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Angels in America Part 1: Millennium Approaches
by Tony Kushner
Directed by Tony Speciale
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
September 6, 2019

Valeri Mudek, Jayson Speters, Barrett Foa, Ben Cherry
Photo by Peter Wochniak
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Rep is opening a new season with a new Artistic Director, and a two-part production of a play that has become a modern classic. I have to admit I had never seen either part of Tony Kushner’s much-lauded Angels in America before, and I was looking forward to this opportunity. So far, this production has lived up to the hype, with an excellent cast including a few high-profile names, and truly stunning production values. It’s a fascinating story with richly drawn characters as well, although it’s clearly only half of a two-part story. I was actually considering holding off on this review until after part 2 opens next weekend, but I had to write a few words about this memorable first chapter.

This part of the story introduces the major characters who will continue into the next part. It has the air of the epic about it, telling a tale that blends realism and fantasy, focusing on a small group of characters primarily based in New York City in the mid-1980s, during the escalation of the AIDS crisis in America. The various threads of the story seem isolated at first, but connections gradually develop as the play progresses, and each of the actors plays more than one role. Most of the characters are fictional, although a few are based on real people–particularly, high-profile conservative lawyer Roy Cohn (Peter Frechette). In addition to the aggressively closeted Cohn, the characters include boyfriends Prior Walter (Barrett Foa) and Louis Ironson (Ben Cherry), who face trials when Prior is diagnosed with AIDS; as well as Joe Pitt (Jayson Speters), a young Republican of Mormon background who works for Cohn and who is struggling to come to terms with an important reality in his life; and Joe’s unhappy wife Harper (Valeri Mudek), who faces the truth about her relationship with Joe and goes on medication-induced flights of fantasy. There’s also Joe’s mother, Hannah (Meredith Baxter), who travels from Utah after a sudden revelation from Joe on the phone; and Prior’s longtime friend Belize (David Ryan Smith), an ex-drag queen and nurse at the hospital who provides support for Prior and difficult truths for Louis. And then there’s the mysterious Angel (Gina Daniels), who speaks to Prior with confusing and unsettling messages. The cast members play other roles as well, as the various plots unfold and intersect in different ways, some expected and some more surprising. The whole story has the air of an epic about it, with moments of searing drama blended with humor and wild fantasy, telling the story of mid-80s America and challenging major elements of society, such as materialism, corporate greed, social and religious conventions and restrictions particularly dealing with homosexuality, social progress, predictions for the then-future 21st century, and more. It’s a highly ambitious piece, and it’s at turns insightful, affecting, and challenging. The sense of suspense as a cohesive story begins to unfold is palpable, and some of the characters’ plots seem to be only just getting started as part 1 ends, adding to the anticipation for part 2, which I’m eager to see. These are compelling stories that one play–even with a running time of more than three hours–can’t entirely contain. The way the plot is structured, Part 2 is as necessary as it is inevitable, even though part 1 is remarkable on its own.

The overall tone of heightened realism and forays into fantasy is well maintained by the physical production of the show, as well as the perfectly paced staging by director Tony Speciale and associate director and “violence, intimacy and movement director” Tommy Rapley. Tim Mackabee’s set is versatile, making ideal use of the Rep stage’s turntable and trap doors, and the scene changes are elegant and fluid, aided by Broken Chord’s poignant and stirring original music and sound design. There’s also evocative lighting by Xavier Pierce, ideally suited and period appropriate costumes by Dede Ayite, and excellent flying effects by ZFX, Inc. It’s a stunning play to look at, listen to, and experience, with a full range of emotions reflected in the whole look and feel of the production in addition to the remarkable script and first-rate acting. It is for mature audiences, considering some of the language, intensity, frank talk of sexuality, and one brief scene of nudity.

