REVIEW: Misery is Optional at Trustus Theatre

"Rest assured there isn’t a weak or underdeveloped character or a wasted moment." - Frank Thompson

Director and Co-Writer Dewey Scott-Wiley

Director and Co-Writer Dewey Scott-Wiley

Words were spoken, hearts were broken, but now I hope you see it was the whiskey talking, not me.”  - Jerry Lee Lewis

--

Though The Killer’s famous ditty about the perils of drinking was considered humorous in the 1950s (and still has a great tune), it’s no longer acceptable to laugh at alcohol/drug induced misbehavior. That’s why I was so pleasantly surprised at how much I laughed during Misery Is Optional, running tonight through Sunday at Trustus Theatre. Developed through the Midlands Tech-based Harbison Theatre Incubator Project, Misery Is Optional is a collection of vignettes and short monologues, taken verbatim from interviews with those suffering from chemical addiction. Their stories are often tragic, but Director Dewey Scott-Wiley wisely includes moments of hilarity throughout the show, without ever abandoning the seriousness of the disease or its impact on its victims and those in their personal orbits. Scott-Wiley’s staging is simple and minimalist, placing the focus squarely on the people and their experiences. While often colorful and eccentric, the many characters embodied by the cast of four are never lampooned or made into cartoonish figures. Scott-Wiley adds a glaze-thin layer of heightened reality at just the right moments, and at other times deals with stark reality head-on. The result is an immersive, emotionally engaging, and accurate-yet-respectful look at the world from the addict’s perspective. Character changes are done seamlessly onstage, with a simple change of hats or donning a pair of glasses, etc.
 

Co-Writer, Christine Hellman

Co-Writer, Christine Hellman

The cast is uniformly strong, and features Scott-Wiley, alongside Christine Hellman, Arischa Conner Frierson, and Jason Stokes. This ensemble of four well-known Columbia actors flows seamlessly from one character to the next. Many are recurring, while others we glimpse only once. From well-heeled society alcoholics to homeless heroin addicts, the entire socio-economic spectrum is explored, subtly driving home the point that addiction cuts across all cultural lines. There is no linear plot, per se, but there is an unmistakable thematic arc, taking us from the darker, hopeless stories through the process of intervention and treatment, and ending on a bright note of hope.

Each of the four performers presents a chameleon-like ability to seamlessly navigate the waters of dialect, social class, education level, and a spectrum of emotions, which will likely leave each theatre-goer with his or her favorite characters, so I won’t prejudice anyone by sharing mine. Rest assured there isn’t a weak or underdeveloped character or a wasted moment. Scott-Wiley utilizes a circular-pattern style of blocking throughout the show, which creates a perpetually kinetic atmosphere. Whether physically or emotionally, there is always motion, and the overall pacing and fluidity of the show are clearly well-rehearsed and perfected.

Misery Is Optional is a non-season special event, being hosted by Trustus, so there are only three more chances to catch it. I would urge anyone who enjoys good theatre to experience this production. This isn’t a “Hey kids, don’t do drugs” Afterschool Special, nor does it speak only to those in recovery. It has a message, but it’s also a fascinating, funny, and enjoyable show.

REVIEW: Trustus Theatre's Tail! Spin!

ShowHeader_Anatomy by: Kyle Petersen

Tail! Spin! is quite the appropriate beginning to Trustus Theatre’s 32nd season. Smart, raunchy, irreverent, and curious, it takes the audience’s incessant interest in the current political season and steers it into the recent past to take stock of the peculiar sexual preoccupations and peccadillos that seem to come along with politics.

The play, written (or assembled?) by Mario Correa, uses exclusively previous statements, interviews, dialogue, and social media content to tell the stories of the sex scandals of four politicians: Idaho Senator Larry Craig, who was caught soliciting gay sex in an airport bathroom; New York Representative (and failed NYC mayoral candidate) Anthony Weiner, who has a sexting addiction; Florida House Representative Mark Foley, who had inappropriate relationships with many underage male pages; and our own South Carolina Governor (and current House Representative) Mark Sanford, who handled a dopey extra-marital affair in the most clumsy way possible.

The premise is a challenging one, particularly given that just five actors (and only one woman) are tasked with bringing to life these rapid-fire, often fragmented narratives to life without sacrificing any comic timing, but Trustus, as usual, shines. Although a more-barebones and unadventurous set and sound design than is typical for the theatre, the acting and directing here is top-notch, elevating itself clearly above the world of SNL sketches and late night show fodder with which it shares similar DNA in its witty and puerile subject matter. Stann Gwynn delivers a note-perfect, awkwardly fastidious Larry Craig alongside Kevin Bush as the undercover agent who arrests him and Ellen Rodillo-Fowler as his hilariously in-denial wife. Both Bush and Rodillo-Fowler end up being MVPs throughout, darting through such a dizzying array of roles that makes the play double as an acting showcase. Bush’s nuanced, complex take on Mark Foley, the lone sinning politician which inspires some sympathy here, is perhaps the best moment, and the fact that he couples it with scene-stealing imitations of Stephen Colbert and the South Carolina State House Speaker is fairly incredible.

For her part, Rodillo-Fowler has to tackle every single female role in the piece, often leading to her having to literally interview herself as both Barbara Walter and Jenny Sanford (her Walters impression is priceless). While she delivers a remarkably graceful performance given the circumstances (there were a couple of moments where clarity suffered, although the writing seems the most likely culprit), the fact that the play doesn’t add a second female actor is either an intentional nod to the relative absence of women in politics or a reification of the boys club-default that exists in both political and comedic worlds. Either way, it would have been nice for her to have some help.

Joseph Eisenreich as Anthony Weiner and Clint Poston as Mark Sanford also perform nicely as both main characters and reliable sidemen—Eisenreich in particular comes in handy as he moves from the lascivious braggadocio of Weiner to the innocent adolescent that Bush’s Foley is obsessed with. Neither plays their main parts to type—Eisenreich is more All-American boyish in the Marco Rubio mold than the wiry, nervy real-life Weiner, while Poston plays Sanford with every bit of the principled conviction and quaint narcissism of our former governor, but without the aw-shucks bizarreness that characterized many of his even less-famous press appearances.

Director Jason Stokes, along with his top-rate cast, deserve credit for honing the fragmented give-and-take nature of this challenging script into clear punch lines and playfully subversive juxtapositions. You could see the play falling apart if performed by a lesser crew, instead of delivering two hours of solid laughs.

As far as any larger meaning or political statement, I’m not sure if I quite see one beyond the fact that it’s our current, sexually-charged and politically-saturated media culture  that makes this collage-like production possible, and that the hypocritical positions that we demand (or that politicians demand of themselves?) is a historical reality that gets endlessly repeated.

The bottom line, though, is that if the all-too-painful comedic reality of the current Presidential race has you down, Tail! Spin! serves as a reminder that absurdity is par for the course for our political landscape, and we might as well laugh at it.

