One of the actors in Have A Seat, Ensemble Theatre of Chattanooga’s current show, told me, “We started with five actors and an empty stage.” But the company started with something else as well—a desire to tell the stories of people on the streets, people that they (and we) pass by, sometimes give change or a dollar to—and then forget.
The stories that directors John Thomas Cecil and Christy Gallo, along with actors Renee Dempsey, Evie Durant, Jamie Goodnight, Robbye Lewis and Jonathan Nichols have created are both composites and specifics. It’s obvious the company wanted to depict “examples” of the kinds of people who are on the street—domestic-abuse victims, the mentally ill, the elderly without family, etc. But they have also crafted individual histories for each character that reach beyond the archetype, and therein lies one of the production’s strengths.
On entering ETC’s small, black-box-style space within the St. Andrews Center, audience members are confronted with actors already in character, wandering around the circular staging. “Take a chair,” they suggest, “put it anywhere you want.” Thus seating ends up scattered all over the center of the space, facing many directions. Attendees shift in their chairs to watch as the action changes place constantly. You cannot “settle in.” You cannot become comfortable—and this is intentional. The stories unfold in a series of vignettes.
Jinx (Evie Durant) is a young, obviously smart, but damaged woman who takes pride in the cardboard “picket fence” and fake flowers that decorate her house made of boxes. She’s friends with Leo (Jonathan Nichols), a gentle soul who drinks peppermint schnapps and can’t forget a fatal car accident that killed his wife. They are confronted by two newcomers, both also new to the street: brash Arthur (Jamie Goodnight), who claims he was kicked out of his family for revealing he was gay, and snobby Amy (Renee Dempsey), whose story is that she “had it all” but lost it due to her own laziness and sense of entitlement. Then there’s motherly Martha Jean (Robbye Lewis), who, after many years on the street has managed to get into an apartment, and makes it her mission to try and help the younger people.
Durant’s Jinx is funny and aware of what she’s doing to herself but still able to feel concern for other people. One of her strongest scenes is the one in which she resists Arthur’s repeated invitations to go and buy drugs. Durant hints at more of a story for this character than she actually tells, and that is very effective, ringing true.
Nichols’ Leo is clearly based on real people, possibly one real person, and his speech patterns and physical mannerisms create a real person, one we feel great compassion for. This kind man is lost, and there is not a good possibility that he will ever find his way back.
Goodnight is a strong actor, with a commanding physical presence, and his scene in which a high, angry Arthur returns to the camp ready to do damage to everyone there has a vivid edge of danger. Still, I felt a complete connection with his character was lacking. It was still a performance, not an inhabitation. If it’s his character that is performing for the crowd, we need to sense more of the person underneath.
Amy’s story is the least effective of the five, and her character the least sympathetic. It’s difficult to sympathize with someone who has brought her troubles on herself and is cold as ice to boot. This is, in part, a brave choice on Dempsey’s part, and helps create conflict, but leaves her with less audience connection.