As for the cast, they are universally superb, led by a trio of actors who are probably best known by the general public for their television work but also have a good amount of stage experience. It’s an impressively cohesive ensemble, with excellent work from all. Particularly effecting is Foa as Prior, whose journey is as compelling as it is harrowing. Foa brings out the many facets of the character with approachable and charismatic presence. Frechette is also strong as the confrontational, perpetually-in-denial Cohn, managing to make a character intriguing to watch even when he’s not particularly likable. Mudek, as Harper, is also remarkably affecting, as is Baxter in a variety of roles including Hannah, an elderly Rabbi, and the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg. Also convincing and effective are Cherry as the conflicted Louis, Speters as the confused and also conflicted Joe, Daniels in a variety of roles including the Angel and a hospital nurse, and Smith as both Belize and a character from Harper’s fantasies called “Mr. Lies” . This is a cast that mines emotion without overdoing it, bringing out the nuances in character and making the stories all then more compelling in this installment and creating even more promise for part 2.

So far, I would say Hana S. Sharif’s first season as the Rep’s Artistic Director is off to an impressively promising start. With a stunning Angels in America part 1, the only real “letdown” is that I the first part is only half of the story, but that makes me even more eager to see the continuation.  Part 1 is powerful, emotional, and challenging, and creates anticipation for part 2, which debuts this weekend–and the Rep will also have some “marathon days” for theatregoers who want to see both parts in one day. Go see it! It’s an excellent example of the Rep–and theatre itself–at its best.

 

Peter Frechette, Jayson Speters
Photo by Peter Wochniak
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting Angels in America, Part 1: Millennium Approaches until October 6, 2019. 

 

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Nonsense and Beauty
by Scott C. Sickles
Directed by Seth Gordon
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, Studio
March 17, 2019

Jeffrey Hayenga, Robbie Simpson
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Rep’s closing production for its 2018-2019 Studio season is a world premiere, which had a reading last year at the Rep’s Ignite! New Play Festival. Nonsense and Beauty is a poignant story that’s inspired by real events and people, most notably the 20th Century English author E.M. Forster (A Room With a View, Howards End, etc.). With simple, effective staging and an especially strong cast, this is a compelling, promising new play.

In first hearing about this play and what it’s about, I did a little bit of research of my own because while I had known that Forster was gay, I didn’t know about his long relationship with English police officer Bob Buckingham, which is the basis of this play. Here, playwright Scott C. Sickles tells the story of their relationship and their relationships to other important figures in their lives. In fact, the effect of the play makes it more of the story of a small group than of the one couple in particular, although that relationship is at the center. The story is also the story of a different time in history, in which gay relationships not only carried a social stigma, but were actually illegal in the United Kingdom. So, when Forster (Jeffrey Hayenga) is first introduced to young Bob (Robbie Simpson) by his friend, J.R. “Joe” Ackerley (John Feltch), there’s an air of secrecy about how they conduct their relationship, and the social and legal pressures on Bob as a police officer are also made apparent. Still, the relationship grows with a sense of sweet simplicity despite the societal pressures, until Bob meets May (Lori Vega), a vivacious young nurse with whom he begins a flirtation that eventually leads to marriage. Needless to say, this complicates the situation with Forster, called Morgan by his friends and Edward by his imperious mother, Lily (Donna Weinsting). For Morgan, Bob is the great love for which his has waited, but for Bob, the situation becomes especially complicated since he seems to genuinely love both Morgan and May, and almost despite himself, Morgan begins to admire May as well. Although Lily’s presence is an obvious influence on Morgan, the real drama and focus in this play is on the relationship dynamics between Morgan, Bob, May, and Joe. The story plays out over several decades, with an air of poignancy and sadness about it, although there are elements of hope as well.

It’s a well-constructed play, for the most part, although the first act seems slow at times and some characters are more developed than others, it’s ultimately a fascinating play, exploring the complexities of love and friendship in an extremely restrictive time and place. The direction is simple and effective, and the casting is especially strong, particularly of Hayenga, who shines as the sensitive, loyal and initially lonely Forster, and Feltch as the devoted, occasionally snarky Joe. Vega is also excellent as May, and Simpson gives a fine performance as Bob as well, displaying strong chemistry with both Hayenga and Vega. Weinsting makes a memorable impression in the small but significant role of Forster’s mother Lily, as well, although for the play itself, her character seems the most extraneous. It’s a strong, especially cohesive ensemble, making the most of Sickles’ thoughtful, literate script.

