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Fifty Words
by Michael Weller
Directed by John Pierson
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
September 20, 2019

Isaiah Di Lorenzo, Julie Layton
Photo: St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio’s new season is titled “2 to Tango”, featuring a complete line-up of two-character plays. This concept strikes me as a particularly strong opportunity to highlight the dynamics of various relationships as well as serving as a showcase for actors. The season’s first offering, Michael Weller’s  Fifty Words certainly provides that showcase, with an excellent pair of actors displaying their range in the portrayal of a complex and often combative marital relationship.

There isn’t much, if anything, in this story that hasn’t been done before in other “marriage story” works, and the revelations that enfold in this play aren’t entirely surprising. Still, the plot isn’t as much the point here. This show is more about power dynamics, and what makes this relationship tick, and I think it does manage a sort of surprise near the end, depending on the viewer’s perspective. It follows a married couple, Adam (Isaiah Di Lorenzo) and Jan (Julie Layton), both professionals who are devoted to their careers, as well as parents of a young son who is out of the house spending the night away at a friend’s house for the first time. Adam and Jan apparently haven’t had an evening alone together since their son was born, and they are trying to make the most of the time, although they appear to have different agendas. Adam seems to be all about making the most of the romantic (and sexual) possibilities of the evening, while Jan seems to be more focused on finishing an important project for work. Their contrasting personalities–the more spontaneous Adam and the more goal-focused Jan–are a catalyst for some of the drama, but as more information is revealed about Adam’s upcoming business trip, about their history as a couple, and about their approaches to parenting, more is revealed about both characters and the nature of their relationship. It’s an exploration of the challenges of modern married life and the conflicting commitments of parenting and career, as well as looking at some of the more stereotypical assumptions that come from those commitments for husbands and for wives. Through the course of the evening, there are ups and downs, revelations and reactions, confrontations and contrasts, but overall this is a game of balances and who, ultimately, holds the power in the relationship.

This is a fine character study, with some intense moments, although both characters aren’t particularly easy to like. Still, this script has some sharp insights into what a marriage between these two personalities would be like, and it’s a particularly strong showcase for the performers, who in this production are both superb, and impressively well-matched. Di Lorenzo brings the calculating, trying-to-be-charming energy and Layton’s more initially aloof exterior carries a range of emotions below the surface. The combination of the two is dynamic, occasionally volatile, and entirely credible. The drama here is these two, and both performers rise to the challenge of the script, providing the play’s emotional weight in the varacity of their relationship.

The production values are, as is usual for STLAS, excellent. I’m continually impressed by how well this company uses its small stage space, here recreating a small-ish New York apartment with care and detail in Sammy Kriesch’s meticulous set. There’s also excellent work from lighting designer Steve Miller, sound designer John Pierson, props designer Jenny Smith, and costume designer Andrea Robb. Pierson’s staging is well-measured, bringing out the gradually building tension of the piece and the relationship.

I’m looking forward to the rest of the season from STLAS. There are some intriguing productions lined up. The starter, Fifty Words, is essentially successful in the pure strength of the casting and the dynamic between these two caustically contrasting characters. It’s worth seeing for the sheer quality of the performances.

Julie Layton, Isaiah Di Lorenzo
Photo: St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio is presenting Fifty Words at the Gaslight Theatre until October 6, 2019

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LaBute New Theater Festival
Set Two
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
July 20, 2019

The second set of St. Louis Actors’ Studio’s LaBute New Theater Festival is now on stage at the Gaslight Theatre. Featuring a fresh collection of plays, all ably directed by Wendy Renee Greenwood, and the one holdover–festival namesake LaBute’s entry “Great Negro Works of Art” (directed by John Pierson). Featuring strong casts, these plays are also thought-provoking if not quite as well-formed as most of the first set. A new set of issues is in focus here, including artificial intelligence and privacy issues with technology, as well as journalistic integrity and couples therapy. Here are some thoughts about Set Two:

