Among theater people and non-theater people alike, I’ve found there often exists a disappointing misconception about autobiographical theater pieces: they’re ostentatious or self-serving, uninteresting or irrelevant. One-man theatrical memoirs in particular seem to be held to a high standard, as if the intense intimacies of an Average Joe’s life story better damn well be worthy of our attention.
David Harrell has a story to share. And his one-man show, A Little Potato and Hard to Peel, is more than a life story simply worth telling. It’s told well. With the help of director Kirk White, Harrell draws on the bitterest disappointments and proudest triumphs of his past to craft a performance piece as touching as it is dynamic. His considerable acting chops are on display at the third annual All For One Theater Festival, a series of wonderful solo performances at the Cherry Lane Theater in the West Village.
Tracing the day he was born in southern Georgia to his current career as a New York actor, Harrell fervently recreates the moments and people who have whittled away at his distinct life. Despite his Average Joe-ness and the reiteration throughout the play that he yearns to feel normal, Harrell is anything but. As it happens, he was born without a hand.
The quest to reconcile such an obvious obstacle with his family’s loving assertions he would never be different gives this play a dynamic momentum that allows Harrell to shift through a host of eccentric characters: his imperious mother, his tobacco-hawking coach, his dopey high school girlfriend. An affectionate grandfather explains the importance of perseverance by way of a metaphor about potatoes and baseball. Harrell’s most ingenious creation, though, is undoubtedly casting his nub as Mr. T, a childhood hero who delightfully pops up to guide our protagonist through moments of doubt, well into adulthood. There is also the hilarious and spot-on reenactment of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. This particular disability, of course, makes young Harrell the perfect Luke Skywalker.
One-man shows tend to emotionally involve me in a way that’s unfathomable in plays with higher performer-to-audience ratios. Perhaps the nature of solo performance, which relies on constant direct address, encourages the kinds of vocalized reactions that periodically burst forth during A Little Potato. When Harrell describes his jubilant campaign for class council, or pulls his much-coveted letterman jacket out of a bag, the audience can’t help but gasp or cry out. Although we aren’t so much immersed in Harrell’s world as we are gloriously, helplessly immersed in his smallest triumphs, that doesn’t take away from the actor’s sharp and often ridiculous characterizations. I never forgot I was watching a one man show, but its ending cleverly calls attention to this performativity. I wouldn’t want to spoil it, but suffice it to say Harrell’s beautiful, meta-theatrical climax brings the play to a fittingly heartwarming resolution.
A Little Potato and Hard to Peel makes the case that living with a disability means grappling with the notion that little else defines you. This idea is made brilliantly clear by Harrell’s accounts of his prosthetic limbs, his harrowing venture into high school sports, and his ambivalent description of type-casting. (This allows an apropos delivery of Richard III’s “But I that am not shaped for sportive tricks,” which hits exactly as hard as it should.) Harrell’s malformed limb is both a blessing and a curse, which makes for a simultaneously joyful and poignant story.
By Jack Smart