When we first meet Eli "The Bull" Willis, the central figure in Out of Hand Theatre the world's largest production of VEAL, One of the most startling images is that of the chains around the young man's hands. These chains eventually come off - at least physically - but strict restraints seem designed to keep him from moving forward forever.
As part of the company's Shows in Homes programming, VEAL is be staged in many metro Atlanta homes through May 22, preceded by a cocktail reception and followed by a talkback led by Georgia Justice Project, which represents individuals in the criminal justice system and works to reduce barriers to reintegration. There is also a theatrical performance at 7 Stages on May 9.
Written by Atlanta-born playwright Leviticus Jelks, it is a 70-minute performance in which Marlon Andrew Burnley plays Eli, who has spent the last 10 years in prison for a crime in which a child died. VEAL examines how Willis is trying to readjust to life after prison and the difficulties he faces with the crime perpetually hanging over his head - trying to find a job, as well as a place to live, and connecting with the 10-year-old son he's never met. Now staying in a motel room, the character asks the audience, "How would you like to be identified your whole life by the worst thing you ever did?"
The play is set in Atlanta's English Avenue neighborhood, and the script refers to the time period as now, then and tomorrow. In all, Burnley plays seven characters, including a parole officer, a Mexican-American grocery store owner, a blond Apple Store employee, Eli's mother, and the mother of his son. Some of these characters are only memorable enough in a scene or two, like when the Apple employee questions her own racism.
The company's associate artistic director, Burnley, was originally scheduled to direct this production until the previous Eli left for another show. With Burnley stepping into the role, Nikki Young took over the direction. Burnley is quite effective in conveying Willis' pain and frustration, working against a system where he can barely keep his head above water.
The staging can sometimes seem a bit rough. It can be difficult to keep track of all the extra characters, and the changes to and from can be abrupt and confusing. Composer and sound designer Eugene H. Russell IV incorporates some important cues, but the lack of props hinders the production.
Playwright Jelks has a fascinating character at the center of his work. Willis is a decent guy looking for a break, someone to take a chance on, while dealing with a society willing to look the other way and not offer him a second chance. VEAL could use a bit more dimension, though. While there is some well-observed material and ideas here, it can sometimes feel like a simple conversation starter - with the discussion to follow - rather than a full-fledged piece. Perhaps that's the point of these events, but there's a sense that Jelks' well-written work has the potential to evolve into something deeper.
Now in its 20th yeare season, Out of Hand has become an invaluable part of the local theatre landscape. The New York Times defended the company with a citation from the Best Theatre of 2020, the troupe was a 2021 Governor's Arts and Humanities Award winner, and very few other local theater companies stage the kind of work it does, focusing on social justice and reimagining the boundaries of community engagement.
Before the pandemic, I saw another Shows in Homes performed by Out of Hand. Conceal and transport, staged in late 2019, dealt with a liberal gun owner and his attraction to guns and featured a captivating performance by Lee Osorio.
VEAL opened last week, and I attended a Sunday afternoon performance at the home of Alliance Theatre's artistic director, Susan V. Booth, and her husband, Max Leventhal. Each performance can accommodate up to 30 attendees and the intimate atmosphere is welcome. This particular performance was performed outdoors, and while it was a beautiful day, the setting posed some challenges. A few excited neighbors often made the quieter parts of the piece difficult to hear, and an adorable dog wandered in and out of the audience, in and out of the performance space and in and out of the house, almost begging for co-star status.
That said, however, I think even indoor home events may not be ideal for this. After reading the script, I feel like a few distinctive details get lost in translation.
I never got bored with VEAL and I don't think anyone will be. Still, I was never as captivated as I wanted to be, neither moved nor angered. I hope that in its next incarnation, the play will find a stronger foundation and be able to maximize its central concept.
Jim Farmer covers theater and film for ArtsATL. A graduate of the University of Georgia, he has been writing about the arts for over 30 years. Jim is the director of Out on Film, Atlanta's LGBTQ film festival. He lives in Avondale Estates with his husband, Craig, and his dog Douglas.