Ann Arbor Theater Vixen: Jenn McKee's Blog

{October 14, 2009}   The toughest review I ever had to write

Writing reviews is often difficult. You’re rooting for a company or show or playwright and take no joy in writing a less-than-positive review. Or you really, really like – from a professional distance, of course – the people putting it on. But what on earth do you do when a beloved, influential person who’s essentially the charismatic heart of local theater passes away days before his last show opens?

You write a piece about his loss and his esteemed place in the (theater and at-large) community; you attend his memorial service, where more than a thousand heartbroken people (I’m not exaggerating) show up and demonstrate exactly how much of a difference one person can make in the lives of others; and you see the show he was directing during what was, unbeknownst to him, his final days.

The man was Ann Arbor’s Jim Posante, and the show was “Souvenir” at Performance Network, in the early days of 2008. Just days before he suffered a life-ending stroke, I interviewed him for the show’s preview. He loved the play, and he loved Florence Foster Jenkins, the profoundly awful (but presumably unaware) “singer” at the center of it; but he also spoke to me with affection and regard, though we’d only spoken a handful of times under similar circumstances. He asked me about my pregnancy (I was about five months along), how I was feeling, and how work was going. “What a lovely guy,” I thought when I left the Network.

And judging by the words spoken about him at his memorial, I didn’t even know the half of it.

So I attended the emotional opening night of “Souvenir,” knowing that the two person cast, Naz Edwards and Fred Love, as well as everyone working behind the scenes, had a nearly-impossible task in the week leading up to the show: to leave behind this sudden, tragic loss, though it had just happened, and move forward.

But when the realization that I didn’t care for the show slowly crept over me while watching on opening night, I found myself facing a lose-lose situation: I could either sugar-coat my review out of respect for a wonderful man and his lifetime of work, and then feel lousy about being gutless and dishonest; or I would be respectfully candid about my feelings and face some serious backlash from people already, and justifiably, feeling hurt and angry and shocked by Jim’s death.

Of course, I chose the latter. I knew I couldn’t, in good conscience, do the former; and though I only knew Jim a little, I knew he would say that this wasn’t a choice at all – you have to write what you have to write. Like many things, though, this is a principle that’s easy to argue for, but tough to practice and live with.

And indeed, although I spent HOURS carefully couching my review in terms of personal taste – confessing that anything (like “American Idol”) that invites us to chuckle at the obliviousness of fearless-but-incompetent performers makes me uncomfortable, even if we admire them on some level – I got precisely the response I knew was coming. Personal insults and attacks, in e-mails and letters to the editor, followed, as if my review had essentially painted a big, red target on my chest. Take your grief out on me, it said. I’m the villain.

It was a terrible time – a time when I hoped to just hold on and ride out the aftermath. Why couldn’t I have lied? I asked myself repeatedly. Things would have been so much easier, so much simpler. Would it have killed me to write a positive review of a show I didn’t personally care for?

Of course not. No one dies from such an act.

But it would have killed my self-respect – and while that’s hardly the same thing, that was one of the few things I had to hang on to throughout those painful weeks. So I have no regrets, other than wishing I’d gotten to know Jim better. And I can’t help but feel, in some weird way, that he would have wholly supported my choice.


Heather says:

Ugh. What a tough situation. I think you did the right thing. And, of course, the right thing is rarely ever the easy thing.

M says:

I have to say that I do not know you, but I do know the man you speak of. That man, would of read your review, and took what you had to say and moved on. This was Jim’s art, and as much as writing the reviews is your art. Not to say that Jim may not have had something to say, but I do believe that he would of took that review and moved on to make a better play. Some of his plays were not for everyone, but he loved what he did, and was very happy doing it. “Cannot please them all”,
I think being Honset was the way to go, and I don’t think Jim would of had it any other way.

Tom Hart says:

Bravo! Bravo! Bravo! Bravo! For You and your honest review: Heather and “M” for their clear, unbiased thinking and Jim for creating a personal drama within you which is Theater in all its glory.

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