Jason Stokes Talks About Tail! Spin! Opening Friday Night at Trustus Theatre

It's easy for a performing arts organization, be it theatre, dance, or music-based, to stick with the safe bet. Fill the seats by offering shows your audience has become accustomed to. Go to the same old pool, season after season, and keep it all familiar so your organization can pay the rent. And as long as your audience never leaves the city limits they may not realize that one of the responsibilities of an arts organization is to nurture the cultural literacy of its audience by offering new works. Works that challenge or discomfit. Works that take chances. Works that go out on a limb and take the audience with them as they shakily find their balance, but ultimately enjoy the view. While too many organizations in Columbia adhere to this boring, stagnating, audience-offending policy -- and we'll be writing more about this soon -- at least, and thank whoever the god of the performing arts is for this, we have Trustus Theatre.
Yes, Trustus has some familiar fun coming up this season (Walter Graham plays the alien transvestite Frank N. Furter in the delicious Rocky Horror Picture Show, for example). But at the same time, Trustus never fails to continue to take chances. Be it via the Trustus Playwright's Festival which last month gave us Anatomy of a Hug, one of the oddest little, top-notch shows we've seen in a while -- fresh, brand new, exciting; or via shows like the one opening Friday night on the Cohn Side Door Stage -- Tail! Spin! 
Directed by Jason Stokes,  Tail! Spin! stars Stann Gwynn, Kevin Bush, Clint Poston, Joseph Eisenreich, and Ellen Rodillo-Fowler. We asked Stokes to tell us a bit about where the story came from and how he plans to bring it to the stage. Find his comments below and plan to come out to check out this fascinating and funny piece of political theatre. It's new and different, and it should be perfect for the political season.  - CB
ShowHeader_Anatomy

Directing Tail! Spin! by Jason Stokes 

Tail! Spin! chronicles the real life political scandals of Larry Craig, Anthony Weiner, Mark Foley and Mark Sanford using their own texts, emails, Facebook messages, IM’s, and interviews. Using their own public and private words to tell the story in my opinion changes this show from being just a strict “by the numbers” bio-play, into a dramedy version of reality. The show hinges on each person’s scandal, but at its core, the show really details the toll their  actions take on them, their families, and political careers while bringing them face to face with who they really are thanks in no small part the modern-day twenty-four hour media coverage.  Some of the men are unable, or unwilling, to accept this new self-revelation.
From the beginning, the most difficult task of directing this piece was finding the right balance between the acts of these men and their humorous attempts to spin the details to a more favorable outcome. It’s my opinion that in order to get to the US Senate, House or Governor’s mansion you must possess a certain amount of intelligence … even if the intelligence comes from a team; the individual must be smart enough to adhere to the sound advice of others.  But the politicians focused on in this play react like children with their hands caught in the proverbial cookie jar after their sexual indiscretions are discovered. And their mindset becomes “If I don’t admit anything, then nobody will know.”  As is so often the case with political scandal, the denial becomes worse than the act.
We find ourselves in a polarizing political and social climate at present. Compromise is a dirty word, if you’re a republican then the democrats have no validity in their thoughts or policies; and if you’re a democrat, the republicans have lost their minds and their party is a mess with no real hope of salvation and thus should be completely cast aside (Yes, I’m generalizing, but find any two members of either party and ask them to agree on something, anything).  Which is why this show comes to Columbia at the absolute right time. While the subject matter can be shocking and their attempt to keep it quiet should be laughed at, hopefully, the audience will see these men as flawed human beings who made really, really bad decisions that when pieced together the way the playwright has, prove quite hilarious. And maybe for a few moments, we can all be Americans enjoying a night of entertainment together, as one people, the way we should be. To quote Dennis Miller however... "Of course, that's just my opinion. I could be wrong."
Jason Stokes first appeared at Trustus as Adam in 2002’s The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told.  Other Trustus roles include Roger in Rent, Rocky in The Rocky Horror Show, Luke in Next Fall. Other shows in the Columbia area include The Full Monty, Sleuth, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. In January of this year he held a reading of his new screenplay Composure, detailing the murder of N.G. Gonzales by SC Lieutenant Gov. James Tillman, in the Trustus Side Door.  He has also written, produced and directed four films, the most recent film  blocked was featured in the 2nd Act Film Festival, presented by The Jasper Project. 

Civil Blood Makes Civil Hands Unclean: Jason Stokes Premiers Original Historical Screenplay, Composure - by Haley Sprankle

composure  

Two households, both alike in dignity, in fair Columbia where we lay our scene...

 

The year is 1903. The Tillman family, headed by the Lieutenant Governor for the State of South Carolina, and the Gonzales family, headed by the founder of The State newspaper, are in a known feud. This ancient grudge (that began in the 1880s) broke to new mutiny as Lieutenant Governor James H. Tillman murders NG Gonzales.

 

That’s where local actor, filmmaker, and screenwriter Jason Stokes’ story begins.

 

“I first heard about this story at my ‘real’ work (Media Director for the South Carolina Bar) in 2000 during a presentation on the subject by Donnie Myers. I was fascinated by the story in part because of the sensational nature of the crime, but the more I began to research the story I realized that there was much more to it than just a murder and a murder trial,” Stokes explains.  “The Tillmans and The Gonzaleses were two powerful families in the city of Columbia who did not like each other for various reasons. This feud began in the late 1880’s and continued even after the events of January 15, 1903. During that time one side wielded power and opinion in the public press while the other side railed against the Gonzaleses and The State newspaper with every stump speech.”

 

This Saturday, Stokes presents an original screenplay titled Composure based on this rich piece of Columbia’s history. His cast includes such luminary local talent such as Paul Kaufmann, Eric Bultman, Stann Gwynn, Terrance Henderson, Hunter Boyle, Clint Poston, Katie Leitner, Stan Gardner, G. Scott Wild, Libby Campbell, Kevin Bush, Jonathan Jackson, Nate Herring, and Kendrick Marion.

 

“I’ve been very fortunate not only to have these talented actors lend their craft to this project but they are also valued friends and colleagues. I promise to anyone in attendance, if the story doesn’t impress you the talent certainly will,” Stokes says.

 

While Stokes is certainly no stranger to the Columbia arts community, having been seen in productions ranging from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof to Rent, not many know that he is a writer.

 

“I began writing just after my father passed away in 1989. My mother gave me a notebook to write down memories of my father when I had them but, being an adolescent, as I started writing down a memory or story it would veer away from facts to whatever fiction my mind was dreaming up at the time. So I’ve been writing for the last 27 years (to varying degrees of success),” Stokes said.

 

After writing about 30 screenplays, some of which have television spec scripts pitched to shows such as The West Wing and Castle, Stokes has developed his own style and writing process.

 

“Each screenplay is different, but they all seem to start before I really know where they are going. For example, I’ll write a scene that I either have no idea what it’s trying to say in a grand scheme, or I don’t know where it belongs in the story I’m thinking about,” Stokes delineates. “Composure was no different. The surface story was there but to make it interesting and make it build to something that makes people think was the challenge. This being a historical piece I just kept doing more and more research to see if I could find anything new to add to the layers, which took time. I worked off-and-on on the screenplay for about three years, and it wasn’t until I decided to begin with the murder and then bounce back and forth in time during the trial, to add the ‘why’ of the murder, that made it really exciting for me to want to write it.”

 

Being an actor himself adds a particularly interesting dynamic to Stokes’ work and process, as well.

 

“As an actor, it’s always a blessing to work on a well written piece of work, Tennessee Williams, Terrance McNally, Jonathan Larson, you want to chew on it as long as you can because really good, juicy dialogue and lyrics don’t come around all the time. So when I write I like to think of the story and dialogue in the vein; Would this be something I would want to sink my teeth into as an actor and rejoice in the fact that I GET to say these lines and tell this story?” Stokes adds.

 

Don’t miss the two hours’ traffic of the Trustus Side Door Theatre this Saturday, January 16 for free! Doors and bar open at 6:30 with the performance beginning at 7:30.

 

“Opinion reporting is nothing new, as evident by this story, but with the advent of technology and polarizing news outlets only compounding the divisive nature and climate I think we find ourselves in today, this is a true story that still has relevance and meaning,” Stokes says. “No one story, one person, one political ideology can be measured strictly in absolutes. If the audience can be entertained and enlightened in some way through the events of these gentlemen, then maybe the cast and I will have offered a different perspective in which to view our own world.”

Tamara Finkbeiner wins Audience Award at Jasper's 2nd Act Film Festival

Tamara Finkbeiner  

Congratulations to Tamara Finkbeiner whose film Eva's Plug, won the Audience Award at Friday night's 2nd Act Film Festival sponsored by Jasper Magazine. Selected via audience ballot, the 2nd Act Film Festival Audience Award includes a check for $250, a First Draft editing program, and a one-of-a-kind trophy designed by Columbia artist, Matthew Kramer. According to film festival director Wade Sellers, "With any short film fest there are many films that could win an audience award, that was the same with this year's 2nd Act Film Fest. There is usually a film, however, that just connects with an audience in that room at that moment and that was the case with Tamara's film Eva's Plug. You could feel the energy and enthusiasm for the film build as it played. That experience is what 2nd Act is all about."

