New Trustus Playwrights' Festival Winning Play Premiering on the 14th

Clint Poston and EG Engle with photography by Rob Sprankle  

 

Trustus Theatre is bringing a world premiere to the Midlands as Barbara Blumenthal-Ehrlich’s Big City comes to the Thigpen Main Stage. This winner of the Trustus Playwrights’ Festival will have a limited run from August 14 - 22, 2015. Audiences can also meet winning NYC playwright Barbara Blumenthal-Ehrlich when she visits Columbia and attends opening weekend.

 

The Trustus Playwrights’ Festival is a national competition that is held annually. Last season over 500 submissions made their way to Trustus Literary Manager Sarah Hammond in NYC, and Artistic Director Dewey Scott-Wiley and Hammond chose Big City as the winning play. The show is receiving its first professional production on Trustus’ Thigpen Main Stage this summer under the direction of Scott-Wiley.

 

Big City is a modern tale about 21st Century relationships and communication, Big City introduces audiences to Jane and Joe. These friends have been living with each other for a while and are "just roommates," except for Friday nights and the occasional Sunday morning. Now he's drowning in urban angst and wants a deeper commitment  -- a baby! -- but Jane says no. Deep down, are they really in love? Or is it just the narrowing of options and fear of being alone that comes from being closer to 30 than 20. Anything can happen over a meal of Chinese takeout and muscle relaxants, especially when unexpected guests invade the small apartment they call home.

 

Big City playwright Barbara Blumenthal-Ehrlich is a NYC playwright. Her work has been produced/developed in NYC at Playwrights Horizons, Second Stage, Roundabout, Rattlestick, Women’s Project, EST, New Georges, AracaWorks, Urban Stages, and many others. “Life these days seems to move at a faster, scarier, and more absurd pace than it used to,” said Blumenthal-Ehrlich. “Wifi and cell phones mean our work follows us wherever we go. Twitter and Facebook bring a false sense of friendship and intimacy. Not to mention that the world is scarier since 9/11 and ISIS. The irony is that in an era of heightened fears and isolation, we need each other more than ever. This can make for some oddball and heartrending hookups. That’s the back story of Big City, a quirky high-stakes comedy about Jane and Joe, engaged in an escalating conflict over their life as not-so-platonic urban roommates.”

 

Big City boasts a cast entirely comprised of Trustus Ensemble Members. EG Engle plays Jane and Clint Poston plays Joe. Catherine Hunsinger and Jason Stokes play Sandy and Bill – two characters who enter in the second act and bring even more chaos to this apartment nestled in the Big Apple.

 

Trustus Theatre’s Big City opens on the Thigpen Main Stage on Friday, August 14th at 8:00pm and runs through August 22nd, 2015. Showtimes for Big City are 7:30pm on Thursdays, 8:00pm on Fridays and Saturdays, and 3:00pm on Sundays. Tickets for musicals are $30.00 for adults, $28.00 for military and seniors, and $20.00 for students. Half-price Student Rush-Tickets are available 15 minutes prior to curtain. Patrons are encouraged to reserve early at www.trustus.org as the show has a limited run.

 

Trustus Theatre is located at 520 Lady Street, behind the Gervais St. Publix. Parking is available on Lady St. and on Pulaski St. The Main Stage entrance is located on the Publix side of the building.

 

For more information or reservations call the box office Tuesdays through Saturdays 1-6 pm at 803-254-9732. Visit www.trustus.org for all show information and season information.

 

"Good People" - Jillian Owens reviews the new play at Trustus Theatre

David Lindsay-Abaire’s Good People, the new show at Trustus Theatre,  takes place in Boston, but really exists in two separate worlds.  Margie Walsh (Dewey Scott-Wiley) isn’t doing well at life.  As struggling single mother with a severely disabled adult daughter, she’s barely getting by paycheck to paycheck.   When she’s laid off from her job at the Dollar Store for excessive tardiness –mostly from having to care for her daughter—she’s left with no prospects and a looming eviction. Her friends suggest she go talk to her old high school flame, Mike (Jason Stokes) to see if he can give her a job.  They all remember him as being “Good People” - surely he’ll help an old friend out. Mike is completely beating Margie at the game of life:  he’s a successful doctor with a home, a family, and a practice in Chestnut Hill, an upscale part of town.   Mike never says he’s rich, just “comfortable,” to which Margie snaps back, "Oh, comfortable.  You're comfortable. OK — I guess that makes me uncomfortable."  She manages to wheedle an invitation to a birthday party that his wife is throwing for him, where she hopes to meet her new future employer.

