Cotton Patch Really Redux, Days 3-4: Historical Jaunts

When I awoke in the morning, I was ready for some more of Norma’s fine home cooking.  Today’s morning repast was a dish of oranges, blueberries, and strawberries, French Toast, bacon, and scrambled eggs.  Once again I enjoyed a blissful breakfast while continuing to read my Sherlock Holmes mystery and keeping myself up to date with the daily news.

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I was dedicating today to the exploration of several historic sites around the area.  The first two were in or just outside of Petersburg and they were the grave of Ann Rutledge at Oakland Cemetery and Lincoln’s New Salem Historic Site.

Ann Rutledge is widely considered to be the first love of Abraham Lincoln.  Nobody is entirely certain of the extent of their relationship.  What is known is that Lincoln was devastated after her death.  So hard did he take it that a friend of his took away his pocketknife because he was afraid Lincoln would hurt himself.

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Ann Rutledge’s Tombstone

Lincoln had lived in New Salem for about six years.  It was considered a turning point in his life because he was a little lost when he first arrived, but discovered his calling to politics while in this town.  When he left town to pursue this calling, the town folded up shortly afterwards.  It was almost as if it had come into existence solely to inspire the future president.

The site is not without some features of interest with an exhibit hall that tells of Lincoln’s time in New Salem and holding some of his surveying equipment, but the village is a pretty good reproduction of the actual town and a few of the buildings are original.  Still I thought the site lacked a certain oomph and I quickly made my way through it.

From there, I returned to Springfield where I visited the Dana-Thomas House, a construction of Frank Lloyd Wright.  Wright designed the house for Susan Lawrence Dana.  She had been the daughter of the mayor of Springfield and when her father and husband perished in rapid succession, she opted to use her $3 million inheritance (modern day equivalent nearly $80 million) to have the family home completely redesigned.  She wanted a place that could serve as a home, a place for the arts, and a place for entertaining people.

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Dana-Thomas House

The house is actually a marvel in architecture, but I was disappointed that pictures inside the house were disallowed.  It featured stain glass windows with a butterfly motif, murals with a sumac motif, a bowling alley, a ballroom, an intercom system, and even a doorbell alert system due to the numerous doors of the estate.  It is free (donations encouraged) and certainly worth a look around.

Afterwards I visited the tomb of one of the greatest men in the history of our country (possibly even in general history).  The mausoleum is certainly an awesome sight.  In front is a giant bust of Lincoln and people often touch its nose for good luck.  The path to the tomb is peppered with statues of Lincoln along with various quotations of his.  His tombstone is massive and there was a certain weightiness to knowing that the man who saved our country lay 10 feet under my feet.  Across from Lincoln’s tombstone lay the remains of Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, and three of their sons.  The fourth is buried in Arlington, VA at the request of his wife.

I certainly felt humbled as I left the tomb and returned to Branson House to begin writing my articles.  At 4:10 it was time for church.

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St Peter Catholic Church

I attended services at St Peter Catholic Church and went through a rather speedy service (it was finished in 40 minutes and that included a full contingent of hymns).  Even with the quicker than normal service, I did get a rather fascinating sermon from either a deacon or a visiting priest.  It was a very humble homily talking about how nobodies are still somebodies in the eyes of God.  The speaker was quite honest about feeling like a nobody in his youth until he realized the simple truth.

When services ended, I decided to eat dinner.  I was weary after the multiple round trip visits to Springfield and decided to eat in town.  I visited Los Rancheros which proved to be an excellent choice.  I chose the Rancheros Burrito which came with a side of Spanish rice and refried beans.

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With another relaxing meal under my belt, I decided tonight would be a good night to write, organize photos, and just put my feet up in general.  And I did just that before calling it a night.

After a hot shower and shave, the next morning, I was greeted with a breakfast of cinnamon rolls, oranges and cream, and egg bake filled with cheese, sausages, and onions.  I ended up having a great conversation with John about my adventures and he gave me a little history on the town.

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Alas, the time had come for me to head for home.  But if you’re in the neighborhood, give Branson House Bed and Breakfast a visit.  It’s nice and comfortable in a quiet little town and you can experience a lot of history in the area, especially in Springfield.

Until the next time, happy travels.