Technically, the show is simply staged in the round. The set, designed by Brian Sidney Bembridge, is sparse, consisting of a simple square performance area and some furniture as needed. Bembridge also designed the lighting, which is especially evocative and helps set the tone of the play well. There’s also excellent sound design by Rusty Wandall, and well-suited period costumes by Felia K. Davenport. Overall, the technical aspects support the mood and style of the piece and reflect its period setting well.

Nonsense and Beauty is a compelling new play, with a sense of time, place, and character that’s well-defined, although it could use a little bit more defining here and there. Ultimately, it’s an effective, evocative and highly personal focus on the life and relationships of an important literary figure who was a real person, not just a name to read about in English class. It’s an excellent production to close out the season at the Rep Studio, and it’s a highly promising new play.

Robbie Simpson, Jeffrey Hayenga, Lori Vega, John Feltch
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting Nonsense and Beauty in its Studio Theatre until March 24, 2019

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The Play That Goes Wrong
by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, and Henry Shields
Directed by Melissa Rain Anderson
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
March 15, 2019

Michael Keyloun, Ka-Ling Cheung, Evan Zes
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The expression “hilarity ensues” easily comes to mind when thinking of the Rep’s latest production, The Play That Goes Wrong. In fact, that expression itself is an accurate and succinct description of the play itself. While a lot goes on in this show, the emphasis is on physical comedy, mile-a-minute humor, and, especially, the element of surprise. It’s a wild and wacky show, even if it’s not really about anything other than generating as many laughs as possible, and the Rep’s version boasts an energetic, comedically gifted cast.

The basic conceit of this play is initially reminiscent of another celebrated farce that has been staged memorably at the Rep–Michael Frayn’s Noises Off. Like with that play, the basic idea is that a theatrical company is putting on a production, and nothing happens as planned. What’s different here is that the action begins before the play-within-a-play officially begins, as actors and “crew members” wander the house looking for a lost dog, or a Duran Duran CD, and sometimes enlisting audience members to help repair elements of the already-crumbling set. Eventually, the play’s director and star, Chris Bean (Michael Keyloun) enters and introduces his company–the Cornley University Drama Society–and their play, The Murder at Haversham Manor. Bean plays Inspector Carter, who is investigating the murder of Charles Haversham, played by Jonathan Harris (Benjamin Curns), who starts out the play lying “dead” on a couch and trying to stay “dead” as various mishaps occur around him. The story of the play involves trying to solve the murder amid the various intrigues that arise, involving Haversham’s fiancée, Florence Colleymore played by Sandra Wilkinson (Ruth Pfirdehirt), her brother Thomas played by Robert Grove (John Rapson), and Haversham’s brother Cecil played by Max Bennett (Matthew McGloin). There’s also bumbling butler, Perkins played by Dennis Tyde (Evan Zes). While the story plays out and gets more and more absurd as it goes along, lighting and sound operator Trevor Watson (Ryan George) and stage manager Annie Twilloil (Ka-Ling Cheung) become increasingly involved in the antics onstage as well, in increasingly surprising and hilarious ways.

This isn’t the most original of concepts, but a show like this depends on the execution, timing, and energy more than a witty script. The fictional show-within-a-show is basically a stock English murder mystery, and the characters are stock concept characters, but the “play-within-a-play” conceit adds to the humor in that we see the actors acting—one who’s constantly appearing at the wrong time, another who repeatedly mispronounces words, another who responds enthusiastically to audience applause and hams it up accordingly. The stage crew members also become unexpectedly enlisted in the onstage performance, and a hilarious competition ensues as a result. More laughs come in the form of physical comedy, pratfalls, mishaps, and general mayhem that involves the actors, the props, and gradually more and more elements of the set. I won’t give too much away in terms of detail, but I will say that there are so many jokes and gags here that once you start laughing, it’s hard to stop because there’s always something that comes along to add to the pandemonium.

In a show like this in which everything is so chaotic, precision in the staging is essential, and director Melissa Rain Anderson has impressively managed to order the mayhem with energy and style. The technical aspects here are wondrous, as well, especially in the form of Peter and Margery Spack’s spectacularly whimsical set, which is the source of a lot of the unexpected humor here. There’s also top-notch lighting by Kirk Bookman and sound by Rusty Wandall, as well as delightfully colorful costumes by Lauren T. Roark.