This was the second 2nd Act Film Festival (the first was in October 2013) which played once again to a capacity house at Tapp's Arts Center and included the films of 10 adjudicated filmmakers from South Carolina including Lucas Sams, Brian Harmon, Jason Stokes, Bessy Adut, Phyllis Jackson, Caletta Harris-Bailey, Bradley Wagster,  Dustin Weibel, Jordan Young, and Tamara Finkbeiner. The selected filmmakers, who applied to participate earlier this season, were chosen over other applicants based on their abilities and the freshness of the voice the jurors thought they would bring to the project. Jurors included Lee Ann Kornegay, Lee Snelgrove,  Caitlin Bright, Wade Sellers, and Cindi Boiter. 

2015 2nd Act Filmmakers

"This year we put more pressure on ourselves to assist the filmmakers," Sellers says. "We offered script notes, production advice and assistance, and editorial suggestions once the films were turned in. As a whole the films were more diverse in voice and just better as a whole than our first event." Sellers is the owner and director of Coal Powered Filmworks, a three-time Emmy nominated filmmaker, and the film editor for Jasper Magazine.

In keeping with Jasper's efforts to foster a multi-disciplinary arts community, both visual artists and musicians played a part in the festival and its presentation.  Visual artist Michael Krajewski created an original painting which was used for the festival poster and program; visual artist Matthew Kramer created the Audience Award; and Pedro Ldv entertained festival attendees both before the event and during intermission. In addition, original music from several Columbia-based musicians, including Stan Gardner, Daniel Machado and more, was used as background music during the films themselves.

Columbia-based writer Don McCallister also served as a consultant on the first and third acts of the screenplay which was given to the filmmakers with the challenge that they write the second act and create a film, six minutes long or less, using all three acts. Participants in the 2013 2nd Act Film Festival including Ron Hagell and OK Keyes lent the knowledge of their experience to this year's filmmakers by consulting on films and screenplays.

In the aftermath of Columbia's devastating flood last week other artists including Michael Krajewski,  Bonnie Goldberg, Kara Gunter, Nancy Marine, and Sean McGuiness voluntarily stepped up and offered the fruits of their labors to benefit flood victims through a silent auction which generated $1060 which will be delivered to the Central Carolina Community Foundation. Two large bins of children's arts supplies was also collected from audience members for distribution to children effected by the flood.

The festival staff would like to thank Precision Overhead Garage Door Service, the Mouse House, Coal Powered Filmwork, and Bourbon Columbia for their sponsorship funds and services.

"It was exciting to see these ten filmmakers create these films," Sellers says, "and it only makes us more excited for the future of the event."

"Sleuth" at Workshop Theatre - a review by Jillian Owens

 

sleuth2

Would you like to play a game?

No no no! This isn’t the latest installment of a poorly-written body horror series. This is Sleuth, a mystery/thriller by Anthony Shaffer. The title made me think this play was  probably a just silly British farce of some sort. I hadn’t seen it, or either of its film versions (both starring Michael Caine.) Upon entering the theatre, I was warned that  “There will be at least one, and possibly more gunshots in this show.” by at least three  ushers.

"Spoilers,” I thought.

The show opens in the lavish country home of Andrew Wyke (played by Hunter Boyle), a successful writer of many mystery novels and a man obsessed with games.  He’s clever, and he knows it.  Games of strategy and wit are what he lives for.  Shaffer once said he based parts of this character on his friend, Stephen Sondheim, who also  shared a love of games.

Unfortunately, his wealth and intelligence aren’t enough to captivate his much younger  wife. She has left him for the handsome young Milo Tindle (played by the also  handsome Jason Stokes). Wyke invites Tindle to his home to presumably discuss the  details of his pending divorce from his wife.

(L-R) Hunter Boyle and Jason Stokes match wits in "Sleuth"

Sleuth surprised me in many ways. As I said, I didn’t expect this play to be much more than a witty farce. But it is much smarter than that. What begins as a situation comedy, with plenty of funny wit-matching and clever dialogue, becomes something far darker  and complex as the action unfolds. Wyke and Tindle aren’t the only ones playing  games here. This script was written to toy with the audience and their expectations as  well. Just when we’re comfortable and think we understand what this show is about,  Sleuth takes another turn - carefully placing its next piece.

Boyle and Stokes are well-cast in their roles as the jilted-but-proud novelist and the  young-but-not-so-dumb lover. It’s a tricky thing to go from quick banter to far scarier  places at the drop of a hat, but they do this fairly well. Their British accents aren’t bad, although a bit of Southern crept in every now and again. There were opportunities  where they could really brought out the more sinister moments of this play with even  more intensity, but I only saw this show on its opening night. With seasoned actors  such as these, I expect even more commanding performances as the show  progresses.

Randy Strange’s country manor set is impressive, with all the trappings of wealth  presented in a style you’d expect of Wyke. Alexis Doktor’s costumes are nicely done as well, although they seemed to lean towards the 1970 publication date of this play, rather  than the contemporary setting that is indicated by the use of a few modern bits of  technology throughout the show. There were a couple of technical glitches in the  performance I caught, but seeing Hunter Boyle play them off made me forgive thesesmall flukes.

I hope others aren’t put off like I almost was by what kind of play they assume Sleuth may be, because you really don’t know. Trust me. I would love to share more...but I’m afraid  that would just ruin the game.  The play runs through Sat. 11/23; call the box office for ticket information at 803-799-6551, or visit http://www.workshoptheatre.com.

~ Jillian Owens

 

 

Off the Top of my Head -- Kevin Bush Takes the Stage Again -- by Sam Smith, Jasper intern

Kevin Bush Off Did you miss the first showing of Off the Top of my Head? Don’t worry, you have one more chance on July 12 when the Last Call Series at Trustus ends its season. After Ain’t Misbehavin’, Kevin Bush will perform an original show with special guests Terrance Henderson, Vicky Saye Henderson, Jason Stokes, and his brother Eddie Bush. Doors open at 10:45, and the show will start at 11:15. Tickets are sold at the door for $15.

The word ‘cabaret’ was first used in 1655 as a variation of the word tavern, and taverns are where cabarets began. The sun would go down and people would head to the local tavern for a night of drinking, laughter, and music. Eventually, cabarets moved out of taverns and into strip clubs, night clubs, restaurants, and finally to the stage. In America, cabarets became popular in the roaring twenties during Prohibition, where it was a fixture, just as much as a light would be, in speakeasies. After the rising popularity of concerts, variety shows, and comedy houses in the sixties, cabaret saw a slow decline until there were very few places left in America that still did cabaret. Luckily, cabaret is starting to see a revival with new artists interpreting it in new ways.

Off the Top of my Head starts with music where cabaret left off. It pulls heavily from music of the sixties, and Kevin Bush describes it as a sort of “Great American Songbook, Volume 2.” The night will be filled with songs by Joni Mitchell, Stevie Wonder, Prince, Marvin Gaye, Freddie Mercury and Queen, Ben Folds, Stephen Sondheim and a few others. Off the Top of my Head will focus on songs that Kevin Bush finds inspirational due to their lyrics, music, or artists, and he intends to make the show, in his own words, “a sort of "mix tape" that's intended to share the brilliance of these songs, and their songwriters, with an audience.”

This promises to be an entertaining and enjoyable evening. The resurgence of cabaret as a medium of entertainment is unique to particular areas of the United States, and Columbia, South Carolina usually wouldn’t be among that list. The chance to see a cabaret without traveling is something you don’t want to miss in the end of the Last Call season. Off the Top of my Head gives its audience a chance to hang out, have fun, and enjoy the performance art that is a cabaret show without them needing a time machine, and it’d be a shame to miss it.

