Premier playwright Carlyle Brown’s tightly crafted Pure Confidence is a triumph at Mixed Blood Theatre, despite hit-and-miss direction by Marion McClinton and ham-handed acting by Gavin Lawrence.
|pure confidence, a play written by carlyle brown and directed by marion mcclinton. presented through february 1 at mixed blood theatre, 1501 s. 4th st., minneapolis. for tickets ($11-$30) and information, see mixedblood.com.|
Pure Confidence is the name of a racehorse that, in 1861, doesn’t seem to know how to lose. It’s also an understatement for the attitude of the slave jockey who sits atop the mare. Simon Cato is cocky as the day is long, and with good reason. Nobody, black or white, can do what he can with a mount, communicating with virtual telepathy to get the absolute best performance from the animal each and every time out. Along with that cockiness is a spirited determination to be free, even if he has to argue with, outwit, and otherwise get around his de facto owner, one Col. Wiley Johnson, in order to do it. His leverage is his ability with Johnson’s equally prized possession, the mare that’s making Johnson an awful lot of money. Brown, one of America’s most gifted authors, provides a clinic in economic dialogue that never bogs down in conversation and steadily fuels the play’s forward movement, drawn directly from the characters’ behavior. He makes it look very easy, applying a natural hand to an engaging, fact-based story.
McClinton’s sin is one of omission. McClinton paces the production beautifully and elicits effective performances all around. However, McClinton fails to insist on a creditable performance from Lawrence (Simon Cato), who has been at his profession so long that he should be considerably better at it—but somewhere along the line, he lapsed into run-of-the-mill turns (Salt Fish and Bakes, for which he also supplied a weak script, The House That Crack Built, Birth of the Boom) that belie his talent. You’d hardly believe he’s same actor who electrified the role of “Wolf” in Two Trains Running back in the early 90s at Penumbra. Here, in the humorous scenes he is over-animated almost to the point of being clownish. When he’s called on to convey Simon Cato’s indignation and anger at being kept under Col. Johnson’s thumb in order to make the man rich, it’s all one-note near-rage with no gradation. He’s either mugging with telegraphed sarcasm or blowing his stack. There’s nothing in the middle.
Lawrence momentarily finds his footing at the opening of Act 2, bitterly subdued as Cato languishes in the face of accumulated adversity. In short order, though, he’s back to scowling and raising his voice. On top of which, his Southern accent comes and goes. Subtlety is just no longer in his toolbox of skills. The supporting cast includes television/film/stage veteran Chris Mulkey, Karen Landry, Regina Marie Williams, Mark Sieve, and Casey Greig—who all turn in solid performances.
Dwight Hobbes is an actor based in the Twin Cities. He contributes regularly to the Daily Planet.