I’ve lived in South Philadelphia for more than a decade now and any time I think about leaving, I immediately ask myself: “But how will I ever find another place this special?” My block faces Dickinson Square, where I saw a performance of Theatre Exile’s new traveling production The Ever Present, and I am continually reminded of just how lucky I am to live here.
The truth is, South Philly is a magical place. Had a package delivered but won’t be home for an hour? No problem, a neighbor already grabbed it. Neighbor can’t find a nearby parking space and there’s no way they’ll be able to get their kids into the house if they have to park under I-95? Hazards on, hand the baby to me. Go on, park your car. We’ll wait here.
Many friends on other South Philadelphia blocks have had similar experiences. And this is the type of experience, the type of block, that playwright R. Eric Thomas places at the very heart of The Ever Present.
Out with the old?
The Ever Present is appropriate for all ages, with themes and performances that will resonate with children and adults alike. At the core of the story is an empty lot where hilariously villainous real-estate developer Vernal Belch (Pax Ressler) wants to build bland, modern construction. It turns out Vernal plans to purchase and then raze the entire block, replacing it with a mixed-use space for out-of-towners (and their dogs).
If this sounds a little heavy-handed for family-friendly theater, I can assure you, it’s not. Rather than relying on more common arguments against gentrification, the story focuses on how Vernal’s plan would obliterate the magic of this special South Philly lot.
The magical and the mundane
The lot, you see, is empty because the house that formerly stood on it disappeared, leaving only its front stoop. In fact, three different homes occupied that lot, all presumably leaving that same front stoop but otherwise vanishing without a trace. Magic happens here, in this lot, and that’s why activist Pashmina (Kimie Muroya) is collecting signatures for a petition to block Vernal from developing on their block.
Enlisting the help of a local private investigator (Nathan Alford-Tate) and a few neighborhood stalwarts (all played by Cathy Simpson, who truly steals the show), Pashmina seeks to collect the stories of the lot to preserve its magic—and block Vernal and their henchperson/assistant, played by Eleni Delopoulos, from destroying the old neighborhood and replacing it with something shiny, new, and utterly devoid of character.
The stories that unfold are all sweet and tender and sad and hopeful, and reveal people who are at once familiar to anyone who’s spent any time in South Philadelphia, and also specific to the particular magic of the show.
Bring the kids—or don’t
When I saw The Ever Present, the audience was about half kids under 12, half adults. And about half of those adults seemed to have come to the performance without any children under their supervision. While The Ever Present is very much a family-friendly affair, there’s still plenty there for the grownups, especially grownups who grew up watching Sesame Street and Blue’s Clues, as their influence is apparent in both Thomas’s script and Brett Ashley Robinson’s direction.
The acting is B-I-G, with no room for misinterpretation of the characters’ actions or intentions. The end is pretty predictable. There are brief moments of audience participation and bright costumes and so many puppets—all hallmarks of children’s theater and television. The script is smart and sweet and very funny, and there are worse things than spending an hour in a South Philadelphia park watching a world-premiere production with top-notch talent.
Unless you hate Sesame Street and love gentrification, that is. In that case, it’s probably best to stay home.
What, When, Where
The Ever Present. By R. Eric Thomas, directed by Brett Ashley Robinson. Through September 19, 2021 in parks throughout South Philadelphia. Shows are free and open to the public. (215) 218-4022 or www.theatreexile.org.
All shows are outdoors in public parks, so accessibility of individual sites may vary. Audiences bring their own chairs or blankets for seating.