Posts Tagged ‘first run theatre’

Bernice’s 70th Birthday
by Nancy Gall-Clayton
Directed by Sean Belt
First Run Theatre
November 26, 2022

Tanya Bardgley, Deb Dennert
Photo: First Run Theatre

First Run Theatre has a commendable mission to showcase new plays by regional playwrights. Their latest production, Bernice’s 70th Birthday by Nancy Gall-Clayton has much going for it, with a well-staged production and good cast. There’s a compelling story here, although perhaps a little too much for one play in terms of subject matter, and not enough in terms of action. 

This is essentially a character study, focusing on the active, upbeat Bernice (Deb Dennert), who is celebrating her 70th birthday, although she balks at being called a “senior”. Bernice is fun-loving a likes to think outside the “box” society seems to want to put her in. She clashes with her middle-aged daughter, Carol (Tanya Badgley) about her life goals and plans for her house and living arrangements. Carol, who has issues of her own with workaholic tendencies and a struggling marriage, encourages Bernice to look into moving into a condo in a retirement community, while Bernice tries to help Carol “loosen up” a bit. Bernice offers marriage advice, but also has her own issues coming to terms with her late husband’s long-ago death and its impact on her family, including estranged son Evan (Tyson Cole), who is much younger than Carol and was a child when his father died. He’s also gay, which Bernice has trouble accepting, and when he turns up after eight years asking lots of personal questions, Bernice is forced to confront several issues in her life that she has previously avoided. The dynamic between Carol and Evan–who have stayed in touch but don’t seem to have much in common–is also explored, as a series of meetings and conversations and meetings on Bernice’s back porch challenge the characters to examine their relationships, decisions, and attitudes toward each other, their loved ones, and their attitudes toward life.

There are a lot of ideas in this play, and many of them have been explored before elsewhere. The structure is fairly laid-back, but the conversations can get intense, to the point at times where it just comes across as a lot of yelling. Also, there might be a little too much here in terms of subject matter for one play, and the characters’ story arcs (especially Carol’s) can seem a little simplistic. There isn’t a lot of action here, and while there have been some great plays that consist mostly of a series of conversations, this one could use a little more focus on what it’s trying to say. Also, I often found myself wishing to see some of the characters who are just talked about–such as Carol’s husband, Evan’s partner, and Bernice’s “yoga friends”. 

The fine cast does a good job making the characters compelling, with Dennert’s Bernice leading the way. Dennert does an excellent job of portraying Bernice’s strengths as well as her flaws, and her attitudes toward both of her children are complex and credible. Cole is also strong as Evan, who longs for answers and a better relationship with his mother, and Badgley does a creditable job with the difficult role of Carol. The scenes between Badgley and Cole are especially well-done, and all three make a believable, if strained, family unit.

The production values are fairly basic, with a simple set by Brad Slavik, fine lighting by Nathan Schroeder and suitable costumes by Tracey Newcomb, working well in the black box theatre space at the Kranzberg Arts Center. The play itself could use some editing, but what First Run has presented here portrays this script in a compelling light. It’s not the most lively of birthday celebrations, but it’s a credible family dynamic with a good cast, and there’s a lot to think about here. 

Deb Dennert, Tyson Cole
Photo: First Run Theatre

First Run Theatre is presenting Bernice’s 70th Birthday at the Kranzberg Arts Center until December 4, 2022

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Locked Ward
by Amy Crider
Directed by Phil Gill
First Run Theatre
August 14, 2022

Uche Ijei, Ethan Isaac
Photo: First Run Theatre

The title of First Run Theatre’s latest production, Locked Ward, is fairly straightforward, since it takes place in a locked ward at a psychiatric hospital. Still, there’s more to this story than its initial premise, with its clearly defined characters and an intriguing degree of mystery that works on several different levels. Currently on stage at the Kranzberg Black Box, this production is brought to life by a fine cast and simple but effective production values. 

The story, inspired by the playwright’s personal experience, takes place in a psychiatric ward inhabited by a variety of patients who are there for different reasons. Although it’s essentially an ensemble piece, the biggest focus appears to be on Glen (Ethan Isaac), a former police officer and recovering drug addict who doesn’t quite trust the insights and advice of psychiatrist Dr. Blumenthal (Jaz Tucker). Glen is convinced he knows what his problem is, but the doctor wants to explore additional possibilities, making Glen uncomfortable and suspicious. Glen enters the ward to join the “regulars” who all have strong, distinct personalities–there’s the rigidly programmatic Franklin (Duncan Phillips), who is most comfortable with a strict routine and whose role model is Star Trek‘s Mr. Spock. There’s also Vladimir (Stephen Thompson Sr.), a Russian immigrant who wants to get out of the hospital so he make a fresh start in life, but who resists taking his meds and distrusts the establishment; and Jill (Jalani Hale), an intelligent but insecure aspiring doctoral student in art history, who has a crush on the doctor and endures regular ECT treatments that effect her memory. The newest patient besides Glen is Eleanor (Uche Ijei), who is only there for a short time under observation while she tries out a new medication to treat her depression. She and Glen form something of a bond as a new mystery unfolds–a well-liked nurse dies suddenly, and the patients try to figure out what happened. 

The biggest strengths of this play are the relationships between the characters and the unfolding mystery plot, as the characters try to figure out what’s happening and the medical staff urge them not to get too involved. The playwright does an excellent job of portraying the mystery on a few different levels, exploring the patients’ perspective as well as challenging the audience to wonder who to believe and what to think. The characters’ interactions are also richly portrayed, as conflicts are explored, bonds are made, and characters challenge and encourage one another. There’s no sensationalism here, either, which is also a strength, and the actors portray the disparate personalities with clarity and energy, and a good deal of ensemble chemistry.

The whole cast is strong, with convincing performances from Isaac as the conflicted, stubborn Glen, Ijei as the kindhearted Eleanor, Hale as the weary, self-doubting Jill, Thompson as the opinionated Vladimir, Phillips as the determinedly regimented Franklin, and Tucker as the enigmatic Dr. Blumenthal. Special mention should go to stage manager Gwynneth Rausch, who stepped in on short notice in the role of occupational therapist Linda, with the principal performer (Lillie Weber) out due to illness. All of the players work together to portray a credibly realistic situation with occasional elements of mystery.

The production values here aren’t flashy, but work well for the story. The basic set by Brad Slavik and atmospheric lighting by Tony Anselmo serve the plot well.  In terms of pacing, there were a few too many blackout scenes that could be jarring at times, and sometimes the tone could be overly relaxed, but for the most part the storytelling is effective, especially when focusing on the characters’ relationships. This play does deal with the subject of mental illness and many of the struggles that go with that topic, so appropriate warnings were given in the pre-show announcements. Overall, Locked Ward is a compelling look at a world many people don’t get to see, with convincing and sympathetic characters and situations. It’s a promising new play as presented by First Run Theatre. 

Image: First Run Theatre

First Run Theatre is presenting Locked Ward at the Kranzberg Black Box Theatre until August 21, 2022

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