“Predilections”

by Richard Curtis

Directed by Wendy Renee Greenwood

Kim Furlow, Tiélere Cheatem
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

This play, which opens the newer set, features a meeting between a reporter named Sparlin (Tiélere Cheatem), and an enigmatic stranger named Laura (Kim Furlow). Being a journalist and former Pulitzer Prize winner who now writes obituaries, Sparlin has done research on Laura, but he hasn’t figured out why she wants to see him. As the plot–or really, the conversation–unfolds, Laura tells Sparlin a story, the importance of which becomes clear soon enough. It’s an intriguing concept, with the intended ideas apparently being about sensationalism in journalism and how easy it is for a person’s whole life to be obscured by one incident, but as a play it doesn’t have much suspense or structure. It’s just a conversation, basically. Furlow and Cheatem do well in their roles, bringing about as much drama as this play can produce, although there isn’t much here that couldn’t be covered just as well by an essay.

“Henrietta”

by Joseph Krawczyk

Directed by Wendy Renee Greenwood

Chuck Brinkley
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

The evening’s second play is its cleverest concept, being part “perils of modern technology” tale and part morality play. Here, as Carl (Chuck Brinkley) prepares for an extramarital tryst in a nearby motel, he finds his new “upgraded” GPS AI has other plans. Called “Henrietta” and voiced by Carly Rosenbaum, this AI isn’t putting up with Carl’s excuses, taking him for a nightmare ride as she takes control of his car. It’s an especially well-acted and staged bit of thriller-fantasy that’s especially chilling is its basic plausibility. It’s one of those “be careful what you do when you don’t think anyone’s looking” tales beefed up with a bit of “Big Brother” technological fear thrown in for good measure. The staging and pacing here is crisp and chilling, and both Brinkley and Rosenbaum give especially convincing performances, and particularly Rosenbaum as the determinedly in-control “Henrietta”.

“Sysyphus and Icarus: a Love story”

by William Ivan Fowkes

Directed by Wendy Renee Greenwood

Tiélere Cheatem, Shane Signorino
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

The final of the new entries for Set Two is a cute concept that evolves into something reminiscent of a late-episode Saturday Night Live sketch. It’s a fun concept, with the mythological figures of Sysyphus (Tiélere Cheatem) and Icarus (Shane Signorino) speaking in faux-Shakespearean dialogue and forming an attraction, then, as the story veers into SNL territory, they show up a few years later as a married couple clad in hipster-ish beanies being counseled by the New York-accented Libra (Colleen Backer), a self-promotional therapist who tries to help them see why their once-exciting relationship has soured. It’s a fun show, full of broad comedy that brings laughs but not much in the way of substance. The performers seem to be having a great time, though, and they’re all excellent. The production values are particularly notable here, too, with great work from festival costume designer Megan Harshaw and lighting designers Patrick Huber (who also designed the set) and Tony Anselmo.

Overall, the LaBute Festival continues to be an intriguing showcase for new playwrights, with some hits and misses but with some thought-provoking subject matter and strong work from the actors and directors. Set Two has one more weekend left, and it’s worth checking out.

St. Louis Actors’ Studio is presenting Set Two of the LaBute New Theater Festival at the Gaslight Theatre until July 28, 2019

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LaBute New Theater Festival 2019
Set One
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
July 5, 2019

St. Louis Actors’ Studio’s latest installment of their annual LaBute New Theater Festival is now under way at the Gaslight Theatre. The first set of plays, which opened over the weekend, feature a variety of thought-provoking, timely issues, along with some memorable characters and strong performances. Here are some brief thoughts:

“Great Negro Works of Art”

by Neil LaBute

Directed by John Pierson

Carly Rosenbaum, Jaz Tucker
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

