Review by: Ryan E. Johnson
World War II used to be a very common subject for stage plays, but it’s been sometime since we’ve had one of real substance. Suzan Zeder is looking to change all that with her newest play, the tail of end of a trilogy, “The Edge of Peace”, which is receiving its world premiere at the University of Texas. Following the trials of a group of towns people in latter days of the second World War, “Edge of Peace” is a riveting, enthralling journey full of fully realized characters and a believably spun world. Adding another dimension is the inclusion of the deaf character Tuc, played with beautiful sensitivity by award-winning actor Robert Schleifer, who may stand out as one of the most surprising performers this year.
Coming at the end of a trilogy, one worries that audience members who are not familiar with the first two plays are going to be stuck in a state of confusion through the whole affair, but Zeder creates a world full of characters so vivid and interesting, that we don’t miss a beat. Sure, there are plot lines that are little hazy, and character motivations that might make a bit more sense with a little more fleshing out, but on the whole the piece stands firmly as its own being, and can be understood a such. Despite having such a large cast, each character has his or her moments to shine without the piece feeling to scattered or uneven.
Speaking of cast, the University of Texas, with the help of the Seattle Children’s Theatre, has pulled out all the stops to find a stellar group of individuals to bring this piece to life. Actors from throughout the country have been called in to lend their talents to the play, raising the talent bar to unprecedented levels. At the center of the piece is deaf actor, Robert Schleifer, who plays the deaf mechanic and deliveryman, Tuc. In many plays, a deaf actors can only act a barrier to some audience members understanding, with the constant signing ending up confusing and stifling, but here his dialog flows smoothly, thanks in part to the actor’s incredible skill and charisma, and in part to the addition of “the voice”, which offers a voice for his regular sign language. Schleifer brings a warmth and pleasantness to Tuc that is refreshing to see, alongside all the paranoia and depression that permeates the WWII landscape of the play, his smile a beacon of sunshine through the darkness, making him endlessly likable throughout.
Also performing splendidly is Franchelle Stewart Dorn, nationally acclaimed actress and teacher at the University of Texas, who has the unenviable task of taking on Mother Hicks. Considered a witch by many in the town, Mother Hicks lives by herself on the top of a hill away from town, an angry old curmudgeon that many think harbors Nazi sympathies. At first, one wonders if the character will stay so bitter and angry, a state which Dorn plays with gusto, but as the piece progresses, we begin to see cracks in the veneer as the real character of Mother Hicks begins to show, as a real tenderness begins to emerge from Dorn’s performance, by the end bringing the audience to tears with her heartfelt pleas.
Full of rich pathos, believable characters, and a stunning storyline, The Edge of Peace may be the University of Texas’s best production in ages. With a cast full of stars from both the Austin and Seattle stages, the production brings a gravity and polish that most wouldn’t expect from a college production, and raises the bar for just what a UT production can be.
Edge of Peace runs about 2 hours, and will be playing through February 10th at the University of Texas’s B. Iden Payne Theatre. For more information, and to purchase tickets, visit the University of Texas’s Theatre and Dance page at www.utexas.edu/finearts/tad.