‘Eminent Domain’ Conquers the Playhouse

An estranged family reunites to wage battle against an oil company seeking to use eminent domain to claim part of the family’s land.  But the fallout from the court battle and the actions of one of the company’s employees may tear the family asunder once more.  This is the story of Eminent Domain by Laura Leininger-Campbell which is making its world premiere at the Omaha Community Playhouse.

Ms Leininger-Campbell has written an exceptionally thought-provoking and powerful story.  What I found most impressive about the tale was its deceptive simplicity.  Through ordinary conversation, Ms Leininger-Campbell taps into the heart of what it means to be family.  The love.  The banter.  The fights.  The heartache.  The camaraderie.   The unity.  It’s undoubtedly one of the most real and believable plays I have ever seen with a tight, well-balanced script that gives all of its characters a chance to shine.

This strong script is further aided by a cast consisting of the cream of Omaha theatre under the watchful eye of Amy Lane who leads her cast to a series of sterling and stellar performances.

Memorable performances are supplied by Chris Shonka and Christina Rohling.  Shonka plays Trent Nichols, an attorney for the oil company who seems like a decent man who, through business or circumstance, brings the MacLeod family buckets of grief when he files the claim of eminent domain and cuckolds the son of the MacLeod patriarch.  Ms Rohling plays Theresa MacLeod, the unhappy wife of the cuckold who feels like, and is treated as, an outsider by the MacLeods and longs for a better life away from the farm.

My personal favorite performance was Eric Salonis’ interpretation of the autistic Evan MacLeod.  As Evan, Salonis nails the nuances of autism with his completely blank features, failure to make eye contact, laserlike focus on tasks, twitching, monotone speech patterns, and repetitive motions.  Though he often seems in his own world, Salonis’ Evan is more aware of things than one may think as he often tries to help his family through difficult moments by offering them his grandfather’s watch to wind.

Bill Hutson is quite the character as Rob MacLeod.  As the patriarch of the MacLeod clan, he is irascible, foul mouthed, set in his ways, and slightly prejudiced.  Hutson effortlessly swings from one extreme to the other as Rob engages in loud arguments with his family and then, just as easily, sits down for an enjoyable meal with them.  Rob is the type of old-fashioned man who thinks he always has to be strong and in control to lead his family which makes his emotional collapse in Act II all the more heart-wrenching.  But his collapse is what finally allows him to show his real heart and strength.

Erika Hall Sieff is definitely her father’s child as Adair MacLeod.  She is just as stubborn and pig-headed as he is and their similarities led to their long estrangement prior to the events of the play.  Ms Hall Sieff is marvelous as the lawyer who returns home to help save the family farm from the greedy oil company and well embodies Adair’s potent sense of justice.

Jeremy Estill gets the play’s most tragic character in Bart MacLeod.  Estill’s Bart is a borderline, if not full-blown, alcoholic whose drinking hides his frustration at giving up a potential and promising career as a poet to return to the family to help his father, Rob.  Estill’s Bart has an incredible command of the English language which he uses to provide some of the show’s lighter moments and softening some of the darker ones.  Despite his issues, Estill will make you feel Bart’s pain when he learns of his wife’s adultery and finally explains the motivations for his life’s choices.

Technically, this show was a masterpiece.  I was floored by Michael Campbell’s scores and arrangements, especially the driving drumbeat in Act II which supports the play’s darkest moments.  John Gibilisco’s sounds were top notch especially the sound effects of the thunderstorms that served as ominous omens.  Jim Othuse’s farmhouse was a thing of beauty and his lights were wonderful in showing the passage from day to night.  Megan Kuehler’s rural costumes really gave the actors the look and feel of a Nebraska farming family.

Ultimately, this play is a great slice of life story.  While it may sound cliché, you will laugh, cry, and think.  Eminent Domain is a real winner and I am so pleased that the Playhouse took a chance on mounting such an extraordinary story.  Don’t do a disservice to yourself by missing this show.

Eminent Domain runs at the Omaha Playhouse through Sept 17. Performances are Thurs-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm.  Tickets cost $36 for adults and $22 for students.  For tickets, contact the Playhouse at 402-553-0800 or visit www.omahaplayhouse.com or www.ticketomaha.com.  Due to strong language and some mature themes, this show is not recommended for children.  The Omaha Community Playhouse is located at 6915 Cass St in Omaha, NE.

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