Posts Tagged ‘first run theatre’

by Eric Berg
Directed by Phil Wright
First Run Theatre
August 11, 2023

Lexy Witcher, Jade Cash, Monica Allen
Photo: First Run Theatre

First Run Theatre is staging a compelling, highly evocative show at the Kranzberg Arts Center. Wayward, by Eric Berg, isn’t entirely original in terms of story, but it does an excellent job of portraying the characters in a specific time, place, and cultural moment in history. It’s also an ideal vehicle for the terrific cast that director Phil Wright has assembled. 

The framing device presents focal character Carol Kwiatkowski (Lexy Witcher) as a middle-aged mother in the mid-1980’s, telling a story to an unnamed and unseen adult child. The bulk of the story, though, takes place in Kansas City, Missouri in 1962, at the “Home for Wayward Girls”, operated by an order of Catholic nuns led by the stern Sister Elizabeth (Monica Allen), and assisted by the younger, more approachable Sister Anne (Jade Cash). The young Carol, pregnant and unmarried, arrives at the home early in the year and is advised of the rules and expectations by the sisters, although she insists she won’t be staying long, as her boyfriend Ronnie should be there to pick her up soon so they can get married and raise their child together. Sister Elizabeth has heard this story before, and is doubtful, but reluctantly allows Carol to delay signing an adoption consent form. Then, Carol is introduced to the other residents of the house, known by nicknames and aliases because they are “encouraged” not to use their real names or share personal information. So, we meet the friendly Country Girl (Mckenna Stroud); the well-read, culturally connected Mayflower (Sarah Vallo); the gruff, cynical Jersey Girl (Amie Bossi); and Maggie (Camryn Ruhl), who is due to give birth any day now. Over the course of the next few months, we see the developing relationships between the residents, as Carol finds her place in the group and the young women share their thoughts and hopes, as well as their contrasting personalities and efforts at friendship within the strict framework of the home’s rules, and the expectations of society around them.

This premise isn’t a new one. I’ve seen other plays and stories that cover similar ground, but what makes this one especially compelling is the characters, and especially the way the playwright portrays their relationships to one another and also to their cultural time and place, with Jackie Kennedy’s televised White House tour being a major focal point, and pop culture references brought up not just for setting, but as a reflection of the characters and society, emphasizing the fact that these are essentially “normal” young women who have found themselves in a situation made difficult by the social expectations and pressures of the time in which they live.  There are a few story threads I wish could be fleshed out a little more, but for the most part the story is engaging and thoughtful.

The evocation of time and place is excellent, and particularly compelling. I believe these characters, and the terrific performers make me believe them all the more. Witcher, as Carol, is an ideal, approachable lead, taking a credible emotional journey and bringing the audience along with her. Cash is also memorable as the initially shy, but increasingly sympathetic Sister Anne. All of the players are strong, from Allen’s stern but multi-dimensional Sister Elizabeth, to Stroud’s kind Country Girl, Vallo’s reserved but also kind Mayflower, Bossi’s defensively snarky Jersey Girl, and Ruhl’s two important and contrasting roles. It’s a cohesive ensemble, bringing much energy and heart to the proceedings. 

The early 1960’s setting is well-established in the plot and characters, and the production values enhance this atmosphere. Brad Slavik’s set is simple but effective, and the costumes are well-suited, although there is no designer listed in the program. There’s also effective lighting by Michelle Zielinski and sound by Jenn Ciavarella. 

Ultimately, Wayward is about a young woman who makes the most of a difficult situation, and the relationships she forms and the lives she affects in the midst of societal pressure and a strict structure that offers markedly different treatment for women vs. men. As a play, it makes the most of a premise that’s been used before, although this show brings a degree of nuance and character that makes the story especially compelling. It’s the best show I’ve seen from First Run, and I highly recommend checking it out.

Camryn Ruhl, Mckenna Stroud, Sarah Vallo, Jade Cash, Amie Bossi, Lexy Witcher
Photo: First Run Theatre

Cast of Wayward
Photo: First Run Theatre

First Run Theatre is presenting Wayward at the Kranzberg Arts Center until August 20, 2023

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

Tanya Badgley, 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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