The first play of the evening is the annual work by the Festival’s namesake playwright, Neil LaBute. It’s also the first of two plays in the set that deal in some way with what can be best described as “the perils of online dating”. That issue is more directly addressed in the set’s second play, but it’s an issue in this one as well, although other topics are more prominent. This pairing features Jerri (Carly Rosenbaum), who is white, and Tom (Jaz Tucker), who is black, who are meeting in person for the first time after communicating online. Jerri chose the location, which is an art exhibit with the same provocative title as the play itself. The main focus here is on the interplay between Jerri and Tom, who points out the similarity of their names to the well-known cartoon characters, as well as cringing at Jerri’s increasingly flippant and obtuse comments and ignorance not only of African-American culture, but also apparently of her own inability to listen and recognize her obtuseness. It’s an all-too-realistic encounter, which serves as a challenge to the systems in society that have historically recognized works of white artists over those of artists of color, as well as a challenge to individuals (especially white individuals) to recognize how they contribute to this disparity. The performances of both performers are strong, and the play is both an intense character study and a thought-provoking personalization of timely issues.

 

“Color Timer”

by Michael E. Long

Directed by Jenny Smith

Shane Signorino, Rachel Bailey, Colleen Backer
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

 

Or “The Perils of Online Dating, Part 2”. In this play, the couple in question features intellectual Aaron (Shane Signorino), and calculating reality TV production worker Stacy (Colleen Backer). They meet for their first date at a restaurant, and Stacy comes on strong, challenging Aaron with confrontational questions and a few shocking revelations. This play, more than the first, is a more direct examination of dating in the age of technology, as well as the challenges and perils of a tech and entertainment-oriented society in general. The highlight here is Backer’s gleefully brash and enigmatic performance, along with excellent performances by Signorino as a man put on the defensive and by Rachel Bailey as a well-meaning and seemingly clueless server. This one is especially chilling, and keeps you guessing up until the very end.

 

“Privilege”

by Joe Sutton

Directed by Jenny Smith

Chuck Brinkley, Spencer Sickmann
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

This play has a lot of ideas but probably needs some more work. The premise is compelling, as a young would-be lawyer, Peter (Spencer Sickmann), undergoes an unexpectedly aggressive line of questioning when applying for his law license. The unseen questioners are particularly interested in Peter’s family, including his uncle, Mark (Chuck Brinkley), to whom Peter turns for advice. His cousin, Amy (Carly Rosenbaum), another aspiring lawyer, who is the daughter of another of Peter’s uncles, experiences the same questioning, which turns out to relate to a violent incident from years before that involved Peter’s cousin (Amy’s brother), and that the family had done their best to cover up. Peter, for his part, doesn’t want to sweep it under the rug–he wants to find out what really happened, and to meet with the victim (Shane Signorino). There seems to be an element of symbolism here, concerning the family’s last name and some lines uttered by Mark and Amy, but the short nature of the play makes it difficult to cover the subject adequately. Still, the performances are compelling, especially from Sickmann as the determined Peter, and the use of lighting (by Patrick Huber and Tony Anselmo) is particularly effective.

 

“Kim Jong Rosemary”

by Carter W. Lewis

Directed by John Pierson

Eli Hurwitz, Jenny Smith
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

 

I had been especially anticipating this play, considering its author, Carter W. Lewis, is the writer of my overall favorite play from a LaBute Festival (2017’s “Percentage America”). This one, though, certainly has its moments, but it isn’t quite as cohesive and effective as the previous play. It has a fascinating premise, as mother and daughter Rhonda (Jenny Smith) and Beth (Eli Hurwitz) talk about issues relating to Rhonda’s anger, which is physically represented by a giant, overstuffed bag that she pushes around on a dolly. Colleen Backer makes a memorable appearance as an incarnation of the playwright, explaining the reasons for writing the play and acknowledging contributions to the anger of Rhonda and women in general. It’s an interesting character-piece, with talking points about gender roles and identity, societal expectations, and more, but it leans a little on the self-indulgent side this time. Still, there are great performances all around, and the dialogue is witty and provides food for thought on several timely topics.

Overall, I would say this set is more cohesive and themed than I’ve seen before from the Festival. It continues to be an excellent showcase for new plays and playwrights. I’m looking forward to seeing what’s in store for Set Two.