Cotton Patch Really Redux, Days 1-2: Experiencing Lincoln & Cotton Patchful

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Sometimes fate gives you a chance at redemption.

As my regular readers may remember, about a year ago I was in Arlington, TX in order to review Cotton Patch Gospel for the Repertory Company Theatre when a series of unfortunate circumstances exploded that attempt.  If you need a refresher or just need to read the story for the first time, click here.  A few months ago I found that the show would be playing in the much, much closer venue of Springfield, IL at the Hoogland Center for the Arts.  I got in touch with their executive and artistic director, Gus Gordon, and arranged a media ticket to review the show and looked forward to a trip to Illinois’ capital city in early March.

My journey did not start with the normal sense of joy that I usually have with these road trips.  Part of it was just general antsyness about wanting to get to Illinois.  The other part was my irritation at being unceremoniously turned away from an event I was asked to be part of on the previous night.

A rest stop in Hannibal, MO served to restore much of my good humor.  After lunching at Wendy’s, I found myself in a decidedly better frame of mind and the rest of the drive felt like my normal road experiences.

A few hours later, I found myself in Petersburg (about 20 miles outside of Springfield) and my home away from home:  Branson House Bed & Breakfast, owned and operated by Norma and John Stiltz.  John also happens to be the mayor of Petersburg.

Branson House is an Eastlake Victorian home built in 1876 by Nathaniel Branson for his wife, Frances.  The house boasts 7 marble fireplaces and, believe it or not, an elevator.  When I rang the doorbell, I was greeted by Norma who gave me the nickel tour of the home before leading me to Uncle Billy’s Retreat, my room for the next few nights.  And, yes, of course I used the elevator.  It would have been impolite not to have used it.

Uncle Billy’s Retreat was a most comfortable room, indeed.  It boasted a large iron framed king bed with an electric fireplace, sitting chair & footstool, and a day bed in the corner.  After doing my usual reconnaissance, I relaxed for a bit before heading over to Springfield to get some dinner and locate the Hoogland.

Downtown Springfield does require a little getting used to as the roads are a criss cross of one way streets, but after I went back and forth a couple of times, I found myself expertly navigating the streets.  Within a short time, I arrived at D & J’s Café for a little old fashioned comfort food.

Any lingering frustrations to the start of my day vanished with that meal.  I enjoyed a patty melt with bacon which was apparently just what the doctor ordered.  A side of crinkle fries and a Mountain Dew helped to complete the cure as I chewed merrily away and completed a rereading of Ellery Queen’s The Siamese Twin Mystery.

Upon returning to the inn, I organized some photos and then hit the sack.

The next morning, I woke up feeling refreshed.  I headed to my bathroom and took a long hot shower before heading downstairs to breakfast.  Norma had prepared some wonderfully thick pancakes with a dish of kiwi, blueberries, and strawberries, plus an egg pizza with cheese and chives.  I’m not usually a fan of strawberries, but these were quite delectable and I savored every mouthful of my meal while reading Sherlock Holmes and the Eisendorf Enigma, the latest novel from my favorite Holmesian pastiche writer, Larry Millet.  I also formally met John who graciously brought me the local paper.

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Pancakes, fruit, and egg pizza

With the inner man restored, I headed to Springfield to indulge in a bit of history.  Springfield was the home of our greatest president, Abraham Lincoln and his tomb, museum, and library are all located in downtown Springfield.

The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum is well worth a visit for a very interactive study of the life of Mr. Lincoln.  I’ve always had a great deal of admiration and respect for Honest Abe, but I was stunned to find out how much I didn’t know about him.

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Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum

His formal schooling lasted less than a year and he was a self-taught reader and lawyer.  I was even more shocked to find out that he began his presidency as our most hated leader.  Let that one sink in.  It was a particularly contentious election with 4 candidates.  Lincoln managed to win a decisive Electoral College victory thanks to the northern states (he actually didn’t make the ballot in many southern states), but only had 40% of the popular vote.  Not exactly a ringing endorsement.  It also seemed like he could do no right as anything and everything he did brought hatred and vitriol upon him.  I was genuinely shocked to see the numerous hateful articles and political cartoons written and drawn about Lincoln.  History, of course, has vindicated him.

