'South Side Stories' is a vivid set of tales

| Monday, Nov. 19, 2012, 9:00 p.m.


Most of us know the South Side as outsiders.

It's the place we go for theater and dinner, to prowl the bars of East Carson Street or a little retail indulgence in the shops.

In “South Side Stories,” which opened last Friday at City Theatre, actress, playwright and South Side resident Tami Dixon shows us her neighborhood from the inside.

It's a world premiere both for “South Side Stories” and for Dixon's career as a playwright.

Instead of treading the traditional tour-guide path of historic events, facts and figures and architectural landmarks, Dixon focuses on the people who call it home.

Dixon has spent the past four years collecting stories from anyone willing to share. Many of them were from people who sat down on one of a pair of folding chairs she set up on East Carson Street next to a cardboard sign that said “Tell Me a Story About the Southside.”

The result is a vivid, lively single-performer show in which Dixon takes on the voices, characters, mannerisms and stories of the residents plus a few of the outsiders who invade their turf.

Dixon has a good ear and an admirable talent for transforming these hard-working, hard-drinking, chain-smoking men and women into vividly distinct individuals.

Without relying on props or changes of costumes, she uses her body and her voice to tell their stories in ways that connect you to their lives.

It's difficult to say how many diverse individuals are represented. Intentions to keep track of them are forgotten as you get caught up in the performance.

Dixon shows deftness at creating the mill-dust generated coughs, individual smoking styles and distinct postures and small gestures that bring each of them into sharp focus.

Dialogue coach Sheila McKenna helped to sort out the nuances of Pittsburgh accents.

Some of the tales are funny — reminiscences of the rough discipline handed out by mothers and priests or the culture-clash encounter between a resident and the outsider who dared to move a parking chair.

Others are sad or tragic or proud — tales of working in the mills, loved ones who died too young summed up by the statements: “We were tough. We made steel.”

Still others describe moments of pleasure — the vista from the top of the Slopes or a small patch of hidden paradise along the Monongahela River.

Dixon interweaves these tales with snippets from a story of her own that begins with the death of a neighbor and leads to insights and acceptance about her own past.

Scenic designer Tony Ferrieri has created a supportive, minimalist, multilevel playing area that works well with Andrew David Ostrowski's lighting designs. David Pohl's colorful, emblematic projections and Nathan Leigh's original music and sound designs contribute mood and a sense of place.

Pittsburgh has long been known for its distinctly different neighborhoods.

In “South Side Stories,” Dixon has captured the essence and personality of this one with a delightfully insightful and entertaining performance.

Alice T. Carter is the theater critic for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7808 or acarter@tribweb.com.

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