 

St. Louis Actors’ Studio is presenting Set One of the LaBute New Theater Festival at the Gaslight Theatre until July 14, followed by Set Two from July 19-28, 2019.

 

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True West
by Sam Shepard
Directed by William Whitaker
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
April 12, 2019

William Humphrey, Isaigh Di Lorenzo
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio has just opened the final play of their 2018-2019 season, and it’s a certainly a wild one. True West by celebrated playwright/screenwriter/actor Sam Shepard is a caustically comic look at family relationships, show business, and more. It’s definitely on the “unusual” side to say the least, and STLAS has staged it with their usual flair, and an excellent cast of local actors.

The story is set in Southern California in what appears to be the early 1980s, reflected in Patrick Huber’s impressively detailed set. The central characters are two brothers–college-educated screenwriter Austin (William Humphrey) and the gruff, confrontational Lee (Isaiah Di Lorenzo), who lives more of a wandering life and has just returned from a stint in “the desert”. Austin is house-sitting for the brothers’ mother (Susan Kopp), who is on an extended vacation in Alaska, and he’s working diligently on a film script, anticipating a meeting with producer Saul (William Roth)–a meeting that Lee ends up crashing, and making a surprisingly positive impression on Saul. The play charts the increasingly antagonistic and competitive relationship between the brothers, as each begins to take on aspects of the other’s personality in surprising ways, some of which involve typewriters, televisions, and toasters. That’s all I will say, since the comedy of the piece revolves a lot around the element of surprise. It’s an usual story, to say the least, with larger-than-life characters, gritty dialogue, and fast-moving situations.

The comedy also hinges a lot on characterization, as the two very different brothers begin to show that they might not be as different as they thought. It’s a lot of “reaction” humor, as the brothers keep doing things that surprise one another. Humphrey, as the more strait-laced Austin, is especially hilarious in his transformation. Di Lorenzo, as the more initially outrageous Lee, is also convincing, and the actors play off of each other well. There are also fine performances from Roth as the somewhat fickle producer Saul, and Roth as the brothers’ mother, who is surprising in her own way.

The technical aspects of the show, as is usual for STLAS, are well done. The small space at the Gaslight Theater is used especially well, transforming belivably into a suburban California dwelling, and the props are great, too, such as the vintage typewriter and a variety of household appliances. Steve Miller’s lighting also contributes well to the tone of the show, as do Andrea Robb’s costumes, which suitably reflect the characters’ personalities. The staging is smart and fast-paced, as well, with Shaun Sheley’s fight choreography of special note.

True West isn’t a show for everyone, and at moments it seems like the story is just weird for the sake of being weird, which some viewers might find especially hilarious and others might find frustrating.  Still, the characterizations are strong and the STLAS actors are especially well-cast. It’s a memorable way to close out the season.

William Humphrey, WIlliam Roth
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

 

St. Louis Actor’s Studio is presenting True West at the Gaslight Theater until April 28, 2019

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Farragut North
by Beau Willimon
Directed by Wayne Salomon
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
February 16, 2019

Spencer Sickmann, Joshua Parrack, David Wassilak, Shannon Nara
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio hits the campaign trail in its latest production, Farragut North. Taking an incisive, often harsh look at the world of contemporary political campaigns, this play features some sharply drawn characters and intense situations and a thought-provoking, occasionally witty script.  Onstage at STLAS’s Gaslight Theatre, this production features a strong cast of excellent local performers.

