A First Step

Winding Road shows tremendous courage as it mounts a production of a brand-new play

One of the first productions of Tucson's new theater season is a world premiere. How impressive is that? The Winding Road Theater Ensemble has opened its second season with Armor, an original piece by local playwright Toni Press-Coffman.

It's a risky business to produce new plays—but most theater in Tucson is not all about business. Rather, it's an opportunity for local talent to showcase their work as they set about the difficult task of discovering and melding together all of the ingredients necessary to create theater which excites, stirs, entertains and moves us. In this context, it's not always easy to define the success or failure of a theater's efforts.

Prolific playwright Press-Coffman has been successful in developing a play which was named this year's winner of the Arizona Theatre Company's playwriting contest. She has successfully found a venue to produce her play, giving her the opportunity to see how it translates from the page to the stage. And Winding Road has shown courage in its young life by assuming the risks of a new play.

But Press-Coffman's play is greatly flawed. It lacks a clear and effective dramatic through-line. Its main characters are hard to relate to, and some of its minor characters don't have a clear purpose for their existence at all. And conflict, which is what drives characters and their stories, is so emotionally ill-defined that the play meanders rather than marches purposefully to an effective conclusion.

Press-Coffman's premise certainly seems promising. Eugene Kastakis (Glen Coffman), a polymer scientist, has moved his family from California to Washington, D.C., where he is on the staff of the House Armed Services Committee. He is obsessed with developing a special armor to retrofit tanks in Iraq, because tanks built with sufficient armor cannot be produced quickly enough. His obsession also allows him to avoid questioning himself about his awkward involvement with a war he had not supported when it was initiated, and which has continued to present troubling ethical issues. His wife, Alice (Lesley Abrams), teaches piano. Young son Peter (whose offstage voice is supplied by Alexander Hupp) is in the hospital, having broken both legs when he was hit by a car. And bright and lovely daughter Cynthia (Lucille Petty) is a high school senior weighing her choices of career paths. An accomplished cellist, should she choose life as a musician, or will she apply her smarts to a life of science, applying her skills to the honorable mission of bio-terrorism defense?

It's obvious that Press-Coffman has much on her mind as she stabs at a number of important issues: the corrupt marriage of business and politics which jeopardizes military personnel in harm's way; the point at which the integrity to make a stand gets pre-empted by an "it's not my job" attitude; youth trying to find a way in a complicated world.

But none of these issues credibly takes hold in the loosely defined story of the family we see onstage. The script is very cerebral and has a hard time finding a genuine emotional foothold. It's also full of technical details about the composition of equipment and body armor, which grows tedious. It feels like Press-Coffman primarily wants to make a statement about corruption, which is honorable enough, but she has conjured a dramatically weak story to illustrate her point. The characters often seem contrived rather than flesh and blood, and the story feels imposed on them rather than arising from them.

This is primarily Cynthia's story, as she grapples with not only her future, but her disappointment with her father's seeming lack of integrity. Petty is a high school student, and though far from untalented, she just doesn't have the experience and depth to locate and embrace her character's dilemma, which is really the closest thing there is to an engine which can drive the piece. She does an admirable job, but she doesn't fully connect emotionally with her character. How, then, can we?

Glen Coffman's Eugene is the vanilla version of vanilla. Distant, distracted and emotionally unengaged, Gene wins neither our sympathy nor our disdain. Abrams brings a much-needed sense of life and energy to her Alice, but the character is inadequately developed, making it hard to figure out exactly who she is. When she suddenly goes ballistic on her husband and threatens him with divorce and a retreat to California, it seems totally out of the blue. So is his derision that she is not a musician, but merely a piano teacher. An hour and a half or so into the piece, we welcome a moment of actual conflict, but based on what we've seen of these two during the evening, their behavior is completely implausible.

Some of the production's issues rest with director Eva Zorrilla Tessler. The script surely has its problems, but Tessler was unable to discover or manufacture the drive, suspense or energy to make this story come alive dramatically. Consequently, there is little sense of movement, of getting somewhere. We realize that the play is over only because the cast appears to take their bows. We have been led and deposited nowhere.

An ill-defined plot, characters we just don't connect with, and little sense of conflict ultimately renders Armor passionless. Maybe there is a "there" there, but it has yet to be discovered and effectively given life on stage.

Does this mean this venture is a failure? Absolutely not. It's always important to nurture new work, and Winding Road deserves credit for having the courage to bring us this original piece by a Tucson playwright. It might not be great theater—yet. But this production might be an important step in Armor finding greatness.

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