Trustus Theatre is at 520 Lady Street, behind the Gervais Street Publix. For 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.

- Sam Smith, Jasper intern

"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

Memorable Theatre Moments from 2012 - August Krickel's picks

This time last year, on a lark, I put together a stream-of-consciousness recollection of some things I had enjoyed on stage over the preceding year.  Would you believe - we set a new record for site visits with that blog post!  Sure, sure, the site and blog were still young, and most of it was folks logging in to see if they were mentioned or not, but still, it showed everyone involved that there is significant interest in theatre among the greater Columbia arts community.  As I wrote at the time, "theatre for me is sometimes not about the final product, but rather individual moments that move me, make me smile, or stay with me long after the show is done."  This year I have been fortunate to see most of the shows at the main theatres in downtown Columbia:  7 of 8 done on the Thigpen Mainstage (plus a late-night show) at Trustus, 3 of the 5 done at the Trustus Side Door, 5 of 6 at both Town and Workshop, plus a couple at Columbia Children's Theatre.  That's 23 freakin' shows, which sadly means that I didn't have time to see any at the many excellent theatres and venues on campuses and in the suburbs.  So with that disclaimer, I give you the best, funniest, and most memorable theatre moments for me from 2012: - the opening image as the curtain rose in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels at Town Theatre, with dancers frozen in exotic poses. In particular, Haley Sprankle, Grace Fanning and Becky Combs were draped over their partners with extension that went from here to the moon, and it perfectly captured the look and feel of the carefree and free-spirited Riviera setting.

- Doug Gleason in Scoundrels, goofing and camping it up shamelessly, then breaking into song with the voice of an angel, not a buffoon.  In my review, I wrote that he reminded me of the young Bill Canaday, a gifted comic actor now happily retired from the state and (at least temporarily) the stage. Several people mentioned to the real Bill that they saw his name in a theatre review, and he laughed and later told me that this was like the actor's nightmare - was he supposed to have been in a show somewhere?  Did he miss his entrance?

- Elizabeth Stepp as a huffy, haughty insect, miffed over being shooed away in Pinkalicious at Columbia Children's Theatre.  Lindsay Brasington, vamping and cooing for the press as she imagined being the first doctor to diagnose acute "pinkititis." George Dinsmore, dramatically confessing to his wife after all these years, his dark secret that he too secretly had a fondness...for the color ....pink.  (At which point Sumner Bender leaned over and whispered to me "But they named their daughter ... Pinkalicious?"

- Shelby Sessler's tour-de-force as three separate and distinct characters in Alfred

Hitchcock’s 39 Steps at Town.  Only a couple of weeks after portraying the titular tyke in Pinkalicious above,  she played a va-va-voomish German femme fatale,  a forlorn Scottish farm wife, and a proper yet spunky yet romantic British lady. As the German she somehow managed to not only play dead, but to feign rigor mortis, stretched out over an armchair... I still don't know how she managed it.  As the lady, she and her castmates mimed all the effects to convey a train speeding down the tracks.... and if you looked down, very subtly her hand was fanning the hem of her skirt back and forth to add the effect of wind.  Not surprisingly, she was one of three finalists for Jasper Theatre Artist of the Year, and organized the entertainment for the November issue release party at City Art.

 

 

- Avery Bateman and Kanika Moore playing multiple roles in Passing Strange at Trustus.  Bateman cracked me up as a materialistic princess-type whose life with hero Mario McClean was pre-planned within about 5 seconds; then she and Moore turn up as Dutch girls, then Germans. "Have a conversation vit' ze hand," Moore declares, almost getting American slang right. Even music director Tom Beard got a line in on stage, rising in outrage, when the cynical German nihilist characters dismiss the punk movement as commercialism, to protest "What about The Clash, man???"    Also loved the vivid colors that symbolized the free-spirited European setting of Passing Strange, provided via original paintings from ten local artists, and director Chad Henderson's always-moving, never-a-dull-moment, no-one-wasted-on-stage  blocking.  (And sure enough, Henderson was voted Theatre Artist of the Year by Jasper readers!)

- Randy Strange's lush, opulent, plantation-interior set for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at Workshop Theatre. There was something to take everyone's breath away in this classic show, from Jason Stokes in a towel, to E.G. Heard (and on alternating nights, Samantha Elkins) in a negligee. Ironically, the beautiful and talented Heard teaches theatre at my old high school, while the equally lovely and gifted Elkins teaches drama at the one I was zoned for. I seem to recall my old theatre teacher was nicknamed "Sasquatch" - my how times have changed!

- G. Scott Wild utilizing the teeny Side Door Theatre space at Trustus more efficiently and realistically than I had ever seen before, with his set design for A Behanding in Spokane. The entire show takes place in a hotel room, and Wild wisely used every single

inch of available space, including the main entrance into the theatre as the room's only door, complete with deadbolt and peephole.  And Wild himself, perfectly capturing a world-weary, frustrated (possible) serial killer, then seamlessly segueing into the character's actual nature: a world-weary, frustrated, hen-pecked nebbish.  When you meet him, you realize Wild is quite young, but with little make-up and primarily mannerisms, he effectively embodied a character 20+ years older than he. Christopher Walken played this role in New York, but I somehow suspect that Walken played Walken, while Wild embodied and fleshed out the character.

- Also, in Spokane, Elisabeth Smith Baker embraced a challenging character role.   In my review, I wrote that she somehow managed "to be pathetic and sympathetic, winsome and adorable in a skanky sort of way, vulnerable, crafty and resourceful, yet sometimes just dumb as a post. She has some nice moments of physical comedy that would make Lucille Ball proud.   At one point she makes a quite logical decision to try to charm her way out of a life and death situation, yet her effort is so obviously contrived that only an idiot would fall for it... and of course, one does."

- Sumner Bender and Ellen Rodillo-Fowler, both getting a chance to sink their teeth substantial roles in In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play at Trustus.  Color-blind casting is always a tricky challenge, and Bender and her infant's wet nurse need to be white and black respectively, because of specifics in the script, but Rodillo-Fowler played another society lady, and peer to Bender.  Was she perhaps the mixed-heritage daughter of a prominent admiral or missionary? Could she have simply been adopted, and raised in starchy whitebread Victorian society?  Or was she (as my spirit-guide Dr. Moreau suggested) a Native American? Most importantly, it didn't matter.

- Vibrator also featured the return of Steve Harley, not seen enough on local stages in recent years. I got some mileage out of this line of his:  "Hysteria is very rare in men, but then he is an artist.” The artist referenced was played by Daniel Gainey, one of a number of gifted young actors who seemingly came out of nowhere to captivate local audiences. (See Wild and Gleeson above, and Andy Bell below; with Gainey, "nowhere" was actually many roles in opera and operatic musical theatre.)

- Speaking of Gleeson, he played a vastly different type in Andrew Lippa's Wild Party at Workshop, still a clown, but a scary one. The extreme physicality of some of the choreography was impressive, as were his scenes with Giulia Marie Dalbec (his leading lady in Scoundrels above, but more on her in a moment.) Also in the cast as part of the ensemble was Grace Fanning, as an underage party girl in the Roaring 20's. At one point the lyrics describe each "type" as they enter: a dancer, a producer, a madam, a boxer, and.... as Fanning sashays in, anticipating something like "a flapper," "a beauty," "a vamp" .... all she gets is: "a minor." The look of shock and outrage on her face was priceless, a combo of "I'm busted!" and "Is that all I get?"

