Portrait of the Artist as an Old Man

Ralph Harris' one-man show is the latest in a slew of recently performed, compelling solo performances (including Alex Lyras and Robert McCaskill's Common Air, Chazz Palminteri's A Bronx Tale and Jay Sefton's The Most Mediocre Story Never Told) that offer a portrait of a community, or of a family, with one performer crawling inside and impersonating a gallery of characters floating around a central idea, replicating the motion of moths around a light. In North Philly, the centerpiece is the 94th birthday party for his grandfather. Yet Harris goes beyond imitating his eccentric family members who gather for the occasion. In a snappy tan vest and matching trousers, he drapes himself over a barstool and spins himself back to his childhood, where every dollar was counted and coveted — imitating himself as a child, precocious and fearful. The musculature of the piece, as in most shows of this ilk, derives from the cadences and colloquialisms of dialect, accentuated by Don Reed's studied direction. Depicting himself as a child, Harris reenacts having to play "retarded" on the street in order to protect himself from being beaten up and robbed by the local gang. The performance is as rich as the writing: from details of the "wet money" he would always carry, from having to stuff dollar bills into his mouth as a protection from being robbed; to catching ringworm in a local swimming pool; to his grandfather's "sliding" dentures. In one scene, Harris conjures his estranged father's wedding day. This does raise the question of how Harris Jr. would have obtained that insight, a quibble in a haunting show that also needs an editor and possibly a dramaturg. The play's final portrait of Harris' 94-year-old grandfather, facing down a gunman in the post office, is brilliant for its physical and vocal detail, as well as its blend of drama and wisdom. It's the light around which the other stories flutter, yet it's still a random source of the piece's chaotic unity — perhaps because the grandfather has no interaction with the other characters whom Harris has introduced us to. North Philly is nonetheless a compassionate and often enchanting work in development.
Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Starts: Oct. 15. Continues through Dec. 17, 2008


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