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Comfort
by Neil LaBute
Directed by Annamaria Pileggi
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
December 3, 2021

Spencer Sickmann, Kari Ely
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio’s newest production isn’t just a St. Louis premiere–it’s a World Premiere, by playwright Neil LaBute, with whom the company has had an ongoing working relationship. They’ve produced several of his plays before, mostly as part of their annual LaBute New Theater Festival. The new play, Comfort, is a two-character drama examining a strained mother-son relationship, while exploring and challenging the character and choices of the mother in particular. It’s a superbly cast and acted play featuring two excellent local performers, and it works especially well as a showcase for their impressive talents.

The mother character, Iris (Kari Ely), is the main focus of the play, and the real catalyst for its action, even if what she did to set the play’s action in motion happened offstage and years before the events depicted in the play. Iris is a celebrated, multi-award-winning author who lives alone and cherishes the time she spends by herself, as well as the accolades she has received–and hopes to receive, as she has apparently recently been subject to some Nobel Prize buzz. Cal (Spencer Sickmann), her adult son, was primarily raised by his father–Iris’s recently deceased ex-husband–since the couple split up when Cal was 10 years old. The action begins when Cal breaks into Iris’s house while his mother is out, ostensibly to retrieve some photo albums that feature old family pictures from before the divorce, but we find out when Iris inevitably comes home and discovers him that Cal has an underlying motive that he doesn’t initially admit. What ensues is a series of scenes and events that work to challenge Iris’s choices as a writer, as a mother, and as a person, as well as reveal some of the reasons behind her estranged son’s resentment toward her.

As one who finds LaBute’s work somewhat hit-or-miss, I have been curious to see what this new work would be like. I have to say now that in my mind, this one is a lot more “hit” than “miss”, although it does contain some elements that I that I think need some editing or reworking, such as some repetitious situations and dialogue and some “revelations” that are too obvious, as well as some points that could be elaborated more. I also think the character of Cal isn’t as well-drawn as he could have been, although Sickmann does a commendable job of making him interesting. Both he and Ely make the most of their roles, and their dynamic interplay is the main sources of the drama here, as at first it’s not entirely clear what Cal wants, and the revelations throughout the play are introduced gradually. Iris is a complex character with many levels of depth, and Ely does a fantastic job of portraying all of these levels with clarity and, when needed, startling intensity. Iris is also not especially likable, although Ely’s performance makes her fascinating to watch as the story unfolds and her interactions with Sickmann’s Cal become more emotionally charged.

As for the staging, director Anamaria Pileggi makes the most of the small stage here, and Patrick Huber’s thoroughly detailed set. The mood is helped along through means of Huber’s excellent lighting as well, and costume designer Teresa Doggett has outfitted the characters well. I’m continually impressed by how STLAS is able to use their relatively small venue to the best of its potential, and this show is no exception.

Overall, Comfort is a worthwhile theatrical experience. It’s not a perfect play, but it makes an excellent showcase for two superb performances. With its complex relationship dynamic dealing with academic, social, and personal issues, it’s an intense drama that’s sure to make audiences think.

Spencer Sickmann, Kari Ely
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio is presenting Comfort at the Gaslight Theater until December 3, 2021

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