- the strong supporting cast in Grease at Town, finally getting to sing all their best songs. The film version cut out a lot of the 50's do-wop homages, and focused on Sandy and Danny.  Here, Sirena Dib got to break hearts with "Freddy My Lo-ove," and Patrick

Dodds (still sporting his high hair from Spring Awakening) not only got a chance to smile on stage, but rocked out with "Those Magic Changes," two of my favorite songs of all time. Hunter Bolton reclaimed Kenickie's "Greased Lightning" (complete with the original lyrics describing exactly what sort of wagon it is) while Jenny Morse and Mark Zeigler beautifully harmonized in "Mooning," a song I had forgotten entirely. Leandra Ellis-Gaston got to drop the (Italian) F-bomb on Town Theatre's stage (it's just the seemingly meaningless "fangu," but it means the same thing) and was another example of how color-blind casting rarely hurts

anything.  Sure, the script calls for Rizzo to be Italian, but who's to say her dad wasn't progressive, and married an African-American?  Dodds also got some incredible moments of physical comedy with Haley Sprankle, as he tries to match her, move for move, at the prom.

 

 

 

 

Elizabeth Stepp, a gifted comedienne, literally throwing herself into each scene with abandon, as a beautiful Cinderella (at Columbia Children's Theatre) who still managed to get plenty of laughs.

 

 

 

 

- Gerald Floyd's increasing frustration with life after death in Almost An Evening (at the Trustus Side Door) navigating obstacles that ran from a maddeningly matter-of-fact receptionist (Vicky Saye Henderson, another Theatre Artist of the Year finalist) to a smooth-talking, winking bureaucrat (Jason Stokes.) Followed by his sympathetic portrayal of a grieving Texas father, in his scene with Kendrick Marion, playing against type as a stuffy, repressed government operative.

- the graphic puppet sex and nudity in Avenue Q at Trustus. And Kevin Bush hastily inventing his girlfriend Alberta...from ...um... Vancouver...in Canada.  And Katie Leitner voicing and manipulating two very different-sounding characters, Kate Monster and Lucy the Slut, with the aid of Elisabeth Smith Baker, who voiced plenty of others too, including one of the Bad Idea Bears. "Important day at work tomorrow?  Let's do some shots!"

 

- the commitment by director Shannon Willis Scruggs and costumer Lori Stepp to go all the way into the absurd in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at Town.  The musical numbers are pastiches of various styles (country, rockabilly, calypso, etc.) and here, almost like a live cartoon, the cast morphed quickly into Frenchmen with berets, cheerleaders with pom-poms, you name it. Frank Thompson as the King, baby, i.e. an Elvis-style Pharaoh, was particularly amusing.  James Harley noted in his review that "some of the show’s best energy comes from deep within the ensemble, Charlie Goodrich leading the way with 100% commitment to every movement he makes on stage."  There were dozens of people on stage at any given time, so I made a point to look for Goodrich within each number, and sure enough, whether or not he had any lines, he was always the best at reacting appropriately to whatever was going on.  And conceiving the "hairy Midianites" as members of ZZ Top was just inspired.

- Katie Foshee, who has enlivened the ensembles of about a hundred musicals in recent years, stepping into (and owning) the lead role in Camp Rock - The Musical at Workshop.  Avery Herndon and Alex Webster too were adorable as they as they succumbed to puppy-love-at-first sight, and Kathryn Reddic made a great mean girl.  From her bio, Reddic would have had Linda Khoury for drama in high school, meaning that she is well-versed in Shakespeare, and as a current English major at Vanderbilt she is surely immersed in Shelley and Keats, Joyce and Yeats, Chekhov and Strindberg, yet she rocked out like Beyonce in some complex hip-hop dance numbers.  Commodore girls represent, y'all.

- James Harley back on stage in Palace of the Moorish Kings at Trustus, under-playing a complex character who wasn't given a lot of lines or movement. Silence can sometimes speak volumes, and Harley had some great moments where he started to say something... then words failed him, and the point was nevertheless made.  But he did get a few memorable lines as a member of the "greatest generation," who never felt entirely comfortable as being seen as a hero, since he never killed anyone, never did anything heroic, and only served after being drafted.

- Elisabeth Smith Baker (yet again!) so sweet and natural in Next to Normal at Trustus.  And the show's big "reveal," which fooled me entirely, even though I more or less was familiar with the plot.  Andy Bell made a great transition from musician to actor/singer on stage, and the entire cast distinguished themselves as professionally as if they were the original cast on Broadway. The set too (by Danny Harrington, with input from Chad Henderson) showed how even the big-name New York shows are going for simple, stylized, low-cost sets these days, which often work better than trying to achieve realism.

- Giulia Marie Dalbec dominating the year with not one but four bravura performances.  While she has played countless roles as vixens, ingénues, or someone'sgirlfriend or daughter, Dalbec made her mark as a name-brand lead in Scoundrels and Wild Party (above) and as Elle in Legally Blonde at Workshop. The word that immediately comes to mind to describe her on stage now is "confident" - and with that confidence, she bravely took on the role of the meek Honey in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (also at Workshop) and nailed that one too.  Half the time Honey was drunk, or passed out, or ignored by everyone else, but Dalbec was always engaged in believable action and movements, however subtle.

 

- Robert Michalski's swaggering cameo as a UPS delivery guy in Blonde; I don't think I've ever seen a performer simply walk across a stage and then through the audience and get such a big laugh.  As I wrote at the time, he definitely had a package, and was determined to deliver it.

- Elena Martinez-Vidal's characterization (complete with New England accent) of Martha (in Virginia Woolf) as an aging Snookie, the college president's scandalous daughter who bluffs her way through academia via booze, sex, humor and bravado.

- Paul Kaufmann playing 35 different characters in I Am My Own Wife at the Trustus Side Door. Clad for most of the time in a dress!  The main figure was an East German "tranny granny" who may or may not have been a pioneering cultural historian, a murderer, an informer for the secret police, and/or a courageous activist and supporter of the oppressed gay community in Berlin.  After a while you got used to most of the various German and American "voices" ...and out of the blue, he's also a crisp Anglo-Indian reporter called Pradeep Gupta, with the perfect, smooth, musical lilt to his voice that you'd expect.  And this was a week after playing the male lead in Next to Normal !

 

 

- the striking, sunset-hued panels that comprised most of the set for Next Fall at Trustus. And the banter between G. Scott Wild and Jason Stokes (both yet again!) as mismatched lovebirds who just happen to be guys.  And the odd (but probably fairly common) paradox of fundamentalist Christian characters as they try to rationalize their own "sinful" lifestyle, especially as detailed by Bobby Bloom.

- Abigail Smith Ludwig, conveying the flowing, soft, lyrical beauty of German syllables and consonants in a  disgruntled rendition of "O Tannenbaum" in Winter Wonderettes at Town. And Alexa Cotran, yet another remarkable discovery, a very young performer who matched her older castmates note for note, scene for scene. Cotran bears a striking resemblance to my first grade teacher, who had that exact same huge 1960's hairdo, perfectly coiffed here by Cherelle Guyton, who was responsible for most of the good-looking hair in the shows mentioned above.

- the wonderful cast of [title of show] at Trustus in just about every moment on stage. Laurel Posey recounting her recurring lead role as "corporate whore," and Robin Gottlieb segueing from a cute number on secondary characters into Aerosmith were especially funny, but somehow the genuine moments in this little show touched me as few usually do.  "Who says four chairs and a keyboard can’t make a musical?  We’re enough with only that keyboard - we’re okay with only four chairs. We’ll be fine with only four chairs - we’ll rock hard with only four chairs!"  That sort of do-it-yourself mentality and optimism can be applied to so many things in life, as can their conclusion that it's better to be "nine people's favorite thing, than a hundred people's ninth favorite thing."  Score one vote for the rice crispy treats, as this was far and away my favorite show of the year.