The museum is split into several sections.  One is dedicated to his life before the White House, another to his presidency and the Civil War, another to the Library next door, another to rare family treasures, but the best section is an interactive movie theatre that briefly describes Lincoln’s life.  The film showed me that Lincoln had an interesting duality in personality.  Despite being a popular wit and storyteller, Lincoln was also plagued by doubt and melancholy.  I also learned that Lincoln may very well have been near death even without the aid of John Wilkes Booth’s bullet.

Two busts of Lincoln done after he won the presidency each time show the ravage that leading during the Civil War wrought on him.  Underweight to begin with, Lincoln was almost skeletal going into his second term.  One noted sculptor thought the second bust was a death mask.  Studies of pictures of Lincoln after his first term seem to support the theory that he may not have been long for the world.

After my moving and enlightening education, I took a walk down to the Hoogland to get a picture of it.  On my walk, I passed the old and current state capitols and also met a homeless guy who needed a sympathetic ear.  He was quite philosophical and well versed on our current state of politics.  I ended up giving him $5 so he could get a sandwich.

I got my picture of the Hoogland, then returned to my car where I drove back to Branson House to relax a bit before dinner.

At 4:30, I got cleaned up and into my suit for the evening’s activities.  I drove back to Springfield, hoping to eat at the Chesapeake Seafood House, but it was jammed to the rafters.  It would have taken 45 minutes just to seat me.  Luckily, I remembered passing a restaurant called Alexander’s Steakhouse as I entered town, so I rushed back then, where I was able to be seated immediately.

I think I ended up getting the better deal as Alexander’s had one of the best salad bars I have enjoyed.  They also brought me a perfectly chargrilled Atlantic salmon with some hand cut Idaho steak fries.  After a tasty dinner, I hopped over to the Hoogland.

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Hoogland Center for the Arts

It was a magical night of theatre.  The Hoogland is actually home to several theatres and I met Gus Gordon who was a warm and friendly guy.  I also met Ken Bradbury, the director of Cotton Patch Gospel whose expression of “I’ll be damned” still brings a smile to my face when he found out I had traveled from Omaha to review his show.  And the show was excellent.  You can read my review here.

With bluegrass music playing in my head, I returned to the inn to write my review and get a good night’s rest.

A Season of Exploration, Part II: A Triumphant Return

The standing ovation.  The knowledge that we were able to move and enrich the audience with powerful storytelling.  The satisfaction of entertaining others.  What a triumphant night!

Last night was the staged reading of Civil War Voices at the Omaha Playhouse and it was a magical evening.  It was the type of night that reminds me just why I do this thing.  It also got my juices flowing again.  I suddenly want to start telling a lot more stories.  But that’s a road for the future.

Doing Civil War Voices was a very different experience.  After 20 years of acting, I am simply used to a longer, more detailed preparation experience.  Trying to find and mold a character in just 7 short rehearsals is quite a unique challenge.

Not only was Abraham Lincoln my first role in 2 ½ years, but it was also the smallest role I’ve had in nearly six years.  Not that I’m complaining.  It’s just that I had forgotten the very different difficulty of a smaller role.  With a larger role, if you’re not in the proper groove at first, you can use your dialogue to work yourself to where you need to be.  If you have a smaller role, you simply do not have that luxury.  You’ve got to hit the ground running and make your shots count.  For this show, that was more crucial than ever before because it would just be the one bite at the apple.

I think the late singer, Gene Pitney, described a great live performance the best when he said, “On a given night, when everything works.  When the lights are right.  When the sound is right.  When you’re up for the game and you’re feeling right.  Some of them are intangibles.  They’re either going to happen or they’re not going to happen.  But on the given night when they do happen, it’s just an amazing feeling.  You can feel the electricity going back and forth.  Fantastic.”  And last night was just such a night.

I had a feeling we were onto something special last night when we had to hold at the top of the show because so many people wanted to get in to watch.  Our director, Jeff Horger, had said these events normally draw about 100 people and I believe the Howard Drew holds around 250-300 people.  Additional chairs had to be brought in to create two more front rows plus seating around the sides of theatre because of the overflow.

The lower stakes of a staged reading allowed me to be in sync with an audience in a way I never had before.  I really can’t describe the feeling of feeding off the merriment of the audience during the more humorous segments of the show to the sensation of knowing you’ve got them in the palm of your hand during a particularly powerful moment.  But it’s splendid, awesome, and humbling all at the same time.

