REVIEW: Jon Tuttle's Boy About Ten at Trustus Theatre

A talent for drama is not a talent for writing, but is an ability to articulate human relationships.” 

-Gore Vidal

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John Tuttle is, by any standard, a man with a talent for writing, but after seeing the world premiere of his play, Boy About Ten, I can affirm that he is also quite adept at articulating human relationships. Indeed, the oft-troubled intertwining of Boy About Ten’s dysfunctional, but (somewhat) connected nuclear family of four, drives the plot of Tuttle’s work, taking a well-written piece to the level of a performance bristling with all the sharp edges relationships can provide. This is not to suggest that the production currently running at Trustus is without laughter or light-hearted moments. It may be a tragicomedy, but Boy About Ten doesn’t hesitate to let the tragic cede the stage to the comedic in a legitimate, story-faithful way. In his program notes, Trustus Artistic Director, Chad Henderson, comments that “this play has undergone a more involved development process than our previous Playwrights Festival winners or commissions,” which no doubt contributed to the feeling of polish and streamlining found in the script. I managed to make notes on some of the truly standout lines, but by no means is my list comprehensive.

 

The play opens with D’Loris (Lonetta Thompson), a kindhearted but world-weary social worker, dealing with what is clearly a family in distress. She is trying to prepare Todd (Tommy Wiggins), the elder son, to go to his mothers’ house for a week. Todd is obviously troubled in multiple ways, but is largely nonverbal, using a set of oversized headphones to drown out the conflict which surrounds him, while hiding his face behind his chin-length bangs.  As usual, Thompson creates a fully-realized, textured character, who has flaws as well as sincerely caring nature. I never tire of seeing Thompson onstage, as she is always completely immersed in and committed to her character and the moment. It would have been the easy way out to depict D’Loris as either a hyper-idealistic Wonder Woman, or as a “honey, I’ve seen it all,” world-weary cynic, but Thompson chose to create someone in-between, and in the process, gave the audience a layered, complex, and realistic performance. Kudos also to Wiggins, a former Trustus Apprentice Company member, making his mainstage debut. Though Todd doesn’t speak much, especially in the early scenes, his body language, movement style, and a sort of self-embrace clearly establish him as a damaged human being, doing his best to avoid his psychic pain. When it is revealed that he is a self-cutter/burner, it is a bit of a shock, but totally believable for the character he has, by that point, made three-dimensional. I suspect we’ll be seeing much more of Wiggins on the Trustus stage in seasons to come, and I look forward to watching his development as an actor.

 

The arrival of Tammy (Jennifer Hill), lightens the mood by, ironically, introducing the least likeable of the five characters. Hill’s Tammy is brash, flashy, loud, and obnoxious, fancying herself far above the rest of the family. She dresses herself in designer clothing, while a couple of mentions are made of the kids’ clothes coming from Goodwill, and she personifies the cliche of the “helicopter parent,” dispensing screechy advice and criticism thinly veiled as “encouragement.” Hill’s comedic timing is absolutely spot-on, and she brought Friday night’s house down with such well-penned verbal spewings as “I was once a Sweet Potato Queen, now I’m a Cyclops!” (It seems that Tammy has a glass eye, which is broken, requiring her to wear an eye patch.) Clearly proud of her somewhat meager accomplishments, she touts having played Yum-Yum in a community college production of The Mikado, along with a few other small successes, in an attempt to impress D’Loris, who is eventually prompted to ask “what the hell is wrong with you people?” The moments of conflict between Tammy and D’Loris establish a curious dynamic. Tammy, in her own twisted, control-freak way, wants the best for her children, while D’Loris tries to help establish exactly that, which eludes the self-centered Tammy.

One gathers fairly quickly that Tammy is at her ex-husband’s house to swap out the younger son, Timmy, (Daniel Rabinovich), who is a straight-A, rule-abiding, do-gooder, complete with Webelos Scout uniform, and practically a stranger to Todd, and the two react somewhat cautiously to each other. (I may have missed an important line or mention of the situation, but it is clear that the brothers have not spent much time together.) Rabinovich demonstrates an actor’s sensitivities quite impressively, especially for a young actor. His character arc may well be the most dramatic in terms of growth and change, and he handles it like a true pro. As with Wiggins, this is a young man to watch.

Once all is settled, Timmy is left alone with his father, Terry. Played by Trustus mainstay, Paul Kaufmann, Terry is an affable, childlike n’ere-do-well, whose love for his sons manifests in an “at my house, there are no rules” dynamic. (When asked by Timmy if they can attend an Imax film or visit the Planetarium, Terry immediately scoffs at the thought of an educational outing, at least in the traditional sense.) Kaufmann, without ever breaking the established reality of the play, or mugging to the audience, brought to life an enchanting man-child, reminiscent of Tom Hanks in Big, with a dash of Bertie Wooster and Falstaff tossed in. To Timmy’s growing amusement, the two of them chug Cheerwine (no sodas allowed at Tammy’s house), fight ludicrous pretend war games against “Vagicilla, Dark Queen of the Nether Regions” (inspired, no doubt, by Tammy), and Timmy frequently receives his father’s military decorations, which may or may not be legit. It was at this point that I began to wonder about the show’s eponymous title. Was Timmy the Boy About Ten, or was his father? Had the parent/child dynamic between them already shifted before the action of the play began? Kaufmann, incidentally, scores one of the biggest laughs in the show while telling Timmy about his days in an ersatz KISS cover band. “You can always tell when chicks dig you. They chew their gum at you…like meat!”