The casting here assembles some stalwart comedy veterans of the Rep along with other impressive performers making their Rep debuts. Everyone is excellent, with strong comic timing and deliciously over-the-top performances, with the standouts being Keyloun and Rapson for their impressive physical comedy, McGloin for his delightful self-satisfied mugging, Zes for his expertly inept use of language as well as physicality, and especially Cheung for her increasingly determined, delightfully deadpan turn as stage manager and last-minute understudy.

The Play That Goes Wrong is a hilarious closer for the Rep’s 2018-2019 season, the last under retiring Artistic Director Steven Woolf. It’s one of those “throw in all the jokes and see what happens” kind of shows, staged with energy, style, and a lot of impressive technical prowess. It’s not the cleverest or wittiest of its type, but it’s still a whole lot of fun.

Ruth Pferdehirt, Matthew McGloin
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting The Play That Goes Wrong until April 7, 2019

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Oslo
by J. T. Rogers
Directed by Steven Woolf
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
February 8, 2019

Kathleen Wise, Jim Poulos Photo by Peter Wochniak Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The latest play at the Rep is a multi-award winning play by J.T. Rogers. Oslo is a fact-based play about diplomacy, essentially. Despite its widespread critical acclaim, this is one of those plays that, to me, sounds a lot less dramatic in description than it actually plays out on stage. It’s a testament to the skill of the playwright that he was able to take a series of secret negotiations over a year and half and craft them into such a riveting, insightful, surprisingly witty drama. The excellent cast at the Rep adds to the dramatic value as well.

This play runs at a little over two and a half hours, and there are three acts, structured in an inventive and ultimately compelling way. At first, it can be a little hard to follow because there are a lot of characters and a lot of talking, but the appeal of the story and the characters soon draw attention. It follows the secret, behind-the-scenes negotiations between Israel and the PLO that eventually resulted in the famous Oslo Accords in 1993, focusing on married Norwegian diplomats Terje Rød-Larsen (Jim Poulos) and Mona Juul (Kathleen Wise), who arranged and facilitated the meetings. The unprecedented negotiations take careful diplomacy, unorthodox methods, and a lot of interpersonal influence, involving Norwegian government officials like Johan Jorgen Holst (Jonathan Gillard Daly), Israeli officials like Yossi Beilin (Jerry Vogel) and “unofficial” negotiators Yair Hirchfeld (John Rensenhouse) and Ron Pundak (Michael James Reed), and official negotiators Uri Savir (Ben Graney) and Joel Singer (Jim Shankman), as well as PLO negotiators Ahmed Qurie (Rajesh Bose) and Hassan Asfour (Amro Salama). The process is slow and careful, with tensions readily apparent, but with the insistent Terje setting up ground rules that encourage socialization outside the negotiating room. It’s a fascinating play on many levels, with the dramatic tension coming mostly from personality conflicts and the urgency of the situation. There’s also a fair amount of humor and wit, along with the charismatic characters and performances.

Director Steven Woolf has paced this play well, with the action getting more and more tense as the proceedings continue. The production values add a lot to the drama, with Michael Ganio’s versatile set and Nathan W. Scheuer’s stunning projections helping to set and maintain the mood of the show. There are also excellent costumes by Dorothy Marshal Inglis, as well as effective lighting by Rob Denton and sound by Fitz Patton.

The technical aspects help to set the stage, but the performances are what carry the weight of this excellent, thoughtful script. The central figures, Terje and Mona, are embodied expertly by Poulos and Wise, who have strong chemistry that make them believable as a married couple, as well as a great deal of energy and determination. Also standing out are the dynamic, charismatic performances of Bose as Ahmed Qurie and Graney as the initially enigmatic Uri Savir. There are also fine performances from the rest of the cast, including Daly, Rensenhouse, Reed, and Michelle Hand in various roles. It’s a superb cast all-around, contributing a great deal to the already riveting story and first-rate script.

