By Oline H. Cogdill
A sandwich is more than ingredients between two slices of bread at Clyde’s, the truck stop diner that is the setting and title of Lynn Nottage’s deliciously insightful play now receiving a superb production at Zoetic Stage through Nov. 19.
That sandwich, thoughtfully composed, each part lovingly selected, represents more than food, more than something held in one’s hand. That sandwich represents a second chance for the kitchen staff, each of whom were once incarcerated, a hope for a new life, a desire for a future and, even, their souls.
Clyde’s, which was America’s most-produced drama last season, is the tasty opening for Zoetic’s 14th season, and 46th production. Like the play’s themes, Zoetic has given South Florida much food for thought, bringing solid, thought-provoking entertainment.
The stellar ensemble cast, under the masterful direction of Stuart Meltzer, delves deep to explore the pathos, humor, longings and need to belong that feeds the psyche of each of Clyde’s cooks as they feed the customers at this diner just outside Philadelphia.
The kitchen staff gathers each day to dish out customers’ non-stop meal orders, and ladle out their ambitions with a soupcon of gossip.
Clyde’s is run by the steely-eyed Clyde (a fearlessly scary Karen Stephens) who runs the diner as if she were a prison warden. She never lets her employees forget that, as former prisoners, only she would give them a job. Stephens, long one of the region’s top actresses, wields intimidation—physical, emotional, and sexual—as if it were a meat cleaver, her constant cigarette a saber to keep her employees away. Clyde, in debt to unseen gangsters because of her gambling, gives none of her staff a break or even a smidgeon of sympathy. Stephens’ every moment, every stare, every frown reinforces Clyde’s personality. Natasha Hernandez’s costume choices for Stephens of leopard patterns, in various colors, alternating with solid red clothes, reinforce Clyde’s predatory nature.
When Clyde is in the kitchen or popping up to check on orders, the staff’s tension can be cut with a knife. But when the employees are alone, they become a family, sharing their problems, dreams and milestones.
Clyde’s plot is a slice of life that showcases these characters who are easy to care about. Nottage’s script makes us forget about why each landed in prison while focusing on where they are going. Each carries their prison time with them as Clyde’s is a kind of half-way house for each while each tries not to make it another prison.
As Montrellous, Randy Coleman is a commanding presence in a role as the kitchen’s moral center. He acts as the staff’s sen sei, urging each to do better, to make the sandwich your “pulpit,” to be bold in creating their food. By striving to make that “perfect sandwich,” they will seek to make themselves better, and gain self-respect. Montrellous’ guru softly says “Speak the truth, then let go and cook.”
Gabriel Salgado has proven himself as a rising actor, mostly in dramatic roles—first showing audiences what he could do as the creature in Zoetic’s Frankenstein or as the lector in Miami New Drama’s Anna in the Tropics. But in Clyde’s, Salgado also shows his flair for comedy, while exhibiting the poignancy, as “sous chef” Rafael. Constantly in motion, with an energy that is unassailable, Salgado continues to show his versatility.
Sydney Presendieu delivers much empathy as Letitia, a young mother who wants more in life while working hard to provide for her sick daughter. Her ex-husband has made her wary of men, a situation that arises in the plot.
New to the kitchen, and a bit disruptive at first, is Kristian Bikic as newly released Jason, a character who appeared in Nottage’s play Sweat, that received one of the playwright’s two Pulitzer Prizes; the other was for Ruined. Bikic effectively shows Jason’s anger that simmers just below the surface as he desperately tries to belong to this kitchen family. His need to belong resulted in him being inked with white-supremacist tattoos, that he now regrets.
Each actor mines Clyde’s humorous bits. The versatile Stephens shows Clyde’s frightening side while spinning on a dime to draw out the comedy. Clyde doesn’t care about food, refusing to even taste the exquisite, mouth-watering sandwiches her crew makes. She
scorns the idea that food might bring any semblance of hope. The idea of a simple garnish infuriates her. She’d rather haul groceries that may not be legitimate, saying “If it ain’t brown or grey, it can be fried.”
Jodi Dellaventura and Natalie Taveras designed the sublime detail-oriented working kitchen, with food stations, canned goods, sauces. The set is so authentic that some audience members may wonder when their order is up. (This is simply stagecraft—eat at Blue Collar on Biscayne Boulevard first as we did.) Tony Galaska sets the mood with his lighting while Matt Corey’s ear for sound excels.
Clyde’s is theater to savor.
Clyde’s will run through Nov. 19 in the Carnival Studio Theater at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami. 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Friday, 2.30 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Running time 1 hour 40 minutes no intermission. Tickets $55-$60. Call 305-949-6722 or arshtcenter.org