 

A brief in-one scene gives us our sole glimpse of life at Tammy’s house, when the focus is, both literally and figuratively, on Todd, who is passively receiving an unwanted haircut from his mother. A special tip of the hat to Lighting Designer Laura Anthony, for transforming a simple floor lamp into a “where were you on the night of the robbery?” beacon. This is an occasion upon which the lighting truly made the scene for me. We, the audience, are semi-blinded by the intensity of the same light shining into Todd’s eyes, and subject to the same jabber from Tammy. Like a police officer in a bad, made-for-TV crime drama, she prattles on and on about how Todd should want to be “normal” and make friends “like all the other boys,” painting a Leave It To Beaver lifestyle, which will supposedly emerge with a haircut and a suit from Goodwill. Interrogation/indoctrination and “tough love” establish an uneasy coexistence at Tammy’s house, and the two children she raised reflect that. Timmy’s unblinking obedience earns him praise, so he obeys. Todd, whom I assumed to be somewhere on the autism spectrum, is unable to deal with what his senses perceive as blinding light and a barrage of impossible commands. Though short, this scene impacted me. I began to wonder through whose eyes we were seeing any given situation, and then viewing each scene from each character’s angle. Thank you, Jon Tuttle, for this (I’m guessing) three-page scene, which widened the lens through which I saw the rest of the play. Though she was the antagonist of the scene, it allowed a glimpse into Tammy’s desperate desire for a “normal, happy, family,” and humanized her for me.

 

I won’t go into too much detail about the second act, as it is, essentially, a minefield of spoilers, and much of what happens requires the elements of shock and surprise to work. While not without laughs, the second act takes a somewhat darker turn, with a grim family story, involving animal abuse, being revealed. (*While no violence is depicted onstage, a gruesome monologue could be mildly to moderately triggering for some.*) Terry childishly endangers his and Timmy’s lives at the end of act one, the aftermath of which, we see in act two. Todd returns, neatly trimmed and besuited, but still distant, albeit with the occasional smile of hope. Toward the end of the play, we discover that Terry suffered physical wounds far worse than Timmy’s while saving the boy from the dangerous results of his (Terry’s) recklessness. Romantic impossibilities are pondered and argued, D’Loris loses another crumb of her idealism, but hangs on to hope, Timmy takes his first step toward adult cynicism, Tammy reveals some game-changing information, and the family is left as we found them; bruised and battered, but oddly okay. The playwright leaves us with the idea that life will simply go on, and with the insanity and bizarre love in this family, who can even speculate on the eventual outcome?

 

Director Patrick Michael Kelly has taken an artfully written play, refined by much workshopping, and brought to the stage a world of slightly-heightened reality, never losing sight of the connecting themes of family and what it truly means to care for someone.

 

So, who is the Boy About Ten? I have my suspicions that each character, with the exception of D’Loris (who serves as the impartial observer and voice of reason) is that boy. Perhaps that answers my earlier question, and tips us off that the show is seen from D’Loris’ perspective.

Boy About Ten is an engaging, thought-provoking, and most enjoyable play, and a worthy addition to the Tuttle ouvre. Only four performances remain, so get your tickets now!

-- Frank Thompson

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Tickets can be purchased online at Trustus.org , or by calling the Trustus Theatre box office on 803.254.9732
 
Remaining performance dates are:
Wednesday, August 22 – 7:30pm
Thursday, August 23 – 7:30pm
Friday, August 24 – 8:00pm
Saturday, August 25 – 8:00pm
 
Frank Thompson is the theatre editor for Jasper Magazine - contact him at flt31230@yahoo.com
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REVIEW: Building the Wall at Trustus by Frank Thompson

“Your eyes can deceive you. Don’t trust them.”
- Ben (Obi-Wan) Kenobi, Star Wars

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  As is often the case in my experience with Trustus Theatre, I left Saturday night’s performance of Robert Schenkkan’sBuilding The Wall with a completely different story in mind. Just as their recent production of Barbecue had me humming a tune from Jekyll & Hyde: The Musical as I walked to my car, Building The Wall  left me contemplating the Star Wars saga, specifically the themes of redemption and the oft-blurred lines between good and evil.  This speaks well to the universality of the themes being examined this season at Trustus. If a new piece of work can activate the emotions and associations of the audience member, there’s an immediate sense of connection with the story. Not to get overly existential about it, but (with only a slight wink at the company’s name) it creates an immediate sense of trust in the script. Part of Trustus’ overall philosophy is that theatre is storytelling, and the story in Building The Wall is tightly and unapologetically told through two characters, each of whom is much more than our eyes reveal.