This play was also the source material for the 2011 film The Ides of March, although if you’ve seen that movie, don’t think you know what’s going to happen in this play, because it’s quite a bit different even though the initial situation and some of the characters are the same. The play opens in the midst of a fictionalized 2008 primary race, as campaign staffers for a leading Democratic presidential candidate gather at their hotel bar and swap stories. The central figure is Stephen Bellamy (Spencer Sickmann), the candidate’s press secretary, who is confident of victory in the upcoming caucus, and of the endorsement of a major political figure that will help their candidate emerge as the front-runner in the presidential race. Stephen’s boss, campaign manager Paul Zara (David Wassilak), is also confident as he prepares to travel to an important meeting in another state. As Stephen and Paul tell their stories, a newer staffer, the young and promising Ben (Joshua Parrack) listens, as does ambitious journalist Ida (Shannon Nara), who is eager for every juicy scoop that Stephen can give her. The situation for Stephen gets more complicated when Tom Duffy (Peter Mayer), the campaign manager for another prominent candidate, calls and requests a confidential meeting, and Stephen debates whether or not he should tell Paul. In the midst of the intrigue that results from the meeting, Stephen also navigates a burgeoning personal relationship with an ambitious young intern, Molly (Hollyn Gayle), and Stephen finds out that the campaign situation isn’t as simple as he had imagined. As new twists emerge, Stephen finds himself in the midst of several difficult dilemmas, and his own personal goals as well as those of his colleagues and candidate, undergo some intense challenges.

The centerpiece of the this play is Stephen’s emotional journey, which is deftly navigated here by the always excellent Sickmann, who brings an accessible relatability to his especially determined, sometimes difficult character. Wassilak is also strong as the dedicated political veteran Paul, and Mayer makes the most of his limited stage time as the tough-talking, hard bargaining Tom. There are also excellent turns from Parrack as the idealistic, aspirational young Ben, and Nara as the persistent Ida. Luis Aguilar, in a dual role as a waiter and another campaign staffer, and Gayle as Molly are also fine, although Gayle’s portrayal isn’t quite as worldly as the character seems to suggest. The strongest moments are the scenes between Sickmann and Wassilak, and Sickmann and Mayer, which crackle with energy and intensity as the intrigue of the well-constructed plot unfolds.

Technically, this production uses its space well, with a versatile if somewhat stark set by Patrick Huber. The characters are well outfitted by costume designer Andrea Robb, as well. Huber also designed the lighting, which works well to set and establish the mood and tone of the show, as does director Wayne Salomon’s sound design.

This is an intense, taut, intriguing political thriller, with much of the intensity coming from the characters’ big personalities and the great cast’s memorable performances. It’s a decidedly cynical, sometimes bleak take on the world of politics, although hints of idealism show up from time to time, only to be crushed by harsh realities and the reminder that anyone on a campaign, no matter how seemingly essential, can be replaced. St. Louis Actors’ Studio’s production brings these stark realities to the stage with crisp, biting incisiveness.  There’s one more weekend to catch it.

Peter Mayer, Spencer Sickmann
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio is presenting Farragut North at the Gaslight Theatre until February 24, 2019

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Tribes
by Nina Raine
Directed by Annamaria Pileggi
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
December 2, 2018

Miles Barbee, Bridgette Bassa
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio’s 12th season has been titled “Blood is Thicker Than Water”. I’m assuming that by that title, the plays will be examining the concept of family in one way or another. Their latest production, British playwright Nina Raine’s Tribes, looks at the concept of family from various different angles–from literal family to “chosen family” and what those concepts mean to a people who can become caught between two or more distinct groups. It’s an incisive, fascinating script filled with well-drawn characters, and STLAS has brough them to life in this intense, thoughtful and profound production.