The work of the cast was just spot-on and I was very pleased with my own take on Honest Abe.  More importantly, I nailed one of the most difficult lines that I think I have ever had in all of my years of theatre.

A few paragraphs ago, I had mentioned the difficulty and importance of making your shots count in a smaller role.  I believe the most important line I had in the show occurred when Lincoln looks at the body of his dead son, Willie, and simply says, “My poor boy.  He was too good for this Earth.”  I knew what I wanted to do with the line.  But in working at home and at rehearsal, I never thought I got it just right.  But last night it came.

If I never understood the importance of listening in acting before last night, I certainly do now.  Last night, I heard the words of Elizabeth Keckley (beautifully played and sung by Camille Metoyer Moten) describing the terrible burden of grief and weariness on Lincoln’s shoulders from the pressures of the Civil War and the death of Willie as if I were hearing them for the first time.  I began falling into the proper emotional state and, remembering my lessons with Doug Blackburn, began dipping into my own wells of grief to empathize with Lincoln.  Real tears began flowing as I barely choked out the crucial line and I could feel the grip of emotion on the audience as well.  Such an amazing moment.

When the night was done, we received a standing ovation and I was truly sorry that we couldn’t do the reading a few more times.  I didn’t get to know this cast that well due to the compressed nature of preparation, but I liked them and it was a true community theatre cast from seasoned veterans to first timers and all levels in between.

My proudest moment occurred after the show when an elderly gentleman came up to me and asked, “Young man, are you playing Abe when they do this show in Lincoln?”  I replied that I was not and, with a disappointed look in his face said, “I really loved what you did with the character.”  One could not ask for a finer review than that one statement.  If I was able to convince one person, then I did my job.

Last night reminded me of all the glorious thrills that theatre provides.  It was a wonderful night and I look forward to doing it again and again and again and again. . .

Until we meet again.

“Civil War Voices” to Play on Sept 28 at Omaha Community Playhouse

Staged Reading | Howard Drew Theatre
Written by James R Harris | Music by Mark Hayes | Directed by Jeff Horger

Civil War Voices is a collection of compelling and passionate true stories of real individuals who lived through the Civil War, often using the actual words they left behind in diaries, letters and other writings. This is a creative presentation of the history of the Civil War with chilling stories of battle and death, injustices and hope for the future, all intertwined with songs of that time period. Appropriate for all audiences.

Location:  Omaha Community Playhouse (6915 Cass St in Omaha, NE)

Date & Time:  Monday, September 28 at 7:30pm

The performance is free.

Cast

Lauren Anderson: Second Master, Confederate Woman
Chris Elston: Abraham Lincoln
Peggy A Holloway: Fire-Eater #1, St. Louis Woman
Stacy Hopkins: Narrator’s Father, Cook
Megan Ingram: Harriet Perry
Frank Insolera Jr.: Sgt. George Buck
Angela Jenson-Fey: Cornelia Harris
Emma Johnson: Governor Washburn, General Lee, Celebrant #2
Zach Kloppenborg: Theo Perry
Julie Livingston: Mrs. Jefferson Davis, Old Mistress, Confederate Medic
Emily Mokrycki: Mary Todd Lincoln
Camille Metoyer Moten: Elizabeth Keckley
Bridget Mueting: Stage Directions
Brian Priesman: Narrator/Joe Harris
Tony Schik: First Master, Union General, Confederate Officer
Ryann Woods: Keckley’s Mother, General Hunt, Celebrant #1
Mark Thornburg: Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain

A Season of Exploration, Part I: The Writer & The Actor

I know.  I know.  You weren’t expecting another story so soon.  Well, I got an early start of things this year.  Earlier than you may think as this tale does not begin with an audition, but with a review.

In early May I went to the Playhouse to review Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and my dear friend, Sonia Keffer, was working the TAG (Theatre Arts Guild) table.  She said she needed to talk to me and asked me if I heard that Bob Fischbach (the critic for our newspaper, Omaha World-Herald) was retiring.  I replied that I had.

