Telling historical tales set against a modern mindset, if not milieu, seems to be Perisphere Theater’s specialty. Their mission: to produce plays that “examine personal and collective history and the notion of history itself.” “The Storehouse,” by Joanna Castle Miller, perfectly finds its groove within the context of this theater’s mission. The play is a fictionalized account of the real-life meetings between two rather iconic “Harriets”—Jacobs and Beecher Stowe.
McAlister hits her character’s more vulnerable moments with an authenticity that compels the audience to take a second look at a now controversial, literary figure…Beruk’s performance is truly inspirational.
The former (Jacobs) approaches the latter (Beecher Stowe) about a potential mentorship experience. The newly-freed Jacobs wants to tell her story. She wants to be a writer. Who better to approach than the woman best known for fugitive slave fiction, Harriet Beecher Stowe. Beecher Stowe, fresh off the skyrocketing popularity of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (we are informed the novel outsells the Bible), isn’t necessarily interested in mentoring, but rather, wants to craft a version of Jacobs’ story and publish it as part of her own book. Jacobs will have none of it. Needless to say, they part ways, not on the best terms. We then jump seven years into the future to their second meeting. Much of the same transpires—a vigorous artistic and intellectual back and forth and a through-gritted-teeth parting of ways. Overall, the play spans about a century and a half with these two women having a series of “random” meetings. Without giving too much away, a major time jump in the final scene brings us to some very relevant and important revelations about the power of literature and, more significantly, the power of the voice, even just a single voice.
Castle Miller’s play seems to want to focus on the concept of story. Where the production may veer from this a bit is in trying to keep this a two-hander and thus have the actors handle all characters. It gets somewhat distracting and takes away from the power of their central personae. That said, the theme of story is an inspired one as handled by Castle Miller in this piece. The question of story ownership—who gets to tell a story—deeply resonates in the panoramic historical perspective the playwright offers here. You leave feeling that not only have you learned something historical, but also something very personal.
The actors do a wonderful job of bringing two very different women into a single orbit. Alison McAlister’s Harriet Beecher Stowe is admittedly hard to like and that is precisely the point. Yet, McAlister hits her character’s more vulnerable moments with an authenticity that compels the audience to take a second look at a now controversial, literary figure. You can’t help but feel for Harriet Beecher Stowe during certain points in this play and that is all McAlister’s doing.
From the very start, Ahdis Beruk as Harriet Jacobs, lets you know that, like it or not, she is going to emerge as a name you bring home with you and for whom you will develop a whole new respect and admiration. Beruk has an uncanny knack for revealing Jacobs’ tremendous message in the subtle and also not-so-subtle moments—the softer moments, the moments of caught-off-guard anger, the won’t-back-down moments, and the determined moments fraught with historical grit. Beruk’s performance is truly inspirational.
Under Amberrain Andrews’ direction, theatre goers come to see that the relationship between the dueling Harriets is far from simple. There are layers—many, many layers. Andrews’ timing in terms of uncovering those layers is impeccable. Set design by Mykal Bailey was nicely understated and did exactly what it needed to do. Jessica Utz’s costume design was lively, fun, and helped define the multiple roles played by the actors. There are times during the show when The Storehouse’s power lies in what is not being said, the blanks audiences are left to fill, and the painful silences propagated by centuries of injustice.
Running time: One hour and 50 minutes including one intermission.
“The Storehouse” runs through March 25, 2023 presented by Perisphere Theater at Silver Spring Black Box Theatre, 8641 Colesville Road, Silver Spring, MD 20910. For more information and tickets, go online. Masks are required for all ticket holders.