The story, set in England, introduces us to a close but occasionally volatile family unit. The parents, professor Christopher (Greg Johnston) and aspiring novelist Beth (Elizabeth Ann Townsend) live with their three adult children–aspiring opera singer Ruth (Hailey Medrano), insecure academic Daniel (Ryan Lawson-Maeske), and Billy (Miles Barbee), who as the only deaf member of the family, has grown up in his hearing family’s world, learning to read lips and, at Christopher’s insistence, never learning sign language. The family is often loud and opinionated, with Billy frequently having to ask them to explain what they’re talking about. Eventually, Billy meets Sylvia (Bridgette Bassa) at a party.. Having grown up as a hearing child of deaf parents, Sylvia is fluent in sign language, and she is able to introduce Billy to the deaf community as she reveals that she herself is gradually going deaf. As the relationship between Billy and Sylvia grows, Syliva is introduced to Billy’s family and Billy begins to discover a new world of possibilities around him just as Sylvia is growing increasingly confused about what the world will be like for her, as Billy’s parents struggle with their son’s increasing independence, and as his siblings deal with a combination of jealousy and dependence. The dynamics are complicated to describe, although they are extremely well played-out, with various implications brought up as natural outgrowths of the characters, their relationships, and where the story takes them. It’s a fascinating play, intricately scripted, with moments of humor and poignant drama blended into an increasingly intense, riveting theatrical experience.

The family dynamic here is extremely well portrayed by an excellent cast. Barbee, who like his character is deaf, plays Billy with strength, sensitivity, and eagerness as Billy discovers more about the world around him, explores the possibilities, and challenges his family’s restrictions and perceptions of him. His chemistry with the equally excellent Bassa is strong, and Bassa is also particularly effective as a young woman who is essentially a part of two worlds but questioning how she fits in to both of them. Lawson-Maeske, as the insecure, struggling Daniel, is also impressive, particularly in his scenes with Barbee, the brother he alternately resents and desperately needs. There are also strong performances from Medrano as the competitive Ruth, Johnston as the belligerent, highly opinionated and controlling Christopher, and Townsend as the conflicted Beth, who seems to genuinely want the best for her children but struggles to understand what that is. It’s a highly emotional play, and thoroughly believable in its relationships and in its use of British Sign Language (BSL) on stage, with American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters and supertitles helping to translate.

The world of these characters is brought to life believably in director Annamaria Pileggi’s thoughtful staging and the technical aspects of the play. Patrick Huber’s vividly realized set, video design, and striking lighting make the most of the small stage space at STLAS’s Gaslight Theatre. There’s also impressive work from costume designer Megan Harshaw, props designer Jess Stamper, sound designer Jeff Roberts, and dialect coach Pileggi. The accents aren’t universally perfect, but they’re good enough as to not be distracting from the action.

This is a stunning, highly thought-provoking play that covers so many issues in terms of identity, family, and belonging that it’s almost too much to describe. The best thing to do is to see it for yourself, which I highly recommend. Tribes is another impressive production from St. Louis Actors’ Studio.

Cast of Tribes
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio is presenting Tribes at the Gaslight Theatre until December 16, 2018

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The Little Foxes
by Lillian Hellman
Directed by John Contini
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
September 30, 2018

Laurie McConnell, Bridgette Bassa, Kari Ely, Richard Lewis, Ryan Lawson-Maeske, Chuck Brinkley
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio’s new season’s theme is “Blood Is Thicker Than Water”. It leads off with a 20th Century classic, Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes. It’s a play I’d heard a lot about but had never actually seen before. Now, I’m glad this is the first production I’ve seen. It’s an intense, emotionally fraught play characterized by some truly remarkable performances by a cast of superb local actors.

The story is apparently semi-autobiographical, inspired by members of playwright Hellman’s own family. Set in the American South at the turn of the 20th Century, it offers a glimpse into wealthy Southern society at the time, both as a portrayal and as a scathing critique, as the inner workings and relationships among members of a wealthy extended family serve as a reflection of societal expectations, traditions, and injustices of the era. The central figure is Regina Giddens (Kari Ely), an ambitious woman whose fortunes have been determined largely by her financial dependence on her scheming brothers Ben (Chuck Brinkley) and Oscar (Bob Gerchen), as well as her mild-mannered, ailing husband Horace (William Roth). When the brothers arrange a deal with wealthy Chicago businessman William Marshall (Richard Lewis) to build a cotton mill, they pressure Regina into investing along with them but she needs to get Horace to agree, which means she has to send her young daughter Alexandra (Bridgette Bassa) on a train to Maryland, where he has been receiving treatment for his heart condition, to bring him home. Meanwhile, Oscar schemes to arrange a marriage between his immature son Leo (Ryan Lawson-Maeske) and Alexandra as a way of securing Horace’s money. Alexandra, for her part, doesn’t like Leo very much and seems to be closer to her aunt, Oscar’s gentle but mistreated wife Birdie (Laurie McConnell), who was born into a wealthy landowning family and who the abusive Oscar married for this reason. Trapped in a loveless, frequently violent marriage and a highly restrictive society, Birdie clings to music and drink as forms of comfort. The haunted Birdie serves as a contrast to the steely, strong-willed and ruthless Regina, who will use any means necessary to get what she wants.