- the actual do-it-yourself production of Plan 9 from Outer Space - Live and Undead 2.0 presented at Trustus, but essentially cobbled together on a shoe-string six months earlier at Tapp's Art Center.  Thanks to enlisting the aid of some of Columbia's finest actors, the show almost became a real play, even though the basic idea was to do a tongue-in-cheek spoof of what many feel is the worst movie ever made. So many of the cast were inspired in their campy re-imagining of the film's original dialogue, including Jennifer Mae Hill as a sexy stewardess (Hill was a gifted actress at Trustus, Chapin, and elsewhere long before she got into doll-making) and Chad Forrister as the stolid hero. Forrister was also the hero of 39 Steps above, and has perfected the mock-heroic, ever-so-slightly-exaggerated tone required by these spoofs.  Victoria Wilson was beautiful as an evil alien, but used a

rich, serious, Shakespearean voice that reminded you of Judith Anderson or Maggie Smith. Some of Forrister's best moments came with Catherine Hunsinger, playing the soon-to-be-abducted heroine.  There's an exercise in acting classes called "give and take," where two actors alternate allowing each other to take focus and dominate a scene. Hunsinger could have gotten some laughs as a stereotypical 1950's housewife, and given some to Forrister; instead, she wisely chose to downplay her performance, setting him up for vastly bigger laughs than either would have gotten separately.  As I wrote in the review, "Another example of her generosity on stage comes when the zombie-fied Scott Means attacks her; she swoons melodramatically...but at the same time, falls over the actor's shoulder in a perfectly-timed movement, allowing him to lift her easily, with as much grace as two ballet dancers.  Well, or pro wrestlers."

Hunsinger is a fearless performer, taking an emotionally demanding role in Spring Awakening the year before as the (semi-compliant) victim of a disturbing rape/seduction by the show's protagonist, yet somehow she managed to allow him to still seem deserving of the audience's sympathy. And then she tackled the Olivia Newton-John role in Grease (above) which is surely a daunting vocal challenge for the most talented of singers, but she filled Sandy's saddle oxfords with ease.  That incredible voice had its biggest test in Plan 9, as Hunsinger's character was pursued across stage and into the house by zombies.  The

original villains' make-up from the film was absurd enough, and here it was made even campier, yet Hunsinger chose to play the entire scene straight. As Chris Bickel cued some vintage movie chase-scene music and Hunsinger gamely screamed her head off, just for a moment I was no longer at Trustus.  Just for a moment I was a 13-year-old watching the Mummy or the Wolfman or the Creature abduct some forgotten heroine on the Universal or Hammer Studios back lot. Just for a few seconds there was a genuine chill down my back, as a brave young actress fully committed to being a terrified damsel in distress, running for her life from unspeakable horror.   Theatre is supposed to transport you, to take you out of yourself, and so this was for me, however briefly, the most memorable moment on stage in 2012.

So there are some of the things I enjoyed in the last year.  How about you?  That "comments" section below is there for a reason. What did you enjoy on stage in 2012?

~ August Krickel

 

"Next Fall" at Trustus Theatre

Geoffrey NaufftsNext Fall, now running at Trustus Theatre, was Tony-nominated for Best Play, and won the Outer Critics Award.  As detailed in press material, "this contemporary play explores relationships, faith, family, and the very current topic of same-sex rights in hospitals. The show chronicles the five-year relationship between Luke and Adam. With Luke being devoutly religious and Adam being an atheist – their love and their principles are often tested. However, when an accident changes everything, Adam is forced to examine what it means to 'believe' and what it will cost if he doesn’t." Visiting Director Sharon Graci previously directed the show at Charleston’s PURE Theatre.  Trustus Artistic Director Dewey Scott-Wiley notes that “Next Fall asks a lot of important questions about love, family, religion, and civil rights, and how the questions get answered within the context of a same-sex relationship. What is most wonderful about Next Fall, however, is that many of the questions are left for the audience to answer.  There is nothing predictable or didactic about the show."

That said, every audience member brings a different perspective to any show. Jasper Literary Editor Ed Madden, Theatre Editor August Krickel, and guest critic Stephen Kish all had drastically differing takes on the production. One felt the show delivered an important message, one was looking for much more of a message, and one felt the message was less important than the love story. All enjoyed the performances by G. Scott Wild, Jason Stokes, and Kim Harne, and all to some extent felt the supporting cast were under-used, especially in the first act.  One liked the use of miming in place of props but didn't think it was always accomplished that well by the cast, while another admired the actors' mastery of the technique, but didn't like its use to begin with. Two weren't wild about the creative scene changes, while one loved them.  So go figure.  Jasper encourages and indeed embraces diversity of opinion, and urges everyone to go see the show, and decide for yourself.

Ed Madden's take on the show - with some editorial thoughts on the larger societal context of some of the issues raised, can be found here. August Krickel's review can be found  here and  here. And guest blogger Stephen Kish's review is below:

........................

A familiar feeling crept over me while sitting in the audience of Geoffrey Nauffts's Next Fall - I’ve seen this before.  A simple setup starts us off.  Friends and family gather after Luke (Jason Stokes) is critically injured in a car accident.  We have every type of stock character: the chatty, overbearing mother (Kim Harne), the female co-worker (Brandi Smith) who loves hanging out with gay men, the father (Stanford Gardner) who can't accept the truth about his son, and Adam (G. Scott Wild), the cynical, religion-hating lover of comatose Luke.  There is hope, briefly, that this may all play out like a Flannery O'Connor story, wherein characters from different backgrounds clash over fundamental ideals, ultimately leading to some great epiphany - but that would be reaching to hope for such greatness.  Sadly, Next Fall, plays out like a Lifetime Movie, but without any of the fun.

To be fair, it isn't the fault of the actors or even the director; the material never rises to the occasion, and never is the feeling of grief or loss truly seen or felt by anyone. There are, nevertheless, very good parts within this production.  Kim Harne as Luke's very Southern, very chatty mother is altogether fun in her performance.  The rest of the cast didn't fare as well.  Jason Stokes as Luke is likeable and charming, as is G. Scott Wild as Adam.  They do not, however, possess any chemistry as lovers.  This presents a large problem during the staging of the play, as their relationship is the main drama.  The remainder of the cast was under-utilized, and didn't make much of a lasting impression.

The direction, by Sharon Graci, presents problems early on due to some strange choreography choices that alert the audience to scene changes.  There was a moment when the cast is moving chairs, an enjoyable pop song is playing, and I truly thought they were going to burst out into a full-on musical number, but of course they were just setting up the next scene.  Things like this jar the audience out of the experience, and take away much of the dramatic tension.

With this feeling of familiarity persistent throughout the performance, I wasn't sure how to feel. In many ways, this is just another story of a closeted gay man who can't face his fundamentalist father; there was nothing new explored, just more of the same.  There could have been so much more that could have been said here, but the script happily meanders the entire time, never becoming edgy, or delivering anything more than a heavy-handed message.  I wanted more from this play, but sadly didn't get it. Then again, not everything has to be life-changing or challenging.

~ Stephen Kish

 

Next Fall runs through Saturday, November  10th, on the Thigpen Main Stage at Trustus.  Tickets are $22.00 for adults, $20.00 for military and seniors, and $15.00 for students. Half-price Student Rush-Tickets are available 15 minutes prior to curtain if seating is available.

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.

Next Fall, This Fall: A Timely Play Opens at Trustus

“How do you make that call?”  That’s the question asked at beginning of the second act of Next Fall, the new play opening at Trustus this weekend.  And it’s really the question that drives the play.  Everyone is on cellphones in the play.  There are missed connections, unreturned calls, emergency contacts—and the inevitable chain of calls that happens when something awful happens to someone you know.

How do you make that call?

In the play, which was written Geoffrey Nauffts and staged on Broadway in 2010, Luke, a closeted gay man, lies in a coma in a New York hospital after an automobile accident.  Hospital policy limits access to “family only.”  In the hospital are two close friends and Luke’s parents, who have just arrived from Florida and who don’t know that Luke is gay, nor that he has lived with another man for 4 years.  The arrival of Luke’s partner at the hospital sets into motion the complicated (and sometimes infuriating) interactions of these 6 characters as Luke’s situation goes from bad to worse.  Life support, organ donation, access to your loved ones at a time of illness or catastrophe—all of these issues raise the question, “How do you make that call?”  And, perhaps, more importantly, who gets to make it.