Sonia then said Bob had contacted her and the newspaper was not quite certain as to what they were going to do with his position.  The most popular idea was that, at least for the upcoming season, the newspaper would gather a pool of writers, send them out on reviews, and pay them by the article.  He had wanted to include her name and she agreed to be part of it.  Then he asked Sonia, “Do you know a Chris Elston?  I understand he writes reviews.”  She said, “Yes, I know him very well and he writes excellent reviews.”  Bob then asked if she could put him in touch with me and she asked me if it was all right to give him my phone number.

The power of speech momentarily eluded me as I was so pleasantly shocked by this good bit of news.  “The answer is yes,” said Sonia with a smile.  “Yes.  Absolutely yes.  And thank you,” I replied.

When I started this website, I had only hoped to become a viable alternative to the reviews put out by the various papers.  But only now, in less than 2 years’ time, was I beginning to understand the impact my writings had actually had.  And that would be revealed to me even further over the next few weeks.

My review for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? ended up becoming my most acclaimed to date.  It really struck a chord with people at the Playhouse as it promoted the heck out of that play with my words.  I cannot tell you what a joy it was to see my words featured when the Playhouse promoted the show on Twitter, Facebook, and e-mail marketing.  It was every bit as satisfying as enjoying a really great role on stage.  Thanks to the constant promotion, my readership doubled over the 5 week run of the show.

Aside from the review, I did speak to Mr. Fischbach who told me a little about the paper’s potential plan and asked if he could include my name in the pool he was gathering for his editor.  I agreed to be included and am still waiting for news on that end.  Even if the paper opts to go in a different direction, it was still an honor to be asked to be considered.  Though I freely admit, getting paid to write about theatre would be icing on an already delectable cake.

A few weeks after my review I attended a Playhouse even in order to meet the new Associate Artistic Director, Jeff Horger.  As I filled out my name tag, the person behind the table said, “Oh, so you’re Chris Elston” before complimenting me on my writings.  That person was the Playhouse’s Marketing/PR Director, Katie Broman, who put me onto the Playhouse’s press list as of that night.  What this means is that I’ll receive a press pass whenever I’m reviewing a show at the Playhouse.  Winning!!

At the meet and greet, I also bumped into my old friend, Lara Marsh, who is getting to direct Lost Boy Found at Whole Foods at the Playhouse next season after getting to direct it as part of their Alternative Programming season this year.  I may audition for it again this year, but I have not yet decided if I’d rather act in it or learn about directing from it.  I asked Lara about the possibility of shadowing her for it if I decided not to act and if my schedule allowed it.  While nothing is set in stone, it is definitely not out of the realm of possibility that this show may be my foot in the door of directing.

Actually, Lara became the second director I might be able to shadow next season.  The first was Amy Lane, the Playhouse’s former Resident Director now Assistant Professor of Theatre at Creighton University.  My old friend, Sherry Fletcher, recommended her to me as someone who was very big on developing talent in that field and she happens to be a close friend of Sonia’s, too.  Both of us happened to be at TAG Nite Out for Sabrina Fair and I approached her about the possibility of sitting under her learning tree for direction and she asked me to message her closer to the time that she is about to start her guest directing stint at the Playhouse for Love, Loss and What I Wore.  So I may have 2 possibilities to learn a bit about directing next season.

With all of these wonderful opportunities presenting themselves to me, I felt a semi-dormant part of me begin to awaken.  I wanted to tell a story again.

So I auditioned for the Playhouse season premiere, Mauritius, which marks the solo directorial debut of Jeff Horger.  I do not know much about the story except that it centers around 2 half-sisters who may own 2 rare Blue Mauritius stamps.  One girl wants to sell them and three thieves (a charming con artist, a crabby stamp expert, and a dangerous psychopath) want to get their hands on the stamps.  I went into the audition with nothing more than the hope of making a good impression.

It was good to keep my hopes at that level because, like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, this play has a very small cast (2f 3m).  A lot of people came out to audition.  I’d estimate that close to 90 people came out over the two nights meaning that 85 people were going to hear the dreaded “no”.  And there was some keen, heavyweight competition at the auditions.

For my part I was pleased with my work and I believe it had a positive impact.  Based off of my observations, the new style of auditions is designed to make decisions very quickly.  By that I mean, if you do not have the qualities the director is looking for, you will get one read before being dismissed.  I got to read twice so I must have been doing something right.  I read for the con artist and the psychopath.  Of the two I felt that my read for the con artist was probably the better of the two, especially since the psychopath needs a dominating physical presence that I lack.  Putting it in plain terms, I don’t look like the type of guy who would beat someone to a pulp.

