’, or the blues. The Rep invited director Regge Life with his prestigious credentials and experience to develop these character studies together with the Milwaukee Repertory Theater actors by debuting Eric Hellman (Karl) and Cedric Young (Jesse). Resident Rep acting company member Lanise Antoine Shelley (Della) complements the small cast that reveals the complexity of certain personalities and circumstances on the stage.

The premise of the play surrounds Jesse Davidson, an aging blues musician of legendary fame who faked his death in a devastating car accident to escape his former life. His only legitimate child, a daughter named Della, returns home after a long estrangement as a fugitive from her own mistakes at the age of 27 and the pair hide in seclusion. Then Karl, an English rock star on tour in Memphis, enters the quiet but sullen household searching for his musical blues hero and the inspiration to redeem himself from his own devils.

This compelling and soul searching play challenges the audience assertions on what one considers to be the devil’s activities, especially in music, and the choices made in life when one might claim “the devil made me do it.” Simultaneously, the script confronts racial prejudices and religious conformity viewed from several time periods. Hellman, Young and Shelley provide emotionally nuanced performances integrating all these elements that makes the audience care for each character, especially bluesman and rock star who form an unexpected connection. Hellman and Young sing evocative rhythms on the guitar including Churchyard Blues lyrics that cry: where my body’s broken/and my soul is damned to hell /The devil has me right down/under his spell.

Acted on a simple but beautifully constructed set with a skewed perspective, the stage lighting casts shadows through the slats of the humble home reinforcing the mindset that human lives are indeed shadowed by misfortune. Despite one’s belief in an actual ‘Devil’ or his ability to buy a person’s soul, the play celebrates through the power of a uniquely American music through the suffering of all humanity — but also the innate desire to survive deep pain by invoking compassion and understanding.

I Just Stopped By To See the Man throws insight on life’s everyday woes when the only relief as Jesse believes is “to sing those blues, when the heart’s too sick to pray.”

I Just Stopped By To See The Man until May 3. For information call: 414.224.9490 or milwaukeerep.com.

Categories: Theater

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