‘If I Had My Way’ illuminates thwarted lives
Is there anything worse than feeling trapped in your own life? The main characters in “If I Had My Way,” the new play by Orlando writer Joseph Reed Hayes, all are facing a metaphorical prison of some sort. And the play itself is an evocative character study of the different ways people react to difficult situations. Director Avis-Marie Barnes does thoughtful work in making the play’s characters spring to life in a realistic manner. And the bustle of activity in the kitchen of a cattle and citrus ranch creates an apt mirror for the inner turmoil that keeps these characters’ brains whirring. Maggie, who wishes that everyone would call her Margaret, has unwillingly returned to the Central Florida ranch where she played as a child to tend to her ailing mother. It’s the waning days of World War II, and the ranch has another new face: Piero, an Italian prisoner of war sent by the government to help out with the farmwork.
“But Piero ends up more useful in the kitchen and helping Maggie see that some prisons are thrust upon us and some we create ourselves. Also interested in Maggie is Bo, the ranch foreman, given a masterful gravity and honest nobility by Stelson Telfort. Marian Tuck adds a dose of comedy as Bennie, a young kitchen worker who prattles indiscriminately with the optimism and blinders of youth.
As the ranch owners, Holland Hayes and Eileen Antonescu create a real bond of affection for each other, and nicely convey both the hope — and blinders — of parenthood in regard to their wayward son, Ty. He’s the sort of young man who has joined a Ku Klux Klan-like gang of sheet-wearing bigots and says things like, “Ain’t nobody getting killed … if they know their place.” That’s just one of the lines that underscores the tenuous positions of Maggie, Bo and Bennie — all of whom are Black and forced to tolerate Ty. Benjamin Mainville smartly doesn’t sugarcoat Ty’s obnoxiousness in the first act, then lets us see a more human side of the young man in the second.
[I]t remains a pleasure to spend time with Hayes’ writing, chock-full of historical references and poetic turns of phrase. And Maggie and Piero are most appealing windows into this slice of life. On TV’s Hallmark Channel, they’d be a meet-cute instant romance. Here, they create something so much more. Iris Lynne Sherman carefully makes sure we see more than anger in Maggie’s brusqueness. As Piero, the prisoner of war in a strange land, Jesus Kahwati reminds us we have the power to affect our own circumstances — and even in dark times try to be a light to others. No one is getting their way in “If I Had My Way.” But these folks engagingly show us how to behave, and not to behave, as we cope with what life hands us.