Sherie Rene Scott’s new play at Second Stage Theater, about an actress teaching a class of murderers at a men’s prison, recalls in at least one unfortunate way her Second Stage show of half a dozen years ago, “Everyday Rapture,” which had a brief Broadway run. “Rapture,” which Scott co-wrote with Dick Scanlan and Michael Mayer directed, was a musical starring Scott inspired by Scott’s real-life journey from her Mennonite childhood in Kansas to her career as “one of Broadway’s biggest, brightest semi-stars.” “Whorl Inside a Loop,” also co-written by Dick Scanlan and directed by Michael Mayer, is a straight play inspired by Scott’s work with male inmates at Woodbourne Correctional Facility in upstate New York, via an organization called Rehabilitation Through the Arts. “Whorl Inside a Loop” showcases the impressive talents of a half-dozen other actors, who portray not just the inmates in orange jumpsuits but at least two (and as many as four) other characters apiece, white and black, male and female. Yet to a surprising and disconcerting degree, “Whorl,” like “Rapture,” revolves around Sherie Rene Scott.
Now, there is much that is admirable and even heart-warming about the play and the story behind the play. Five of the participants in Scott’s Woodbourne workshop are getting credit in “Whorl” for “additional material,” and their participation reportedly helped get most of them paroled.
Yet, the creative team more or less manages to turn the inmates into supporting players in what should be their story.
Scott portrays a character who is called only “The Volunteer.” She is not literally Scott herself, but she is a Broadway actress who shares much of Scott’s persona. The bulk of the 100-minute running time is taken up with this character – her interaction with prison personnel, her initial fear of her students (which is presented humorously), her conversations with her friends and co-workers in the theater and with her husband about her experience in the class, and one odd scene talking about prisons with a comically cautious Hillary Clinton, whom she meets through her hairdresser. (Chris Myers portrays Clinton, just one of his five stand-out portrayals, which include one of the inmates, the volunteer’s young son, and a nun.)
The volunteer is not presented as a saint; there is a revelation, hinted at early on, that she has a crime in her own past, for which she is teaching as part of her sentence of community service. But she is made the center, the character with the funny bits, the one with whom the audience is expected to identify. Even after we get down to business – the monologues the inmates create about their lives — the play’s focus soon shifts to the volunteer’s decision to write a play for an outside audience that incorporates the inmates’ stories, with some characters debating the ethics of doing this. One could most charitably call this meta noodling a fresh take on a prison drama; one of Scott and Scanlan’s aims, Scott explained in a recent interview, was to explore “prisons of all kinds that were happening around us—prisons of race, of sex, of sexuality, of marriages, of work, people’s own emotional prisons.” Even if that aim were more effectively realized in the finished play, turning other people’s difficult lives into a metaphorical lesson for your personal growth can, to put it uncharitably, smack of slick self-indulgence.
The approach strikes me as less than ideal, because the stories the inmates tell on the stripped-down stage deserve to be heard. They are moving precisely to the extent that they are unpolished. Rick (Nicholas Christopher) tells the story of seeing his friend attack a prison official because the official wouldn’t let him attend his mother’s funeral – and how this awful moment persuaded Rick to stop getting high. Jeffrey (Chris Myers) offers his monologue about his mother’s discovery that she was HIV positive. Bey (Donald Webber Jr., who also does an effective turn as the female warden) recalls how as a four-year-old in the South, a local sheriff handcuffed him, apparently as a joke. “Years later, this memory hits me. In my cell, trying to make sense of it. I’ve been in prison for 20 years. I shot a cop. Was it fate?” Many of the stories that the characters have shaped into monologues, as their assignment for the volunteer’s class, “Theatricalizing the Personal Narrative,” are not explicitly about criminal life or prison life, and that is a large part of their appeal, and the most memorable point of the play. That point is underscored by the play’s title. While taking her prints, a prison guard (Derrick Baskin), who seems to be something of a palm reader, notices that the volunteer has six whorls on her hands, which is unusual, and that one is almost inside a loop; if it were inside the loop, he says, that would have been a Peacock’s Eye. People who have a Peacock Eye, he says, are characterized as “loyal, loving, trustworthy, capable of extreme acts of kindness” – AND “also manipulative, amoral, narcissistic, sociopathic with criminal tendencies.” The volunteer insists she has a Peacock’s Eye, and that you can’t have both good and bad characteristics at the same time; “it’s either/or.” By the end of the play, she learns that you can.
What’s good about “Whorl Inside a Loop,” especially the acting, would make its self-indulgent aspects matter less, if the show weren’t entering a theatrical landscape already dotted with well-done prison dramas, most notable among them plays created and performed by ex-inmates. “The Bullpen”, a solo show by former inmate Joseph Assadourian portraying 18 characters, will complete a year-long Off-Broadway run Saturday at the Playroom Theater. Another play, “The Castle,” features four members of the Fortune Society, a service and advocacy organization for the formerly incarcerated, who tell their own life stories. That play ran Off-Broadway at New World Stages for about a year, and has been performed continuously in schools, prisons, and courthouses ever since. Even “Orange Is The New Black,” the Netflix series which began three seasons ago as an adaptation of the memoir by ex inmate Piper Kerman, has moved beyond the safe, supposedly crowd-pleasing choice to center its drama around a good-looking, upper middle class blonde.
Whorl Inside A Loop
At Second Stage Theater
Written by Dick Scanlan and Sherie Rene Scott
With additional material by Milton Jones, Andre Kelley, Marvin Lewis, Felix Macado, Richard Norat, and Jeffrey Rivera.
Directed by Michael Mayer and Dick Scanlan
Cast: Derrick Baskin (Sunnyside), Nicholas Christopher (Rick), Chris Myers (Jeffrey), Ryan Quinn (Source), Sherie Rene Scott, Daniel J. Watts (Flex), Donald Webber, Jr. (Bey)
Runtime: 100 minutes with no intermission
Tickets: $64 to $125