Although it took me a few minutes to get into the story, once I did, the long running time of this play didn’t really matter. The structure of Act One especially is particularly clever, and the rest of the play continues the compelling storytelling all the way through until the bittersweet ending that acknowledges history since 1993. The play is a fascinating lesson in history, character development and the careful balancing act that diplomacy can be. It’s an insightful and thoroughly human drama, expertly staged at the Rep.

Rajesh Bose, Jim Shankman, Amro Salama, Ben Graney Photo by Peter Wochniak Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting Oslo until March 3, 2019

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The Wolves
by Sarah DeLappe
directed by Melissa Rain Anderson
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, Studio
January 18, 2019

Esmeralda Garza, Mary Katharine Harris
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Rep has a new show in its Studio, and it’s a great one. The Wolves is a compelling, realistic look at life through the eyes of the various members of a suburban girls’ soccer team. It’s a richly portrayed world, with an impressive script and especially insightful dialogue and language rhythms. As presented at the Rep Studio, it’s a well-cast production that’s fascinating from beginning to end.

Presented on a simple but effective artificial turf-dominated set by James Wolk, the audience is introduced to the teenage players on the Wolves, a girls’ indoor soccer team. There’s no preamble. We are simply plunged into the middle of a conversation–or rather, several at the same time–as the girls warm up and stretch for practice. The players are identified by number rather than name–although at least two have names we will find out eventually–and the routine is repeated with variations throughout most of the play. There are warm-ups, drills, talks about soccer and hopes for college recruitment, and comparisons to the other teams they will be playing. In the midst of the soccer talk, and interspersed throughout, are the hopes, dreams, and struggles of these girls–their relationships with family, their romantic interests and pursuits, their varied outlooks on life. One of the players, #46 (Mary Katherine Harris), is new, with a somewhat mysterious background, and she has an initially awkward time integrating into the close-knit team of other girls who all seem to have grown up together, playing together for years. The captain, #25 (Rachael Logue) acts as leader and quasi-coach, directing the practices much of the time. There are a variety of personalities here, from the socially awkward but outgoing #46 and the authoritative #25, to the socially conscious but still somewhat sheltered #2 (Cecily Dowd), to the adventurous, partying #7 (Keaton Whittaker) and her slightly less adventurous best friend #14 (Cassandra Lopez), to the socially anxious, soft-spoken goalkeeper #00 (Esmeralda Garza), and more. The tone shifts quite a bit as the play progresses through the soccer season, and as each game becomes more crucial and life events become more stressful. There’s humor, drama, and intense emotion here, but I won’t say anymore because it would spoil too much. The power of this show comes from watching the events unfold, and feeling the emotions along with the players. It’s especially well-structured, with events unfolding in a way that leads the viewer to try to guess what’s coming next.

This is an unusual play in that it’s a story, a conversation, and a series of soccer practices all at once, requiring a lot of quick exchanges of dialogue, as well as physical fitness and dexterity, as the players warm up, stretch, and perform soccer drills throughout the production. It’s a little bit daunting at times sitting so close as the cast members kick soccer balls around so close to the seating areas on either side of the field. This staging emphasizes the immediacy of the piece, as does the quick-paced staging by director Melissa Rain Anderson. The technical aspects, from the set to the simple but effective lighting by John Wylie and sound by Rusty Wandall, to the authentically accurate costumes by Marci Franklin, help to maintain the realistic tone of the production, supporting the top-notch performances of the first-rate cast.

The cast here is especially strong. With a list of characters who are identified mostly by numbers, each cast member impressively manages to make each individual unique personality shine through. It’s an ensemble piece, and the ensemble chemistry is strong, with energetic performances from all of the players. The whole cast (also including Maya J. Christian as #13, Colleen Dougherty as #8, and Nancy Bell as “Soccer Mom”) is excellent, with particularly memorable turns from Harris, Garza, Whittaker, Lopez, Logue, and Dowd. The Wolves are a team, and the teamwork is apparent in this cast.

The Wolves is a play that takes you into its world immediately, and it can be a bit jarring at first, although the experience is ultimately especially rewarding. It’s an especially clever, insightful script, impressively performed by the strong cast at the Rep. There are a few twists, but they are admirably not telegraphed and don’t seem like tricks, either. This is a dynamic, cohesive, intense, and supremely rewarding production. It’s a show worth rooting for.

