REVIEW: World Premiere of ‘The Lotus Paradox’ at The Warehouse Theatre
By Steve Wong
Life is complex, especially if you’re a successful older writer trying to stay relevant, with two adult children who have failed to launch, a book publisher trying to keep you in your money-making box, and an unexpected book fan who might be crazy and/or dying. On top of it all is the burning question: “Can reusable canvas grocery bags really save the planet?”
Welcome to the world premiere of The Lotus Paradox, currently playing at The Warehouse Theatre in Greenville. It is by noted real-life writer Dorothy Fortenberry, who, among other things, writes for the Hulu television show The Handmaid’s Tale.
The Lotus Paradox is one of those many-layered plays that require a little extra brainpower to appreciate and enjoy. Thanks to excellent directing by Jay Briggs and acting by five actors with local, regional, and international experience, Paradox is relatable and often comical as it sheds light on a vast field of topics, such as, to name a few, family life, careerism, parenting, the writing process, art, fame, success, failure, and sibling rivalry. All the while, bigger-picture topics lie just beneath the surface feeding the beauty and fragility of life with the muck and mire of climatic change, rape, suicide, and business contracts.
Children’s novelist Nora Tennant, played by Spartanburg native Rebecca Koon, is having a low-key at-home publishing celebration with her children Hal and Dealie, and newly appointed editor Garrett. There are old and new tensions in the air, but Nora is unphazed and refuses to be phased by the old problems, while getting more and more aggravated by Garrett, who wants to re-release her book trilogy The Lotus Paradox as a 25-year publishing anniversary set, instead of publishing her newest fourth installment, which veers greatly from her past work. All the while, a snow storm is raging outside.
Hal, played by Jason D. Johnson, is a 35-year-old professional student of glaciers who has failed at most things in life including multiple suicide attempts. Dealie, played by Amanda Sox, has brought a large multi-media sculpture she made out of sticks, skins, cloth, and other such found things as an unappreciated gift. And, Garrett, played by DeBryant Johnson, is doing his professional best to make nice in hopes of convincing Nora that re-issuing the trilogy is a better deal than publishing her latest work that somehow continues the story of Pax, the little boy main character of the trilogy, despite the storyline that had him die in the third novel.
With nerves already simmering, the gathering is thrown an unexpected curve when a waif of a girl barges in from the cold, bringing excessive fandom and admiration for Nora. Julia, portrayed by Dayanari Umana, is a player from the get-go, but her cover story deepens when she informs the Tennants she has terminal bone cancer and her dying wish is to meet her literary hero Nora.
With all characters identified and motivated, trapped together by a storm, the stage is set to revel, rehash, resolve, and resign issues big and small during the later half of the 95-minute production.
Koon is uncanny as a woman writer who has seen and experienced too much to get worked up over the common problems of life, like when her children squabble over her affection or feel exploited or left out by her modeling Pax after Hal. The veteran actress deftly expresses maternal care, with the underpinning of knowing some things just can’t be resolved. The character is more concerned with what comes next and how she can steer her own life and work. Koon’s list of credentials is beyond long with more than 100 stage credits from coast to coast; she has nearly as many film credits with the likes of Matthew McConaughey, Julia Roberts, and Cate Blanchett; and her television work includes Homeland, The Walking Dead, Banshee, Vampire Diaries, and Dawson’s Creek to name a few. Most recently, she played Grandma Walton in The Waltons’ Homecoming.
Once again, Jason Johnson is solidifying his talents in theatre, this time as son Hal, a man haunted by his mother’s main character. Here Johnson walks a thin line between being a cad and a victim. It would be all too easy to portray Hal unworthy of sympathy, but Johnson takes the character deeper, as a man overwhelmed by his and the world’s problems but capable of rising to the call of decency. Johnson has been seen many times on The Warehouse’s stage in productions such as The Crucible, Richard III, Eurydice, Catfish Moon, and The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. His film works include House of the Righteous, Old Henry, Small Beginnings, Visitation, and Good Night. In addition to being an actor, he is the Managing Director at Warehouse and board member for Greenville NonProfit Alliance.
Daughter Dealie feels neglected and outraged, but Sox rounds out the character to be dedicated to her family despite her perceived slights. An acting graduate of Elon University, Sox trained in improv and sketch comedy at The Grounding School in Los Angeles. Her regional credits are many and include Pride and Prejudice, The Cake, Christmas on the Rocks, and Richard III.
DeBryant Johnson is impressive in his role as Garrett, a nice and friendly guy here to help his client to become a hard-nosed publisher determined to wring as much worth out of his client as possible. His past theatrical work includes roles in I Feel Good: A Trip to Motown, Dreamgirls, Urinetown and Lend Me A Tenor. In addition, he writes and records his own music.
Umana is commended for her ability to transform her character Julia from a ditzy super fan disguised as a dying cancer victim to a determined social media influencer who will do anything to advance her own craft — not totally unlike Nora and her quest to publish her fourth novel. Umana is debuting at Warehouse, but she is a small-town girl with big dreams. She has performed in Junie B Jones Is Not A Crook and Romeo and Juliet, and is scheduled to be in The Warehouse’s Native Gardens. Other work has been with the Lifetime movie Reba McEntire’s Christmas in Tune.
The Lotus Paradox is the perfect storm of creative writing, innovative thinking, and fine acting, addressing social, interpersonal, business, family, and worldly issues within the confines of a family trapped by the snow and their expectations. Sure, it’s a bit complex, but it is complexity presented with a strong sense of direction in determining what is really important. There are big issues and little issues, and they all add up to a story that blooms beautifully from the nourishment of the murky and often stagnant waters of life.