 Richard Kiraly

Lindsay-Abaire presents some truly interesting characters and concepts in this play.  Mike is that guy who managed to “get out” and make something of his life and Margie is that girl who just didn’t make it.  While Mike feels entitled to his success, since after all he did work extremely hard to get there, Margie points out that he had several lucky breaks that most people in the "Southie" end of Boston never had.  At what point are you truly just stuck?  When Margie, the self-proclaimed “too nice” girl attempts to blackmail Mike with frightening secrets from his past, you can’t help but wonder if any of these people are “good” at all.

goodpeople4

This script is particularly compelling as Lindsay-Abaire grew up in Southie.  Like Mike, he grew up as the son of a fruit peddler, and was one of the lucky ones able to get out after getting a scholarship to Milton Academy when he was 11.  The author says that the reason it took him so long to write a play about his childhood home was that “I was terrified.  You love and care about these people deeply, and you don’t want to misrepresent them.”  His characters are treated with compassion and dignity here.

This production, directed by Jim O’Connor, is subtle and well-executed.  This show is a terrific example of what can be done with a terrific cast and a terrific director when they’re given a terrific script.  Dewey Scott-Wiley is a raw and intelligent Margie who interjects just the right amount of humor into a very serious story.  Jason Stokes plays Mike, and while he’s probably too young for this role (despite several references in the script to his looking good for his age), he manages to make you feel truly sorry for him when Margie starts laying in to him.  The supporting cast, consisting mostly of Columbia theatre veterans, all deserve mention as well.  Erica Tobolski, Barbara Lowrance Hughes, Kevin Bush, and Michelle Jacobs all deliver solid performances.

Kiraly

That being said, the set seemed hastily put-together, clunky, awkward, and not very well designed, which has been a recurring issue for Trustus.  For this performance it was downright distracting as actors struggled with some of the set pieces and curtains.  But that’s nitpicking.

Trustus Theatre has been spot-on with the plays they’ve chosen this season.  I’m happy to see them getting back to their mission of bringing some of the best new theatre to Columbia, SC, and I hope this continues.

Good People runs through April 6; contact the box office at 803-254-9732 for ticket information, or visit www.trustus.org (and try out the new Trustus online reservation system.)

~ Jillian Owens

"Next to Normal" at Trustus Theatre - a Review by Jillian Owens

When I was asked to review Trustus Theatre’s first show of the season, Next to Normal, I was hesitant.  I don’t usually like musicals.  It seems like the vast majority that are being launched on Broadway nowadays are pure fluff – adaptations of 80’s and 90’s movies hoping to bank on an easily entertained populace’s desire for nostalgia and escapism.  But then there was this little gem that won the Tony for Best Score, Best Orchestrations, and Best Book by Tom Kitt (Music) and Brian Yorkey (Book and Lyrics).  It also won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Best Drama - an uncommon honor for a musical.  “What am I in for?” I wondered. The story of a family being ripped apart by mental illness seems an unlikely subject for a musical, which is one of the reasons this one works so well.  The play opens on what appears to be a typical morning with Diana Goodman (played by Vicky Saye Henderson) preparing lunches for her husband, daughter, and son, and devolves into her throwing sandwiches on the floor.  Diana is not well.  She suffers from severe bipolar disorder, accompanied by hallucinations.   In the next few weeks, Diana visits her psychotherapist (played by Terrance Henderson) who adjusts and readjusts her meds until she is mentally numb, but deemed “stable”.   But she misses her highs and lows…making her something less than the most cooperative patient.

This show’s power comes from the twisted but strong ties between the characters.  Dan (Paul Kaufmann) loves Diana, but wonders who is crazier: her for her illness, or him for staying with her?   Natalie (Elisabeth Baker) is perhaps the most sympathetic character in the play.  She is struggling to be the perfect daughter, but gets lost in competition with her brother (the song “Super Boy and the Invisible Girl”), while living with the very real fear that her mother’s illness might be lurking somewhere in her DNA as well.  Fortunately, she has found a friend in her new love, Henry (played by Chase W. Nelson) whose struggle to keep her out of trouble is a haunting mirror image of the struggle between Dan and Diana.  I won’t give any spoilers here, but rest assured, the plot twists in surprising and heartbreaking ways that will leave you agog.