It’s a deeply moving play, all the more so, I think, because it’s a message play about issues that matter, in some way, to everyone.  We’ve all faced, or will eventually face, these questions.  But I think they’re particularly fraught for gay people, and that’s where the real drama—and heartbreak—of the play lies.

* * *

Hospital visitation is an issue that has haunted the gay community for decades.  Under the law, for years, a family who had cut you off might have more claim over your health care than the partner you had chosen.  I remember, when I was younger, hearing about the Sharon Kowalski case.  Like Luke, Kowalski had been with her partner about 4 years, though unlike Luke and Adam, she and her partner Karen Thompson had had a commitment ceremony and had named one another as insurance beneficiaries.  Also like Luke, she ended up in a hospital after an automobile accident.  A drunk driver hit her in 1983, and she suffered severe brain injuries, with permanent physical and mental disabilities.  Kowalski’s anti-gay family and her lover repeatedly went to court over her guardianship.  One court after another disagreed.  Thompson eventually won, and the raised awareness in the lesbian and gay community about durable power of attorney forms for couples.

Of course, those legal forms don’t carry much weight if the state you live in doesn’t recognize your relationship—as Janice Langbehn and Lisa Pond discovered when Pond collapsed on a family cruise in Florida with her partner and their two adopted children.  Even though Langbehn had the proper legal document, that durable health care power of attorney, the Florida hospital refused to recognize it.  As the Lambda Legal website puts it, “The hospital also informed her that she was in an antigay city and state and that she could expect to receive no information or acknowledgment as family.”  For almost eight hours, neither Langbehn nor their children were allowed to see Pond.  She died in the hospital.  To add not merely insult but cruelty to injury, the state of Florida and the Dade County Medical Examiner refused to give Langbehn a death certificate when she requested one to get life insurance and Social Security benefits for their children.

Clearly, even if you had the right piece of paper, this fundamental human right to take care of the ones you love was subject to a patchwork of hospital practice, state policy, and homophobia.  Clearly, too, despite the Full Faith and Credit clause, states could not only deny recognition of couples and families recognized elsewhere, but they could also do so, as the medical examiner’s actions suggest, in particularly cruel and inhumane ways.

I can’t help but wonder if the playwright had this case in mind, when he made Luke’s parents Floridians.

* * *

Like much of the play’s publicity, the play’s flashback scenes, within which the relationship of Adam and Luke is developed, focus on their fundamental religious differences.  Adam is an atheist or agnostic, while Luke is a devout believer of a particular sort—not only a Christian but one who believes in the Rapture (a nonmainstream theology made popular by TV evangelists and the Left Behind franchise) and one who hasn’t reconciled his sexuality with his faith.  He still thinks his homosexuality is wrong—so much so that he prays after sex, even though he’s been with Adam for years.

Understandably, that’s unsettling to Adam.  But it makes sense to Luke’s best friend Brandon, who has sex with black men but doesn’t believe in the “lifestyle.”  As he explains to Adam, “When you two were just hooking up, it was one thing, but when it turned into something, well, more . . . Look, I understand the need to act on the urges, believe me, but to choose the lifestyle? To live like it was . . . right, I guess?”  Brandon draws the line there.

Or as Adam throws it back at him, “You draw your line at love?”

Part of the power of this play for me actually lies in the representation of Luke and Brandon—perhaps uncommon figures in contemporary gay theatre but both very real kinds of gay men, not just closeted or self-loathing (those are familiar), but unable to reconcile their sexuality and their faith, and, like Brandon, so deeply conflicted that they give themselves permission to have sex (those pesky "urges") but not permission to love.  That Luke prays after sex is just one of many coping strategies for the cognitive dissonance he and Brandon feel, trapped between two incompatible worldviews.

I am not a theatre critic, but I have to say that G. Scott Wild was excellent—compelling and human in the role of Adam.  His first few scenes felt stagey (though that was perhaps more the script than his acting), but as he got into the character—and through the entire second act—I found his character heartbreakingly believable.  Also, Kim Harne as Arlene, Adam’s mother, was a believable gem of an unstoppably chatty Southern woman, though as with Adam, the play gives her much greater depth as a character in the second act.

Part of the problem with the play, in fact, is the way the first act has to establish character and worldview in broad strokes, but the second act fills in with depth and empathy characters who seemed almost cliché in the first.  For example, Stan Gardner as Butch, Adam’s father, is an asshole and a fundamentalist Christian who doesn’t believe in evolution, uses the n-word, and makes clear what he thinks of faggots.  It’s a hard role to pull off without being a cliché, but Stan pulls it off surprisingly well, especially in the second act as his world falls apart.  Brandi Smith as Holly (the self-described fag hag and Luke’s boss) and Bobby Bloom as Brandon are also quite good—Brandi's timing spot on, and Bloom’s doe-eyed face a canvas of masked self-torture and conflicted allegiances.  Pretty and self-assured, Jason Stokes as Luke was an enigma of a character for me, though Stokes registers the confidence of convinced Christians that can so often come across as self-righteous smugness.

I also have to say I love the way the director (Sharon Graci, Artistic Director of Pure Theatre) moves us between scenes, using musical breaks for characters to move around the simple chairs and table that create a hospital chapel, a New York loft, or a coffee shop.  Or the use of umbrellas to open each act (simple and stunning).  These were beautifully and carefully choreographed moments of music and movement.

I also liked the minimal staging, though at times the lack of props and the (sometimes not-so-well) mimed acting of drinking, opening doors, and packing a suitcase became distracting.  Perhaps it’s appropriate, though, given the play’s theme, that other than the hospital waiting room furniture, the only real props were a Bible, a bottle of pills, and a cellphone.

* * *

I love those moments in theatre when I lose my sense of being in an audience and I get lost in the story.  Those moments, in this play, when emotion overwhelmed the characters—and overwhelmed me.  Despite my problems with the first act, overall I thought the play powerful and important.  And by the end, simultaneously crushing and hopeful.

Luckily, thanks to President Barak Obama, the rules have changed about hospital visitation.  Moved, in part, by Langbehn’s horror story of anti-gay Florida and others like hers, the president signed an executive order in 2010 mandating that any hospital receiving government funding (including Medicare and Medicaid) recognize the relationships of gays and lesbians and their children.

Luckily, too, South Carolina passed a law in 2008 (in the wake of the amendment’s broad denial of rights to lesbian and gay couples), allowing one to designate hospital contacts and visitation rights.  (Gay activists kept a distance from these deliberations, for fear the knowledge that this law would allow recognition of lesbian and gay couples would derail it in the generally homophobic South Carolina legislature.)

Of course, such policies wouldn’t help someone like Luke in the play, unconscious and unable to make such designations, and too closeted (and perhaps too soon in the relationship) to have sought ratification of the relationship in a legal document.  When the surgeon stipulates “family only,” Adam protests, “I am family.”  That relationship, however, is not recognized by law or hospital policy, and with a faggot-hating, Bible-toting, creationist father in the waiting room, it’s not likely to be recognized by those who have the power to make the call either.

If Mitt Romney is elected, sadly, this play may have even more resonance.  Within the past week, Romney has announced that being able to visit your dying spouse or parent in the hospital is a privilege, not a right, and should be left to states to decide.  (See here and here.)  As others have noted, this implies that Romney would reverse Obama’s 2010 federal order requiring hospitals to recognize visitation rights of gay couples and their children.

On behalf of Romney, his spokesperson clarified:  “Governor Romney supports a federal marriage amendment to the Constitution that defines marriage as an institution between a man and a woman. Governor Romney also believes, consistent with the 10th Amendment, that it should be left to states to decide whether to grant same-sex couples certain benefits, such as hospital visitation rights and the ability to adopt children.”

Theory and practice, I guess.  Banning gay marriage is a federal issue, but it’s up to the states to put cruelty into practice.

