FORTUNE'S CHILD by Baltimore Playwright Mark Scharf Premiers at Theatre Project

Tim Smith, Sun Theatre Critic Published, January 13, 2015 © 2015- The Baltimore Sun

What would you do with only a few months left to live? A good answer is in the new play “Fortune’s Child.” Familiar issues of life and death fuel Baltimore playwright’s new work at Theatre Project. Susan, the central character in “Fortune’s Child” by Baltimore playwright Mark Scharf, won’t take her death sentence lying down. She’ll even joke a little about the disease ticking away inside her — after telling her brother he can’t yell at her anymore, she adds, “Cancer has to be good for something.” To get the most out of her remaining months, Susan goes on a bucket-list trip with her teenage niece, Sarah. What they experience around the globe, and what the two men they leave behind go through, makes for a mostly engaging experience in the play’s premiere staging at Theatre Project. The issue of how we live and how we die is not new to literature or drama. It’s not easy to to make it sound and feel fresh. Scharf succeeds more often than not. Abovbe all, he avoids turning sentimental or manipulative, and he uses a death in the play — not the death you’re expecting — quite effectively.   The playwright gets a little too obvious at times and is heavy on the symbols (a willow tree figures prominently). You pretty much know early on how various plot lines will intersect. A few scenes, especially a pot-smoking one, are superfluous. Then again, some things could use expansion — there’s not enough set-up for Susan’s sudden transformation into a globe-trotting Auntie Mame type. Still, the play provides a satisfying arc as it tellingly reveals the ties that bind the characters. And the modest-scale production, presented under the auspices of the Actors’ Equity Association Members Project Code, makes a firm case for the work’s potential.  Other than the slow start (way too much dawdling over spoiled food items piled on a dinner table) and some scene changes that would be better executed on a darkened stage, director Yvonne Erickson keeps things flowing smoothly. She also finds ways to highlight the atmosphere for the play’s various locales, aided by the props, lighting and sound team (the passage set in Ireland comes off with particular charm). Snappier delivery from the cast would be welcome. The actors frequently let in too much space between lines and also tend to make the dry wit that peppers the script sound bland. But everyone succeeds in getting to the bittersweet heart of the matter. Marianne Angelella brings out Susan’s dignity and resolve, without making either seem forced. Kathryn Zoerb does telling work as Sarah, who is caught at that critical juncture of neediness and independence.  Lance Lewman strikes persuasive chords as Susan’s widower brother, Mike. The character of Sarah’s would-be boyfriend is drawn broadly, but Travis Hudson manages to hone in on what’s real about the guy. The actor also gets to demonstrate his range in deft turns as an Irish lad and surfer dude. One of the most memorable figures in the play is never seen. When Susan visits her aged mother, we don’t see the woman, only the back of a wing chair. And what we hear in response to Susan’s questions is a not speech, but a kind of sing-song (a distant cousin to the way adult voices were handled in those vintage Charlie Brown TV specials). It’s a wonderful touch.