A Little Potato and Hard to Peel
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
September 17, 2009
David Harrell was born without a right hand. In his warm, smart, and very engaging autobiographical one-man show, Harrell doesn't hold back the reveal: he wanders on stage (in the WorkShop Theatre's very intimate Jewel Box space) and there he/it is: no prosthesis, no glove. A Little Potato and Hard to Peel is not so much a show about living with a disability, because Harrell never had to learn to live without the hand—it was always thus for him—and as he relates near the top of the show, he compensated for his anatomy from the earliest age, learning to crawl with the aid of devices manufactured for him at a big, exciting, and scary hospital.
No, Harrell's story is about learning to live in a world where being visibly disabled means being constantly judged. He shows us a boy and young man who goes from extremes of being fretted over or made fun of but wishes only for a kind of normalcy. The schoolyard bully who calls David "Captain Hook" is actually much less offensive than the acting coach who thinks that the only Shakespearean role David can play is Richard III. But the journey, in which Harrell learns to deal with both, is what's most important in this show.
Harrell's themes are familiar. He has a warm and supportive, if often quirky, family. He wants what pretty much everybody wants: in high school, it was a letterman's jacket and a steady girlfriend; later, it's fulfilling work in his chosen career (i.e., a shot at Romeo instead of Richard). But letting us walk with him in his shoes during this hour-long show is edifying and illuminating. He excels at sharing, at helping his audience explore and feel some of what he has been through. I think we're all of us better for that sharing.
The show itself follows the traditional arc of the one-man autobiography: Harrell plays himself, now and at various stages of his life, along with a host of characters including his parents, some of his teachers, friends, acquaintances, and so on. He's a fine actor, and he makes each of these folks vivid and distinct. A preschool teacher with a smoker's rasp is a particularly delightful presence early in the show; his loving portraits of his mother, with her Georgia drawl and a very short fuse, and his less vocal but no less caring father are also highlights.
Under the deft and unobtrusive direction of Jayd McCarty, the piece progresses swiftly, with nary a slow spot. If anything, I wanted the play to be longer: I wanted to find out more about how David got from there (he pretty much ends his narrative with his college years) to here, and I wanted to spend even more time with his wise, eccentric relatives. Harrell is grand company both as storyteller and subject, and thanks to his unique circumstances and his particular talents, he seems to have plenty of insights to offer his audience.