Photography by Tiffani Bing
By John Pitcher
Do the poor and homeless really deserve our help? In Jim Reyland’s play Motel Noel, one of the central characters, a medical student and part-time shelter volunteer named Scott, gives an answer worthy of Ebenezer Scrooge.
“I work hard and make good choices,” says Scott. “Why should I spend money on those who don’t?”
Reyland devotes the better part of two hours exploring that question and others in his new Writer’s Stage production, which runs through Dec. 17 at West End United Methodist Church’s 4th Story Theatre. For this veteran Nashville playwright, homelessness is a familiar subject. He’s been a volunteer at Nashville’s Room in the Inn and the Campus for Human Development for decades, and he’s developed close relationships with some of the people he’s assisted. That experience has found its way into some of his works, including Motel Noel.
The play is set in a homeless shelter called St. Albert Hall during a 12-hour period on Christmas Eve. Scrooge was visited on Christmas Eve by three ghosts. Shelter volunteer Scott (Max Nolan), a dyspeptic personality in need of his own spiritual rebirth, meets a pair of homeless men named Bunhead (Barry Scott) and Jimmy (Jamey Green). They’re not Christmas ghosts. But Bunhead seems certain they’re angels sent from heaven on a mysterious mission, possibly to assist a spacey young homeless woman named Gimpy (Melinda Paul).
Strangely enough, we soon discover that Jimmy is endowed with a seemingly supernatural gift for the piano. Has he had lessons? No telling. But he doubts divine providence has had anything to do with his music. “Are we angels,” he asks with an amused look on his face, “or are we just crazy?”
Crazy soon walks through the shelter door in the form of Skipper (Michael Adcock), Scott’s alcoholic brother. The perpetually irritable Scott seemed bad enough. But Skipper – paranoid, angry and prone to violence – is much worse. “You must have been separated at birth,” Jimmy tells Scott, “and your real brother is now living with the Manson Family.”
Skipper eventually meets up with Scott’s old girlfriend Heather (Morgan Fairbanks), a young woman who seems equally privileged and ethically impaired. Those two head to the banks of the Cumberland, where they encounter the unfortunate homeless woman Gimpy. Skipper’s confrontation with Gimpy calls to mind another Dickens character – Bill Sikes.
All of the actors give fine performances, but Jamey Green deserves special mention for pulling double duty. Not only does he portray Jimmy with poignancy and humor, but he also functions as the play’s unofficial music director.
Admittedly, that’s a familiar role for Green, who served as music director at Boiler Room Theatre in Franklin. In Motel Noel, he deftly melds acting with music making, using both activities to carry forward the arc of the narrative. His performance of “We’re Each Other’s Angels,” an original song by Reyland and Addison Gore, is one of the play’s most memorable moments.
Nolen and Adcock both turn in worthy performances as the angry brothers Scott and Skipper. At first, we suspect that Scott’s cranky mood might stem from the exam he’s scheduled to take first thing in the morning. (What sadistic medical school gives an exam on Christmas morning?) Similarly, we think alcohol may be at the root of Skipper’s problems. But as the play progresses, both actors deftly reveal cracks in their characters’ psychological armor. One senses that beneath their winter clothing, both men sport “Mother Doesn’t Love Me” tattoos.
Paul and Fairbanks likewise give convincing performances as Gimpy and Heather. Gimpy is on the street in large part because she’s failed to take her medicine. Paul sensitively shows us both sides of this character’s bipolar personality. Heather comes from a privileged yet dysfunctional home, and Fairbanks demonstrates that this can be just as psychologically damaging as life on the street.
Credit for all of these nuanced performances clearly goes to Barry Scott, who serves as the production’s director as well as star. He imparts to Bunhead a sweet innocence that masks this character’s tragic past. He also imbues him with wry good humor.
The story ends on Christmas morning, with the characters seated around a picnic table, exchanging gifts. They’ve come to the conclusion that the street happens to every individual for different reasons. Reyland clearly hopes that the audience leaves with the same conviction.
Performances of Motel Noel will take place at 4th Story Theatre in the West End United Methodist Church at 7:30 p.m. December 15 and 16, and at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. on December 17.
Tickets are available at the door and at www.writersstage.com.