Jim Reyland’s Stand offers an eloquent portrait of human life at its most unsettling, uncomfortable and unrelenting…and most forgiving, loving and extraordinary.
It’s inspired by Reyland’s 13-year friendship with John Ellis, a man whose decades-long battles with mental illness and drug addiction were eventually compounded with the daily struggles of being homeless and HIV-positive. Reyland has taken that personal experience and fashioned it into a 75-minute single-act drama that provides a rich and balanced look at two men who both grow to care for and need each other.
Mark (Chip Arnold) has the outer trappings of a successful man, but his dysfunctional personal relationships and nagging doubts have left him wondering what his life is all about. Outside the church he attends is Johnny, aka J.J. (Barry Scott), a homeless man who’s not looking to connect with his new acquaintance:
I can get you a pillow. Come on, I’ll buy you a burger.
I ain’t your lunch buddy. Why you making me work so hard?
So you’re afraid of a little hard work?
No, I mean yes.
Get a job, like ninety-one-point-eight-percent of Americans. Get a stack of those homeless papers, sell ‘em on the corner.
I beg a dollar I keep a dollar; it’s a better business model. For you, I’ll put this in my food pocket; buy my drugs with money from the next loser; put that in my crack pocket. You can give me a dollar mister, you can even help me but the sad truth is you can’t save me.
The two do get to know each other better, though trust and true friendship build (and are often torn down and rebuilt) slowly over the course of 10 engaging and edifying scenes. For each there’s recognition of the other’s humanity; no more passing each other by with prejudices and ignorance unchallenged.
Reyland takes us inside the flawed and vulnerable hearts and minds of his characters, but Stand is not just a searing look at human frailty; it’s often funny and lyrically uplifting as well. Horrific descriptions of Johnny’s early childhood and the emotional pain of being shunned are coupled with humorous – and revealing – exchanges like one that occurs during a car ride:
…I wanted to be a singer back in the day.
Get on outta here.
I was in an a cappella group in college.
No kidding? What’s that? Like naked? Bunch a dudes standing around naked, singing?
Come on now, show me what you got.
You don’t want to hear me sing…
THE FIRST TIME I LAYED EYES ON YOU,
I THOUGHT THAT YOU WERE AN ANGEL,
YOU STOLE MY HEART WHAT COULD I DO,
SO I FELL IN LOVE, WITH HEAVEN ABOVE.
You know what they call that?
We called it pretty darn good…?
Begging; when you sing like that it’s begging like you’re begging for something, like come on baby, come on baby, come on now. It’s begging.
Arnold and Scott are justly admired actors who’ve both put four decades of their lives into their artistic work. Here they play with each other (and the audience through various soliloquies) using vivid expression without visible artifice. Putting Reyland’s marvelous words into the mouths of two such masterful performers provides entertainment that enlightens and enthralls.
Director David Compton certainly has own lengthy list of theater credits onstage and off. His sensitivity toward the piece – he has insightfully noted that the two men’s relationship is much like the push-and-pull of a marriage – and gentle pacing allow his actors and Reyland’s script the unencumbered range they need and deserve.
Reyland’s remarkable work will be presented regionally as part of a partnership between his Writer’s Stage company and several area theaters. It’s the best drama this fine playwright has ever written, speaking not just to those who are aware that human suffering has many faces, names and histories but to those of us who often turn away when we should reach out to those in need.
“Every second of your life has value,” Mark tells Johnny at one point in Stand. Yes, and the reminder of that value flows through the living veins of this beautiful play.
Stand by Jim Reyland continues through Nov. 10. The schedule (including Writer’s Stage theatrical partners in this artistic project) is as follows:
August 25 & 26 *Belmont University Black Box – Actors Bridge Ensemble
August 31, September 1 & 2 * The Next Level – The American Negro Playwright Theater
September 6, 7 & 8 *Lipscomb University Shamblin Theater – Blackbird Theater – Circle Players
September 13, 14 & 15 *Bethlehem UMC Performing Arts Center
September 20, 21 & 22 * Darkhorse Theater – SistaStyle Productions – Shades of Black
September 25 * MTSU Tucker Auditorium – Murfreesboro
September 28 & 29 * Woods Hall at W.O. Smith School–Tennessee Repertory Theatre
October 5 & 6 * Actor’s Point Theatre – Hendersonville
October 12, 13 & 14 *Renaissance Center– Dickson
October 18, 19 & 20 * Cheek Hall at Christ Church Cathedral – Downtown Nashville
October 25, 26 & 27 * E. Alexander Looby – Metro Parks –Nashville Shakespeare Festival
November 1, 2 & 3 * Street Theatre Company – East Nashville
November 8, 9 & 10 *Boiler Room Theatre – Franklin
Times vary; a full listing is available online at the Writer’s Stage website. Stand contains some adult language and is recommended for ages 16 and up; for more information on the show visit www.writersstage.com. Click here to buy tickets ($15) online at ticketsnashville.com. A portion of the proceeds benefit the J.J. Ellis Foundation at Room at the Inn.
*Photos by Thomas Staples courtesy Writer’s Stage.