Hellman pulls no punches in this devastating play, depicting the schemes, machinations, greed, brutality, and racism of Regina and her brothers–and the society in which they grew up and aim to thrive–with sharp characterization and caustic dialogue. The liberal use of racial slurs by the characters is difficult to listen to at times, but it’s reflective of the times and the characters and society. It’s difficult to watch the casual racism of most of the characters clearly demonstrated in their attitudes toward the family’s household servants, Addie (Wendy Greenwood) and Cal (Dennis Jethro II), although this too is realistic. The household dynamics are on clear display, and the nature of the various relationships is made clear in the script as well as in John Contini’s thoughtful direction. It’s clear, for instance, before anything needs to be said, the brutality of the relationship between Oscar and Birdie, as well as Horace’s contempt for Regina, Alexandra’s closeness to Birdie and Addie (Wendy Greenwood), and Addie’s thoughts about the various family members, positive and negative. Regina’s scheming is also evident, both in the script and in Ely’s crafty, measured performance. The story is intricately plotted, structured in three acts and with the tension building and with a series of devastating moments.

This is both a well-plotted story and a rich character study, and all the actors perform their roles with impressive ability. Ely, as mentioned, is a commanding presence as the scheming Regina, with Gerchen as the cold, brutal Oscar and Brinkley as the equally ambitious but more diplomatic Ben also convincing. There are also strong performances from Roth as the kind but sickly Horace, and Bassa as Alexandra, who shows a great deal of character growth as the story develops and she learns what her family is really like. Lawson-Maeske is appropriately eager and clueless as Leo, and Greenwood is especially strong as Addie, as well, particularly in her scenes with Bassa and Roth. The biggest standout, though, is McConnell, in a truly stunning, multi-layered and heartbreaking performance as Birdie. A gentle woman whose fond memories of her family are clear, as well as her increasingly obvious disillusionment and loss of hope, Birdie’s story is made especially convincing by McConnell, who is always excellent and is at her best here.

In addition to the excellent cast, this show displays impressive production values as well. STLAS’s Gaslight Theatre is a challenging space in terms of how small it is, but this company has continually made the most of that space, and they seem to have outdone themselves this time. Patrick Huber’s mult-level set is stunning, representing a well-appointed 1900-era Southern mansion with clarity. The costumes by Megan Harshaw also suit the characters well. There’s also excellent work from lighting designer Patrick Huber, sound designer Contini, and props designer Jess Stamper. All of these elements work together well to maintain the atmosphere, tension, and drama of the play.

The Little Foxes at St. Louis Actors’ Studio is not to be missed. Whether you are familiar with the works of Lillian Hellman or not, this is a must-see show. It’s a reflection of the excellence of this company as well as the outstanding cast of local actors who have brought these characters to life. Although many of the characters in this play are unlikable to say the least, they are vividly portrayed here. The running time is fairly long–it’s three acts with two intermissions, and it’s riveting from start to finish. There’s one more weekend to see it. Don’t miss it.

Laurie McConnell, Bridgette Bassa, Kari Ely, Wendy Greenwood, Richard Lewis, Chuck Brinkley, Ryan Lawson-Maeske, Bob Gerchen
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio is presenting The Little Foxes at the Gaslight Theatre until October 14, 2018

 

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