Cast of The Wolves
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting The Wolves in its Studio theatre until February 3, 2019.

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Alabama Story
by Kenneth Jones
Directed by Paul Mason Barnes
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
January 4, 2019

Jeanne Paulsen, Carl Howell, Carl Palmer, Larry Paulsen Photo by Jon Gitchoff Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Rep’s first play of the new year takes the audience on a trip to the Deep South in the early 1960s. Alabama Story, with a smart script and well-defined characters and setting, takes an important issue that is tied to its time in one way and transcends it in another. At the Rep, an excellent cast and inventive staging brings this story to life.

Based on a real incident that made news in 1959 in Montgomery, Alabama in which a childrens’ book, Garth Williams’ The Rabbits’ Wedding, was challenged by a state senator over its perceived pro-integration message, the play itself covers that story while painting a picture of Montgomery in that era through the use of real-life characters, as well as presenting the overall atmosphere of the time and place through the use of a fictional but highly plausible parallel story and characters. It’s told in a stylized manner, narrated by various characters at various times, and particularly by the book’s author, Williams (Larry Paulsen, who also plays a variety of other characters). The central figure is state librarian Emily Wheelock Reed (Jeanne Paulsen), a meticulous and conscientious librarian who sees it as her duty to protect the library’s mission and the books the library promotes. The controversy begins when her devoted assistant, Thomas Franklin (Carl Howell) shows her a newspaper headline in a local conservative paper about the book in question, and later she receives a visit from Senator Higgins (Carl Palmer)–based on the real-life senator E.O. Eddins. The senator is dedicated to his vision of the Deep South and long-standing tradition, which for him and many others includes segregation and institutionalized racism. Meanwhile, also in Montgomery, the parallel story features the surprise reunion of two childhood friends and a renewed relationship that serves to emphasize the depth of the enforced racial divide in southern society, and shows how white people were able to allow their privilege to keep them from seeing the truth of what was happening in the world. Lily (Anna O’Donaghue) is a young white woman who grew up in a wealthy family, living in the “big house” on her father’s cotton plantation. As she’s sitting on a park bench one day, she encounters Joshua (Corey Allen), who lived with his mother on Lily’s family’s property as a child, but who had to suddenly move away with his mother for reasons that Lily claims not to remember. Through the course of their interactions, we learn more about the reality of both characters’ lives, and Joshua’s efforts to make a difference in the state in which he grew up, and Lily’s gradual acknowledgment of her family’s role in reinforcing societal norms, and in what happened to Joshua’s family.

The structure of the play smoothly transitions between the main story and the parallel story, as well as incorporating more “out of time” elements like the narration. It’s almost deceptively whimsical, at times, because of the general tone that appears light but can also feature moments of poignant and challenging dramatic depth. It’s actually a lot more directly challenging than it first appears, in fact, and the characters are extremely well-defined. The cast is excellent, as well, led by Jeanne Paulsen’s remarkable performance as Reed, revealing many layers to the complex personality of this initially matter-of-fact, no-nonsense librarian. There are also strong performances from Howell as her mild-mannered but determined assistant, Thomas, and by Larry Paulsen in a various roles, most notably the eccentric, principled Williams, and also an older, weary state senator who has been a mentor of sorts to Higgins. There are also excellent performances from Allen and O’Donoghue as the reunited friends Joshua and Lily, whose story provides a lot of the depth of this play. Palmer, as Higgins, is also fine if occasionally over-the-top as the single-minded, sometimes cartoonish Higgins.

The staging and production values are a mixture of the stylistic and the more realistic, with meticulously designed period costumes by Dorothy Marshall Englis and a more abstract, detailed set by William Bloodgood that prominently features looming bookshelves. There’s also impressive atmospheric lighting by Kenton Yeager, and an evocative soundtrack by composer and sound designer Barry G. Funderburg. All these elements, in addition to director Paul Mason Barnes’ crisp, quickly paced staging, work together to bring the audience into the world of this story, and the particular atmosphere of the Deep South in the 1950s.

