The first surprise of the evening was the Eastgate Town Center. This isn’t your dad’s Eastgate, the mall that turned into a ghost town almost overnight with the opening of Hamilton Place in the late 80s. Quite the reverse actually. It was teeming with activity this past Saturday night, so much so that I was happy to find a parking spot at the back of the lot.
I knew I was in the right place when I spotted the ‘etc’ sign at the east entrance to the mall. After meandering through a makeshift dance floor filled with swing dancers and a corridor lined with the vibrant works of local artists at Reflections Gallery, I arrived at the new home of the Ensemble Theatre of Chattanooga for the 7:30 performance of the new work Sight for Sore Eyes, written by etc.
The play follows history teacher Martin Kale (Hunter Rodgers)-- and yes, culinary jokes abound, including the cameo appearance of some cleansing, vitamin A-packed swiss chard--as he’s diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa by his doctor (Robbye Lewis). The disease is clearly outlined in the program to give context for the play, but the long and the short of it is this: Martin is going blind. Complicating matters further, Martin has a young wife, Riley (Andrea-Taylor Ward), who is six-months pregnant with daughter Cobalt (Makenzie Young). And Retinitis Pigmentosa is a genetic disease. Rounding out the company of five with some best friend-ly advice is Paulie (Dakota Brown).
The bulk of the play is spent raising questions around sight, loss, and familial legacy. To tackle these weighty themes, directors John Thomas Cecil and Christy Gallo smoothly navigate both actors and audience back and forth in time, between locations from doctor’s office to art studio, and in and out of several of Martin’s fantasies (highlights include the adventures of the blind super hero Mole Man, and a tet-a-tet with god).
All this is efficiently achieved with a minimalist set, a supportive sound design by Erik “Red” Wyatt, an sharp lighting design by Sanford Knox Jr., and the dutifully stage management by Casey Keelen.
Because the play deals with the loss of one of the five senses, I found myself acutely aware of both the ambient noises around me (the swing music from down the hall made me smile as it bled into the action from time to time) as well as the audience staring back at me from the other side of the space. The alley seating was a strong choice as I relished watching alternately the action onstage and the audience reacting on the opposite side. The only thing I’d fault this production for is its length. I’d be interested to see the play condensed into a one-act in a future incarnation, but to say the least, etc has come together to create a vibrant new work.
At the opening of an imagined confrontation between Martin and the Almighty in the second act, god enters with a can of Pepsi. A Scenic City and thus I assume Coca- Cola loyalist, Martin comments that he never expected god to be a Pepsi drinker, to which God replies, “What can I say, I like to root for the underdog.” A fitting line for this exciting young theatre company as it matures into it’s new home at Eastgate. Everyone loves an underdog.
Sight for Sore Eyes runs through March 24. Performance times are Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. All performances will be held at the theatre's space inside Eastgate Town Center at 5600 Brainerd Road. Tickets are $15 for general admission and $10 for students with a valid student ID. They can be purchased online at http://www.ensembletheatreofchattanooga.com, by phone at 987-5141, or at the door beginning one hour before each performance. Doors open 30 minutes before show time.