In such classic films as Golden Boy, The Great White Hope, Rocky, and more recently, Million Dollar Baby, Cinderella Man, and The Fighter, professional boxing was tossed as a gritty lifeline out of the slums. Determination for a better future rested entirely on the knockout punch that made or broke champions.
Back alley fighting drives the narrative in Cherry Smoke, the electrifying, award-winning play by James McManus. McManus is also the author of five other works including Bulldog Whiskey, Underground and Blood Potato.
Cherry Smoke is set in what can be described as a rust bucket of a town. Learning that McManus also grew up in a decaying, predominantly Irish, steel mill neighborhood near Pittsburgh, it is possible that the author wrote the play drawing on his own or similar experiences.
In ninety compact minutes, McManus’ truthful understanding of language and powerful character development, propel us into a world filled with unconscious choices, and the dreamers who struggle between what they possess and what they desire.
Cherry Smoke is primarily about two couples, sibling brothers, Fish (Michael Robins) and Duffy (Michael Argus), and their respective girlfriends, Cherry (Angela Scundi) and Bug (Leone White).
Child-like Fish spends extended stretches in and out of prison for his hot-tempered rage. Duffy, older by a mere nine months, does his best to keep Fish in line.
A runaway at ten, Cherry lives down by the riverbank. Immediately attracted to Fish after a chance meeting there, soon Cherry is befriended by Duffy’s girlfriend, Bug.
The play spans ten formative years. In that time the quartet support each other through thick and thin until a tragic, yet inevitable ending.
Coupled with sensitive direction by Suzanne Heywood, Cherry Smoke is a brilliant showcase for this supremely talented group of actors. As a bonus, upon discovering that this foursome also trained together as students, the theatrical understanding between them is clear.
Michael Argus plays Duffy torn between looking after his baby brother, and at the same time, being terrified of him. In his capable care, Argus reminds one of Jake Gyllenhaal’s character, Tommy Cahill, from the movie, Brothers.
Leone White takes us by the hand on her journey as a wily teen into a focused twenty-something. From Reece Witherspoon’s Dani in Man In The Moon to Julie Harris’ Abra in East of Eden, White’s Bug is the rock both Duffy and Cherry desperately lean on.
Michael Robins throws himself full-force into the character of Fish. He is like Randy Quaid’s Lenny from Of Mice and Men, James Dean’s Cal from East of Eden, and Jack Nicholson’s Randall McMurphy from One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, combined. Physical and passionate yet unaware of his own brute strength, Robins paints the character as an endless tidal wave of trouble.
As Cherry, Angela Scundi completely inhabits this flawed, spontaneous, complex, yet loveable outsider. She is Holly Hunter's Carnelle from Miss Firecracker, Julie Harris’ Frankie from The Member of The Wedding, and Mary Badham's Scout from To Kill A Mockingbird all rolled into one.
Bursting with energetic innocence at ten, Scundi creates a sharp delineation between the character as a child and a decade later, as a world-weary, young woman. Your heart breaks for her.
Ryan Hodge is responsible for the show's transformative lighting and set design, perfectly capturing their playground. Not only does his staging allow the audience to be at one with the actors, Hodge plunges us deep into their world of unfulfilled hopes and broken promises.
Costume design by Kim Ritchie is simple, yet true to the characters. Ritchie’s choices also help the audience to quickly pick the many time jumps throughout the play.
Sound design by James Paul highlights Cherry Smoke’s key, realistic and fantasy driven moments.