 

   Staged in Trustus’ “Side Door” black box theatre, Building The Wall is a touch claustrophobic and uncomfortable, especially pre-show, when one of the play’s two characters sits and waits for someone to arrive, for something to happen, or perhaps simply passes the long, boring day of a prisoner in solitary confinement. Rather than being drawbacks, the forced intimacy and uncertainty about the silent, orange jumpsuit-clad man onstage establish an overcrowded jail atmosphere, enhanced by subtle sound effects that go from barely audible to noisy and back to near-silence in no particular order or pattern. Director Jim O’Connor puts a masterful touch on establishing place and theme well before the show begins, and his skill remains on display through the next 90 minutes, which leave the collectivemoral vision of the audience inside a fun-house mirror room.

   The story is a simple one, but chilling in the way only a “this could actually happen” cautionary tale can be. Security guard Rick, played by J.B. Frush-Marple, is in prison in 2019, for crimes against humanity, and he is visited by a History Professor, Gloria (Lonetta Thompson), who seeks to understand his actions. Their initial meeting provides a stark contrast in visual types, with Frush-Marple bearing a strong resemblance to a taller, slightly leaner Hugh Laurie of House fame, complete with requisite stubble. He slouches and paces, as his emotions motivate him, and his jumpsuit immediately establishes “criminal.” Thompson, by contrast, is very put-together and professionally dressed. Given the sophistication of her vocabulary compared to Rick’s, there is clearly an education gap, but once again, the eyes (and ears) can deceive. Rick turns out to be far from the cornpone stereotype he first seems, and Gloria has much more to her than a “liberal female academic” stock character.

   During the interview, Rick tells Gloria a story many of us fear is all too possible. Following a terrorist attack on Times Square, the president declares martial law, and begins rounding up immigrants from multiple countries for deportation. Not understanding the incredibly challenging logistics of such an operation, the government sets up holding stations…which become tent cities and worse.  As this gruesome progression continues, Rick is all too aware of what’s happening, but needs his job for the insurance to care of his two children, at least one of whom has serious medical difficulties. Rick is a man caught in a place of terrible conflict.  Rick speaks with sincerity about his black friends, and the audience actually feels a touch of sympathy for this most unsympathetic (at first glance) character. Even when pressed about Muslim friends, he admits to not having any, but says he’s “got no problem” with them, commenting that “they kinda keep to themselves”. Don’t misunderstand – Rick is still a shitkicker Texan, and unlikely to join the ACLU, but there’s no hate in him, and certainly not homicidal tendencies. The more we get to know him, the more we understand his plight, and feel a begrudging sympathy for this lower-middle-class Sad Sack who seems to have caught every bad break life could offer, including taking the fall for “just doing his job”. Frush-Marples manages to capture the conflict between what one would imagine to be prejudices learned from the cradle, and new perspective brought about through the horrors he has witnessed.

   As Gloria, Thompson brings her signature coolness and poise to the role. One of the things I admire about her acting style is that she always seems to be the person in control of the situation, even when she isn’t. As mentioned above, Gloria’s use of academic terminology and an advanced vocabulary suggest a well-to-do, Ivy League type, yet she mentions her Ford Fairlane which has needed a full engine rebuild for at least a year, indicating that she is not as affluent as she may appear. This could easily have “knocked her down a peg or two,” but Thompson’s most effective combination of full acceptance of what we now know to be the life of a struggling teacher, combined with her utter calm (well, practically utter) at the raging, doubletalk, and moments of true sincerity from Rick establish her as the voice of calm and reason. It is Gloria with whom we naturally sympathize, yet even she loses her cool for a second or two here and there. Neither the demon nor the saint is fully without a drop of the other’s virtues, which kept bringing me back to the light and dark sides of The Force. I won’t beat the Star Wars comparison to death, but some strong thematic parallels are there.

   The set is simple, slightly cramped, and a bit harshly lit, as would be the case in a prison interview room. Props to Brandon McIver and Frank Kiraly, respectively, for these nice touches of verisimilitude.

   Building The Wall is a thought-provoking, frightening, and realistic play that will leave you thinking. Also, the entire show is performed in one act, so if you order an interval drink before the show, you’ll wind up hanging out and drinking it, chatting away to various production team members, while the company closes up shop for the night. I speak from experience.

   When I was a kid, one of my favorite comic books was a Marvel title called What If…, an anthology series, which featured monthly stories on how changes to canonical history would have changed the outcome. (“What If Spider-Man Had Joined The Fantastic Four”, as I recall, had a fairly tragic ending, and the writers weren’t afraid to make a hypothetical turn out badly from time to time.) In many ways, Building The Wall is a real-life version of that comic book. This is a What If… that has the potential to come true.  I responded to it both as a piece of political theatre and as a master class in textured acting from two talented, experienced, pros.

   It isn’t a night full of laughs, nor should it be, but Building The Wall is an important work with a message that needs to be heard. Bravo to Trustus for once again being unafraid to address controversial and sometimes disturbing situations and themes. This is “Grown-Up Theatre” at its best.

-FLT3