Alabama Story is a surprising play in a few ways, and just what I expected in others. It’s a play that manages to explore its subject in many angles and also manages for the most part to avoid simplistic answers even with its occasionally whimsical tone. As was to be expected, it’s an impeccably staged production with the strong production values for which the Rep has come to be known. There’s a compelling story here, and a great cast. It’s a story worth telling, and seeing.

Anna O’Donoghue, Corey Allen Photo by Jon Gitchoff Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting Alabama Story until January 27, 2019

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A Christmas Story
by Philip Grecian
Directed by Seth Gordon
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
November 30, 2018

Charlie Mathis, Laurel Casillo, Brad Fraizer, Spencer Slavik
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

It’s time for the Rep’s holiday show, and this year it’s one that’s become something of a modern classic. This version of A Christmas Story, though, is not the musical version that’s become popular of late. It’s a non-musical play adapted from the well-known film and the stories of humorist Jean Shepherd, who also narrated the film. It’s an adaptation that expands on the film slightly, but also doesn’t work quite as well as the movie or the musical, for that matter. Still, as staged at the Rep, it’s an entertaining production celebrating nostalgia and featuring some especially strong performances.

Like the film, this is narrated, but unlike the film, the narrator actually appears on stage and occasionally interacts with the rest of the characters. He’s the grown-up Ralph (Ted Deasy), who is reminiscing about his childhood in 1940s Indiana, and specially a particular holiday season in which his younger self, Ralphie (Charlie Mattis) was determined to receive the perfect Christmas present–a Red Ryder BB gun. The quest for this idealized dream gift forms the basic structure of the story, but in addition to this theme we see a picture of Ralphie’s family and life in a specific time and place. Like the musical version, this version puts a little focus on Ralphie’s parents (Laurel Casillo, Brad Fraizer) than the film does. We also meet Ralphie’s friends and classmates, including his best buddies Flick (Dan Wolfe), and Schwartz (Rhadi Smith), and the local bully, the menacing Scut Farkas (Tanner Gilbertson), as well as two girls in Ralphie’s class–the academically gifted Helen (Gigi Koster), and the kind Esther Jane, who engages in an awkward flirtation with Ralphie. The well-known elements from the film, such as the flagpole incident, Ralphie’s “Old Man’s” obsession with mail-in contests and his resulting “major award”, the frightening trip to see a department store Santa, are here, along with some additional moments especially for Older Ralph and the parents. It’s a “slice-of-life” kind of show, and it’s fun for the most part, although there are moments that don’t work as well on stage, such as the Santa moment, especially since we don’t actually see Ralphie and his brother Randy (Spencer Slavik) with Santa, who is only an off-stage voice. Also, the older Ralph character tends to dominate the story a little too much. The narration convention works well enough, but it comes across as a little too much at times.

The production values here are good, as well, although not quite as impressive as I’ve generally come to expect from the Rep. The 1940’s look and atmosphere is well maintained especially through David Kay Mickelson’s costumes, that manage to evoke the look of the film without exactly copying it much of the time. Michael Ganio’s set is excellent, especially in the detailed representation of Ralphie’s family’s house, but the department store Santa set is more underwhelming. There’s strong atmospheric lighting by Peter E. Sargent and sound by Rusty Wandall that help set and maintain the mood of the play and the sense of winter and the anticipation of the holiday season.

The biggest asset of this show is its cast, and especially the excellent Mathis in a winning performance as the determined Ralphie, and Casillo and Fraizer who are equally strong as his quirky parents. The family scenes, in fact, are the highlight of this production, although Jo Twiss as Ralphie’s teacher Miss Shields also contributes a memorable performance. Deasy is mostly amiable as the older Ralph, although he does seem to be overdoing the “nostalgic wonder” aspect sometimes to the point of seeming artificial. There are some fine performances among the rest of the child performers in the cast, as well.

A Christmas Story is a somewhat unusual story in that it’s a combination of exaggerated comedy, folksy humor and affectionate nostalgia. That tone works better on film and in the musical than it does in the stage play, but the Rep’s production has its memorable moments, as well. For the most part, it’s an entertaining, well-cast rendition of the story that’s become a modern classic.

Charlie Mathis, Ted Deasy
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of the St. Louis is presenting A Christmas Story until December 23, 2018

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