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Barksdale Theatre's "Side Man" evokes a fleeting era and exposes a faulty family.

Darkness with a "Side" of Dysfunction

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A door opens. A backlit female figure emerges in a cloud of cigarette smoke, visible only in silhouette. Her hair in wild disarray, she barks out a few short sentences in a coarse New York accent before retreating back through the door, slamming it behind her.

This short vignette punctuates the beginning of the Barksdale Theatre's "Side Man," a Tony Award-winning play that chronicles a disintegrating relationship between an emotionally crippled jazz musician and his increasingly insane wife. With scenes like this one, director Randy Strawderman dispels any doubts that he is a master of theatrical imagery. Under Strawderman's direction, the moody memory play becomes a haunting, minor-key marvel, always interesting even when somewhat predictable.

Greatly assisting Strawderman is a knockout cast that infuses every character with vitality. Front and center is Zachary Knighton who plays Clifford, a 29-year-old advertising copywriter looking back on his tumultuous childhood. Clifford's father, Gene (David Bridgewater), is a trumpet player whose obsession with jazz drives his mother, Terry (Dawn Westbrook), to drink, depression and eventually madness. In the course of the play, Clifford meets up with both parents separately, perhaps for the last time, to try to figure out whether "things would have been better for them if they never had me."

It is Terry who makes the dramatic entrance in the first scene. From this beginning, we know that darkness will permeate the atmosphere of this show, even early on when the energy of the 1950s and the big-band era fills the characters with hope. Three supporting characters — all horn players like Gene — highlight these scenes: Jeff Clevenger as the wisecracking Ziggy, Fred Iacovo as the womanizing Al, and d.l. hopkins as the drug-addicted Jonesy. While Clifford's father seems impervious to the ravages of time, we witness the dramatic toll of the years on these other "side men."

But we see the toll on Terry most of all: She devolves from a na‹ve and vivacious girl into a defeated and deranged alcoholic. Westbrook attacks this role with relish. She shows particular polish by not making "crazy" Terry go absolutely bonkers. The character just becomes moderately — and believably — unhinged. Bridgewater also gets better as the play progresses: His withdrawn and distracted Gene seems to hollow out as his role in his own family diminishes. By the play's end, Gene is a shell of a man, tuned into nothing but the music.

Some of the play's scenes are predictable as Clifford confronts his parents and tries in different ways to reconcile with them. These dysfunctional family dynamics have been played out on stage and screen before. But thanks to the performances — especially Knighton's confident portrayal of Clifford — the show never drags.

From the cracked tile flooring to the garish neon lights, "Side Man" designers John Story (set) and Gregg Hillmar (lights) give the production a low-rent New York feel. Strawderman and his talented cast build on this foundation to make "Side Man" a full-bodied explication of an era and a family.
-D.L. Hintz


Footlights: People in the theater world depend on their connections. And sometimes, those connections benefit more than an individual actor or actress — they benefit a whole cast. Take the Barksdale's "Side Man."

Cast member Dawn Westbrook is friendly with Michael Mastro, an actor in the "Side Man" production that just moved from Broadway to London. Before the play's reopening, playwright Warren Leight added two short scenes to the piece. Mastro told Westbrook about them, and she requested that her cast be allowed to use them, too. Permission was granted, the new scenes faxed, and Barksdale became the first (and currently only) theater in the country to perform "Side Man" in its entirety.

Though the changes are small, one was especially exciting to the Barksdale cast. "Side Man" is a memory play, told from the perspective of the character Clifford. Late in Act I, Clifford's mother (Westbrook) is six months pregnant with him and so frustrated with her out-of-work husband that she considers abortion. Strawderman had already blocked the scene with the grown-up Clifford present, and Westbrook was acting it as if she feels the baby Clifford kick just then.

Clifford's new lines? "… I did the only thing I could. I kicked."

Says Strawderman, "It did make us really feel like we were on-target with the play, which was great."

Westbrook's connection also led to an opening night surprise: a telegram from the London cast, signed by everyone in the cast (including actor Jason Priestly, who plays Clifford) reading, "From the London cast of 'Side Man' to the Barksdale cast of 'Side Man.'"
-Holly Timberline

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