Next fall, Next Fall might feel all too possible, given the vicissitudes of elections and the determination of the Right to turn back progress.  I hope, instead, that next fall (or maybe the one after that or the one after that...), as powerful and moving at this play is, it will seem a dated message play, that Next Fall will join Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart as a play about a time when institutionalized denigration of gay people and the denial of their relationships was a tacit norm.

"How do you make that call?"  And who gets to make it?

Go see the play.  Make sure your gay and lesbian friends have a durable power of attorney.  And vote.

 

Review -- Workshop's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

As far as I'm concerned, places like Workshop Theatre exist to perform the works of writers like Tennessee Williams.  Colleges will always revive the classics from Shakespeare's era and earlier, high schools will keep alive the great family musicals and comedies, and regional theatre can be counted on to perform the latest cutting edge shows from New York.  For the better part of the 20th century, however, serious dramas by the great writers of contemporary theatre were the big Broadway hits, and none were bigger than Williams.  The first show I ever saw on my own as a teen (i.e. not taken by a parent or a friend's family, or as part of a school field trip) was William's Glass Menagerie, at Workshop, back when you could prop your feet on the stage if you sat in the cramped first row.   Workshop’s latest production of Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof  is a serviceable rendition of the author's account of a Southern family best by "mendacity;" while not exactly forging any new dramatic territory or uncovering any new meaning, the show is a nice reminder of why we still revere the playwright.

 

Williams takes many of his favorite themes (greed, manipulation, sexuality - both repressed and overt - class struggle, alcoholism), divvies them up among some stock character types (forceful older man, brooding and tortured younger man, vivacious beauty) and sets them loose on a hot summer night in the Mississippi Delta, when passions run high and secrets are revealed.  Which sounds a lot like a typical episode of Dallas (which ironically featured the original Maggie actress, Barbara Bel Geddes, as the saintly Miss Ellie.) But that was how influential Williams has been: just about every tale of Southern Gothic family dysfunction owes something to him.  Matters come to a boil on this particular night due to a convergence of circumstances: the Pollitt family is gathered for the 65th birthday of patriarch Big Daddy (Hunter Boyle), who thinks he has finally been given a clean bill of health. His children know the truth, that he’s dying of cancer, and has made no will.  Younger son Brick (Jason Stokes), a brooding, alcoholic ex-athlete, is particularly vulnerable, one foot in a cast due to a drunken attempt to recapture former glory on the track of the local high school. Older son Gooper (Charlie Goodrich) and wife Mae (Jennifer Simmons) see this as an occasion to make sure Big Daddy's estate (over $10 million, and "twenty-eight thousand acres of the richest land this side of the valley Nile") ends up in their hands.  The "cat" of the title, Brick's wife Maggie (Elisabeth Gray Heard) is exhausted from keeping up the pretense of a happy marriage. We see her cattiness when she observes that Mae and Gooper’s children all have names like dogs (Dixie, Trixie, etc.) yet just like cat chased up a tree by dogs, Maggie is at wit’s end as her adversaries close in.

 

Maggie is one of the great stage roles for any actress, and Heard doesn't disappoint.  I had forgotten how much Maggie dominates the first third of the play, her lines almost a continuous soliloquy only occasionally punctuated by Brick's occasional, terse comments. It's awfully hard to root for a woman whose main goal is for her undeserving husband to inherit his father's wealth, but root for her you do, since she has Williams writing her lines. As the supporting cast enters, one by one, taking focus, we feel Maggie's growing frustration and isolation, until at the play's end she makes one last crazy gamble to take back control of the play, and her life.  Heard looks more than a little like the young Kathleen Turner, one of many stage Maggies over the years, and she's a treat to watch. Note: she alternates in this role with Samantha Elkins, who will be featured in the final week of the show's run, starting Sun. March 25th, so the 23rd and 24th are the last nights to catch Heard.

 

Boyle brings an interesting and non-traditional interpretation to the role of  the coarse, forceful, self-made millionaire Big Daddy.  (While the character's name is certainly symbolic, the reality of Southern nicknames is probably simpler: when the first grandchild was born, he surely became "Big Daddy," i.e. grandfather.)  Boyle uses a faster-paced, higher-pitched delivery than one might expect; it's the same voice in which we recall Strother Martin drawling "What we have he-yah is a fail-ya to communicate..."    Big Daddy has a lot of laugh lines, ones that might have been missed had Boyle used a sterner, gruffer delivery.  Instead,  Boyle intimidates with sudden outbursts of anger and peremptory commands rather than sustained bluster.  As Brick, Stokes is like a poster child for the axiom "depression is rage turned inward."  Much of the time he has few lines, and instead must yield focus first to Heard, then Boyle, but nevertheless carries his half of the scene, even if largely in silence.  A friend seated closer to the stage than I noticed the physicality of his performance, such as the veins in his arms protruding at moments of anger. The character is somewhat one-note as written, and basically has to suffer and smolder for over two hours, but Stokes really commits to his role; you can follow the other characters for five or ten minutes, then glance back at Stokes on the sidelines and know that he will being doing exactly what you expect.  He and Heard manage to bring out many of the complexities and subtle contradictions found in Brick and Maggie: they claim to hate each other, yet, there is still clearly affection, admiration, and a sweetly disturbing co-dependence. There's no question that Brick's last-minute realization/declaration that he is still alive is directly inspired by similar bursts of vitality from his wife and father.

 

Some of the show's symbolism may seem a bit heavy-handed by today's standards: Bricks staggers falls and repeatedly cries for his crutch; he means the wooden one, but he's heading towards the bar, for another glass of the crutch that gets him through each day. Cancer is eating away at Big Daddy just as greed and lies eat away at the soul of his family.  Fireworks go off in celebration of Big Daddy's birthday, just as verbal fireworks explode on stage. Characters often navigate a long curving porch that surrounds the set to make an entrance, just as the Pollitts often take great pains to skirt around unspoken issues. Set in Brick and Maggie's bedroom, most of the action is centered around a large bed which dominates the stage, just as marriage and family life is ...well, you get the idea.

 

Director Amy Boyce Holtcamp's main challenges are to keep the action running at a lively pace in a show confined to one small space, and to make sure that nothing seems too dated, both of which she accomplishes.  Randy Strange's set is the type at which he excels: ultra-detailed and realistic. I especially liked how even the corners of the stage are used effectively, with an exterior upstairs porch/gallery located diagonally, suggesting the huge plantation below.  The great Williams sets in the 50's made use of translucent scrims in place of actual walls, so that the audience can see what's going on outside a door or window, and that effect is recreated here.  Whoever did the actual set dressing has quite the flair for interior design, with dark sturdy wood, rich red patterned upholstery and fabric, all emphasizing the wealth and seeming genteel respectability of the Pollitt family.  Even little things, like ornate half-moon windows over some doors, transoms over others, and Chinese lanterns out on the gallery, make for a believable Southern mansion.

 

Modern audiences may find this play a bit static, as there is mainly talk, minimal action, and no real resolution to many of the issues that are raised (especially a tragic love triangle from years earlier,  involving Brick's best friend, that could be an entire play on its own.)  Dr. Phil and Oprah could resolve most of the central conflicts in minutes, splitting the estate between the brothers, sending Brick off  to the Betty Ford Clinic (where he might also confront his sexuality) and encouraging the resourceful Maggie to strike out on her own.  Still, the point of this or any Williams play is not so much action but rather emotion, brought to life on stage through the incredible poetry of his language.  No actual person could ever be as vivid and eloquent as Maggie or Big Daddy, but Williams manages to replicate just enough of the rhythms and vocabulary of normal speech to make everything believable.  Ultimately, Workshop’s revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof   is a faithful and straightforward production of one of the great works of modern theatre, from one of its greatest authors.

 

The show runs through Sat. March 31st; contact the box office at 799-4876 for ticket information.

~~August Krickel

Reach August at AKrickel@JasperColumbia.com

and visit us at Jasper Magazine.