What exactly is "character development"? Is it just a string of facts about protagonists, peppered throughout a play? Does it amount to subtle gestures and dropped hints, odd habits and overt passions? Cute phrases? Creepy desires? What kind of fine line do playwrights walk, between too little information and too much?
A Window to Home, produced by New Horizon Theatre, is gushing with character development. Ernest McCarty is clearly in love with his characters, because we know everything about them: We know that Chaney lives in a cozy apartment, wears a suit, used to play the clarinet, didn't like his father, once played baseball with the neighborhood kids -- we even know the songs he sang as a youth. His girlfriend, Camille? She dresses well, can't find her son, hates family reunions, loves coffee and has a thing for photo albums. We learn about the comic strip that Chaney authors for a New York City newspaper. Camille's mother reveals her feelings about God. We even get to know the homeless singer in the subway.
Put all these character studies together, and you have the sum total of A Window to Home. It's a quiet story about lonely people in the big city -- their frustrations, their losses and grievances. If the story feels slow and a little cluttered, it's because the "plot" barely matters -- the dialogue is so believable, so textured, that the conversations seem real. A Window to Home is a fragile work, and the actors seem almost timid to carry it: As Chaney and Camille, Wali Jamal and Crystal Glover are a sweet, attractive couple -- too obviously stable to really worry about. Oh, they'll be fine, we think, as the scenes dissolve into a comforting Motown soundtrack. Sure, life is tough, but they'll work it out ...
New Horizon Theatre is known for its gutsy work, so it's surprising to see such a somber cast. Under Jamal's direction, the players seem uncomfortable with the material -- speaking their lines quietly, unfolding the scenes with glacial slowness. When characters start talking to themselves -- with an almost Shakespearean disregard for solo pronouncement -- the scenes sour with melodrama.
All A Window to Home needs is a VCR -- to crank up the volume and fast-forward through the plodding parts. Because McCarty's script is nothing to be afraid of, even on (in this case) a Sunday matinee; we have enough character development to believe that these people exist. Seeing them bolstered with a little more gumption, maybe we can believe in them, too.
A Window to Home continues through Sept. 23. Kelly-Strayhorn Theatre, 5941 Penn Ave., East Liberty. 412-431-0773.