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Manassas Park High School And They Dance Real Slow In Jackson

By • Mar 30th, 2009 • Category: Cappies

It’s late. The soft grass of the Jackson, Indiana is swaying silently in the midnight wind. Drunk and out on the porch, a beleaguered American father confesses in his drunken stupor, “My little girl, she is twenty four now and she’s never taken a step. Can’t work her to walking; can’t pray her to walking. No sir, no ma’am, no thank you, never.” His daughter’s name is Elizabeth Ann Willow, she has polio, and in Manassas Park High School’s production of And They Dance Real Slow In Jackson, we are reminded that, in a rural 1950’s Indiana town, the only thing more difficult than living with terminal illness is understanding.

And They Dance Real Slow In Jackson by Jim Leonard, Jr., tells the story of Elizabeth, from her childhood to her early twenties, her life with polio, the unconditional love of her parents, and the debilitating prejudice she faced that eventually drove her insane. The play itself is structured as a collage of scenes as opposed to a chronological progression, with scenes from Elizabeth’s childhood immediately followed by those from her late adolescence and so forth. With a small cast of only seven and all those who were not members of Willow family playing multiple parts of various and often contrasting ages, the play itself becomes a human pastiche, creating an image of Elizabeth and Willow Family that, much like the chronology of the play itself, transcends time.

Elizabeth, wonderfully portrayed by Jessica Conaway, spent the duration of the show restricted to a wheelchair, but by no means did that limit her ability to interact effectively onstage. Conaway’s physical control created a believably disabled character with each scene punctuated by her presence. The conviction Conaway brought to the role and her commitment to the physical limitations of the wheelchair and the character herself beautifully evoked Elizabeth’s feelings of being trapped in a rural Indiana town, sitting at her window daily and staring longing at the children playing outside. Elizabeth’s Father, Ben Willow, played by Jamie Mongue, like the parents of so many disabled children, spent his every waking moment working to support his daughter. Mongue’s performance believably portrayed a beleaguered yet committed and unconditionally loving father, trying to do all he can to give is daughter as normal a childhood as possible. While some occasional diction issues made dialogue difficult to understand, Mongue’s use of dialect and accent added greatly to the character and made his performance all the more convincing.

In playing multiple roles, other cast member who’s many characters created memorable moments included Jason Rose and Alyssa Robinson. Rose’s portrayal of Skeeter Robins, a childhood friend of Elizabeth’s, was executed wonderfully and humorously. Additionally, Rose’s control over his character voices and physicalities enabled him to switch characters seamlessly onstage, even during scene changes with little to no lighting cues. Alyssa Robinson’s character’s, ranging from a very young child to a matured adult, created a believably accurate representation of the women of the Midwest; also utilizing a variety of character voices and contrasting physicalities to bring her characters alive.

Manasses Park’s High School’s production of And They Dance Real Slow In Jackson reminds us that, in a time when what the world needs most is understanding and acceptance regardless backgrounds, dispositions, or cultural differences, the first step is recognizing the significance of every single person. Elizabeth herself epitomizes the feeling best when reflecting in her room, at her window sill: “And we look. And we touch. And we speak. And we love. And we grow together like the grasses rooted in the earth of the flat land.”

by Alexander Kruszewski of Westfield High School

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