The entire cast is simply terrific.  Vicky Saye Henderson’s vocal chops are on perfect display here, and Paul Kaufmann’s numbers will make you tear up.  Terrance Henderson’s voice is powerful and lush, and he gives great dimension to what could easily have ended up being a throwaway role.  It’s exciting to see terrific young talent cropping up in Elisabeth Baker, Andy Bell, and Chase W. Nelson – all relative newcomers to the Trustus stage.  I look forward to seeing more from them.

Next to Normal, directed by Chad Henderson,  is the type of show Trustus does best.  They have taken an amazing script, combined it with a small but amazing cast, and put it on a simple but well-designed set.  Musical Director Tom Beard's orchestra is subtle and effective.  The music melds with the story seamlessly.  Spectacle and shows with huge casts have never been the ideal for such a small stage, and this one doesn’t need it.  This show is powerful…spine-tinglingly so.  This is a beautifully challenging piece of theatre that needed to be created, and demands to be seen.

You should see this show.  Yes…you.  Even if you don’t like musicals, and especially if you or anyone you love has been affected by mental illness.  You will leave the theatre profoundly affected.

This is the first show without Jim and Kay Thigpen at the helm (Happy Retirement!), and proof that you can still put your trust in Trustus.

~ Jillian Owens

Next to Normal runs at Trustus Theatre through Sat. Sept. 29th; contact the box office at 803-254-9732 for ticket information.

 

Jon Tuttle's "The Palace of the Moorish Kings" - A Review by Jillian Owens

Jon Tuttle’s new play, The Palace of the Moorish Kings (based on the short story by Evan S. Connell) makes for a powerful and thought-provoking night of theatre.  Tuttle is no stranger to  Trustus Theatre – he’s their Playwright-in-Residence.  You may remember him from such works as The Sweet Abyss, Holy Ghost, and The White Problem. It’s Thanksgiving Day, 1970.  Dave and Millicent, played by Gene Aimone and Christina Whitehouse-Suggs, are a seemingly happy upper middle class couple full of smiles with a lovely home (newly renovated!) and dear friends whom they’ve invited over for their traditional holiday feast.  But there’s more than a hint of worry behind their cheerful expressions:  there’s one guest that hasn’t RSVP’d.  Their son has gone missing in Vietnam, but traditions must continue.

As the guests arrive, we learn theirs is not the only family in concealed crisis.  Aileen and Art (played by Becky Hunter and Christopher Cockrell), have a marriage whose foundation is beginning to show its cracks.  Leroy and his daughter Junie (played by James Harley and Erin Huiett) seem to be a content pair, but why has Junie dropped out of college?  Barbara and Al (played by Kim Harne and Shane Walters) are still deeply in love after many years of marriage, but Barbara’s sporadically shaky right hand indicates trouble on the horizon.  This coming-of-middle-age story explores what this group of friends, who have known each other since high school, has given up in their quest for the American Dream.  They’ve all achieved their own levels of success, but still have become wistful and jealous when they hear from their friend J.D., a draft dodger who chose a life of travel and adventure over college, a job, and marriage.  They all live vicariously through his letters from around the world, which curiously never ask about their own, considerably more predictable lives.

All of the actors do an excellent job with their roles.  Huiett makes a wonderfully subtle Junie, which is perhaps the most important character in the play.  We see her asking all the questions the rest of the group wishes they had asked themselves at her age.  She’s not quite so easily sold on the idea of a marriage and a split level being the ingredients for happiness and fulfillment.  Hunter’s Aileen is spot-on and sassy, with unwavering energy and passion.  Aimone, Suggs, and Cockrell deliver powerful and dynamic performances. Other characters, however, seem to exist merely as sounding boards for their more fleshed-out counterparts.  James Harley does what he can with the role of Leroy, who doesn’t say or do very much, except get a little sad about his divorce, and worried about his daughter.  Harne and Walters also fall victim to being good actors with weak characters.  They make a convincingly loving couple, and Harne’s portrayal of a woman who is in the beginning stages of a serious illness is truly touching -- but it seems like Al only exists to provide exposition about the adventures of the well-traveled J.D.  Once again, Walters does what he can, but this script doesn’t give him anywhere to go.  As  director, Dewey  Scott-Wiley has gotten the most out of her cast with this demanding script.

