The IU Opera Theater’s contribution to the Presidential Inauguration Week of Celebrate IU is Carlisle Floyd’s moving music drama "Susannah" in a production conducted by Stephen Smith with stage direction by Michael Ehrman and design by C. David Higgins.
The curtain rose on "Susannah" and the cast appeared in the midst of a square dance, frozen behind the skrim, in a picture that looked like it was painted by Thomas Hart Benton. Later scenes had the same sort of dramatic impact. I found myself thinking that pictures from the film "The Grapes of Wrath " had been reassembled, but in color. Musically "Susannah" is a piece of Americana with Floyd’s original square dance tunes, hymns and folksongs sounding as if they came right out of a field workers collection all mixed in with his own lyrical spirit.
Saturday night’s Susannah, Betsy Uschkrat put in a memorable singing and acting performance. It’s a demanding role ranging from innocent, wondering joy through bafflement at the community’s rejection, to anger, exhausted resignation and finally madness. Though Carlisle Floyd’s music always has a dark undercurrent of menace, Susannah begins as a thoroughly happy young girl. Ushkrat handled the almost folk style of some of the singing and the transitions into the operatic very gracefully and her spoken dialog was memorable. When her brother Sam announces that he’ll kill the philandering reverend Blitch, her flat response, "That’ll do a lot of’ good" is still in my ear.
Nicholas Nesbitt had a nice easy relaxed presence as the feckless, drunken brother Sam. The part of the Reverend Blitch seemed to lie a little low in Cody Medina’s range but his crisp diction and dramatic sense carried. Especially in the wonderfully detailed scene of the revival meeting he was a commanding presence. Mathew Wells was effective as Susannah’s only friend, the soft headed Little Bat McLean.
The other leads and the members of the community all did a fine job. It seemed that each one in the large cast actually had a role, knew who they were and what they were doing. It’s a very well acted show.
If there is a flaw in the IU production of "Susannah," it’s the long pauses for set changes between the short scenes of the first act. The drama’s motion is meant to be fast moving and the interruptions broke the arc again and again. It wasn’t so much of a problem in the second act as the show was established and the scenes were longer.
The performance of "Susannah" was a moving experience for me. Usually when it’s curtain call time and the actors and actresses come out for bow, it’s a time of smiles, relaxation and general congratulation. But Saturday night, I wasn’t quite ready for it. I was still mad at the community, the philandering reverend, the feckless brother, the false friend and sorry for Susannah. It took a few deep breaths to get into the celebration.
The IU Opera Theater’s production of Carlisle Floyd’s "Susannah" has final performances this Friday and Saturday in the Musical Arts Center. Performances begin at eight with preshow talks, "Musically Speaking," on the mezzanine at seven.