A great deal of dialog is dedicated to how beautiful and amazing Dave and Millicent’s home is, and the set really needed to show the 1970's ideal of beautiful and amazing.  I wasn’t feeling it.  It seemed almost unfinished and quickly thrown together.  An implied set would have worked better for this production if budget or time constraints were the issue. 

The Palace of The Moorish Kings leaves you in a state of thoughtful contemplation.  I would like to see this show 20 years from now, to see if I still identify with the youthful idealism of Junie, or if I find myself agreeing with the older, more conservative Dave.  It’s a show I’d like to take my parents to see with me and discuss over dinner afterwards. Perhaps you’ll go see it with yours?

 

~ Jillian Owens

The Palace of the Moorish Kings  continues its run on Wednesday, August 15th, and runs through this Saturday, August 18th.   The Wednesday and Thursday night performances  start at 7:30 PM, while Friday and Saturday nights begin at 8:00 PM.  Note that half-price student tickets are available 15 minutes prior to every curtain.  Trustus Theatre is located at 520 Lady Street, behind the Gervais St. Publix. Parking is available on Lady St. and on Pulaski St.  The Main Stage entrance is located on the Publix side of the building.  For more information or reservations, call the box office at 803-254-9732, or visit http://www.trustus.org .

 

Review -- August: Osage County

Jasper loves dysfunctional families.  Wait, let's clarify that - Jasper loves Pulitzer Prize-winning dramas about dysfunctional families, and there's a doozy of one running right now through Sat. Nov. 12th, at Trustus Theatre. August: Osage County, by Tracy Letts, is billed as Jim Thigpen's directorial swan song; he and wife Kay, with whom he founded Trustus 26 years ago, will retire at the end of this season (see the current issue of Jasper at http://jaspercolumbia.net/current-issue/ for details.) Fortunately, he has assembled a highly functional cast of family, both literal (brother Ron Hale and daughter Erin Wilson) and theatrical (a veritable who's who of local theatrical talent) to bring this provocative and compelling work to Columbia audiences.

The show recounts a few weeks in the lives of the Weston family, disrupted by the disappearance of the father. His three daughters return home, family and significant others in tow, to support their mother, and along the way we meet an aunt, and uncle, a cousin, and a few innocent bystanders. I was only familiar with this work from some reviews I read a few years ago, when it premiered and promptly won the Tony and N.Y. Drama Critics' Circle Awards for Best Play, the Drama Desk and Outer Critics' Circle Awards for Best New Play, and the Pulitzer. As a result, I had some misconceptions going in.  This is in no way, shape or fashion a comedy, even a dark one.  There are certainly some witty lines; most of the characters are fairly eloquent people connected to academia, and often barbs spoken in moments of great anger, frustration, and passion get some big laughs. Nevertheless, this play is a tragedy of the ordinary, an examination of the dark underbelly of contemporary American society, depicted before us via one truly unfortunate family.

Likewise, the title notwithstanding, this isn't really a rural or country-themed play at all.  While there is a plaid shirt here, some cowboy boots there, a backdrop that suggests dull stucco or adobe walls, and a Native American housekeeper, the setting isn't so much Oklahoma as it is any desolate location, and the desolation is as much spiritual as literal. One character notes that this isn't the Midwest, but rather the Plains, which he compares to the Blues, just not as interesting.  Nor is the show particularly surreal or avant-garde, as I somehow had expected. Sadly, the obstacles that confront these characters (with perhaps one Southern Gothic exception) are all too commonplace: divorce, infidelity, youthful rebellion, repression, substance abuse, suicide, and depression. The language is sometimes quite eloquent and poetic, but more often quite down-to-earth and familiar.

Yet this is a tremendously entertaining evening at the theatre, thanks to the supremely talented cast. While each of the thirteen actors gets his or her moment to shine on stage, top honors have to go to Libby Campbell Turner, in the central role of Violet, the harsh matriarch of the Weston family. We first see Violet helplessly struggling to form her words and thoughts as a result of her addiction to painkillers; the effect is shocking, especially for those familiar with Campbell Turner's assertive stage presence in any number of shows over the last several decades. Have no fear, however: Violet's coherence returns with a vengeance, as she tries to bring down each of her three daughters in turn. We chillingly realize that while the pills may have loosened her tongue, they surely didn't create her venom.

Violet's main adversary is her eldest daughter, Barbara, played by Dewey Scott-Wiley. She and Paul Kaufmann (as her husband Bill) are masters of the stage whisper, which they must employ for a marital spat that they desperately wish to remain unheard.  Scott-Wiley expertly depicts this ordinary yet complex character, as we see her first channeling her father in an alcohol-fueled intellectual ramble, then mirroring her mother, attempting in vain to control all around her, while still clad in her nightclothes.

Another standout is Gerald Floyd, as Violet's amiable but long-suffering brother-in-law whom she bitingly notes is now the family patriarch "by default," after her husband's disappearance. In a play where characters often naturalistically talk over one another, timing is everything, and Floyd is the champ, portraying a man who rarely gets a word in edgewise, yet always makes his point known.  Late in the third act, his demand that his wife (played by Elena Martinez-Vidal) show some shred of decency and compassion to their son, was for me perhaps the most moving moment in the play.

Another cast member whose vocal talent must be noted is Ellen Rodillo-Fowler, as the housekeeper Johnna. Brassy and feisty just a few weeks ago in Third Finger, Left Hand, here she plays soft and stoic, often pausing a half-second before most of her lines, and thus showing the depth and thought behind them.  Ron Hale, as Violet's husband, shines in the opening scene, waxing poetic and philosophical while concealing the depths of despair into which he has fallen. Sarah Crouch as the granddaughter Jean, Joe Morales as the local Sheriff, Kevin Bush as the supposed loser cousin "Little" Charles, Erin Wilson as the frustrated, plain-Jane middle daughter, and Robin Gottlieb as the somewhat spoiled youngest daughter who foolishly thinks she has escaped the family cycle, all do fine work, many playing against type.  Stann Gwynn as Gottlieb's fiancé has perhaps the fewest lines, but is memorable for making the audience wonder which is creepier: his interaction with Jean (which quickly moves into "Like to watch gladiator movies?" territory) or his career as a yuppie entrepreneur profiting from the Persian Gulf conflict.

One suspects that just as every great actor must try Hamlet in his youth, Macbeth in middle age and Lear as he gets older, so too must every playwright, Letts included, take a stab at a tragedy of family dysfunction.  August: Osage County presents us with no moral or lesson, but rather portrays people making the choices they must, but then living with the consequences.  I was reminded more than once during the show of a line spoken by Clint Eastwood in the film Gran Torino, about how "the thing that haunts a man most is what he isn't ordered to do."

Critics have called this the first great play of the new century. I'm not so sure I'd quite go that far, but there are certainly echoes of any number of classics:  Lillian Hellman's "little foxes, that spoil the vines," the spectre of substance abuse from A Long Day's Journey Into Night,  the bleak sense of frustration and yearning from  Chekhov's The Three Sisters and Turgenev's A Month in the Country, families coping with long-repressed secrets from Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, Ibsen's The Wild Duck,  and a dozen Tennessee Williams works, and the domestic battles in the homes of academics from Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and On Golden Pond.   Shoot, stick togas on the Westons and you'd basically have the cursed House of Atreus.  Time will tell if this is the latest retelling of eternal themes from the human experience, or a well-crafted pastiche of those themes, designed as an acting tour-de-force for a talented ensemble.

Either way, it rarely gets better than this if you want to see some of Columbia's finest performers flexing their dramatic muscles in some rich and juicy material. Director Thigpen made a wise choice for his finale, and deftly pulls it all together for a rich and thought-provoking evening at the theatre.

If you're going, note that the show runs a solid three and a half hours, with two intermissions, but it feels like not much more than two. Just be sure to make dinner and babysitter arrangements accordingly.  Call the Trustus Box Office at 254-9732 for ticket information.

 

~ August Krickel