I did not receive a callback, so I knew I would be out of the running, but was pleased at the new and fresh faces that did make it into the show.  Luckily, I had another audition all lined up.

The Playhouse is bringing back their Alternative Programming season in full force this season with 9 events.  Three of the shows all had auditions last week.

I had been expecting wall to wall actors for this event, but imagine my surprise when I saw maybe a dozen actors at the second night and I could not imagine the first night being of much greater volume.  I ended up reading 9 times over a 75 minute period.

The first show I read for was A Steady Rain which is a 2 man duologue (meaning that both actors are giving monologues to the audience) about best friends who are cops.  One is dirty and the other is an alcoholic.  It was being directed by Christina Rohling and I first read for the dirty cop.  It was a pretty good read, though I seemed to be fighting myself a bit for some reason.  I instinctively felt the need for physical action and was squashing it to a degree.  Still the read was on target.

After my first read, Christina said, “That was really good” before asking me a bit about my theatrical background.  I told her I had been in theatre for 20 years, but had not performed in 2 and that my past two years had been focused on my website.  When she heard about the website she said, “I think I’ve read some of your stuff”.  It was then that I was struck by the oddity that I had become better known in the  theatre community for 2 years of writing than for 20 years of acting.  Amazing where those roads can take us.

Anyway, I then read a scene as the alcoholic cop with another guy named Tony (who read brilliantly).  It was a pretty good scene, but very tricky to pull off due to not being certain when I was simply telling a story and when, or if, I was interacting with Tony.  It was my last read for that show and I knew it would be the toughest to get into due to the numbers game.

I then read for Take Me Out which tells the story of a baseball player who comes out of the closet.  This one was being directed by Noah Diaz and I first read for the team manager.  Noah asked me to do some big physical action at some point and I had the perfect spot.  I read the letter very professionally.  The thrust of the letter is how the manager admires the player for his bravery in making his revelations and how honored he’d be if he were his son’s teacher or lover.  But he finishes with the whiny cry, “But did it have to be baseball?!!!” and I collapsed to the ground in a loud babyish whine.  In fact, my only regret was that I didn’t go more over the top since I had been given carte blanche to do so.

Noah had me read it again, but told me that he felt the scene had 3 tonal shifts and he wanted me to read it again with those shifts.  I did and Doug Blackburn’s acting boot camp came back to me and I felt I shifted 5 or 6 times and I was pleased with the work.  Finally, Noah had me read it once more with Tony and we read a scene between the baseball player and his best friend.

We read the scene and I made the friend, Kippy, laid back and jokey.  It was a nice read, but I actually reversed one of the jokes since I mistakenly thought Kippy was gay and his comment about being on the same team was a reference to the 2 characters shared orientation.  Noah had us read it one more time with some adjustments and he asked me to make Kippy a bit more serious and dependable and he corrected my mistaken interpretation of Kippy so I got the team joke right on the second go around.

After that, Noah said he seen all he needed to see from me which left me one more show for which to read.

That show was Civil War Voices which is based off of actual letters, diaries, and other writings that took place during the Civil War and will be directed by Jeff Horger.  Again, I was doing something right as Jeff read me three times.  First I read a love letter from a character named Theo.  Then I read a diary entry from a military commander named Chamberlin.  Finally I read a historian, but he asked me to do it in a Presidential voice since I had expressed an interest in Abe Lincoln.  I felt I did well in all of my reads.  Then Jeff asked me a bit about my theatrical background and I gave him the same story I had given to Christina.  After those reads, I went home for the night.

A week passed which I took as a most promising sign.  The longer I avoided rejection, the better my chances, I reasoned.  But late Wednesday afternoon, I took a quick one-two combo to the ego.  I was checking my e-mail and I saw I had rejection notices for both A Steady Rain and Take Me Out waiting for me.

I was quite surprised by how much the wind had been taken out of my sails.  But in a strange way, I was also glad because it told me that my mojo had not faded as I had feared.  I had genuinely wanted to do these shows and was truly disappointed at not being selected.  But there was still hope as I had not yet had any word about Civil War Voices.

Then came Thursday afternoon.  My office phone rang and on the other end was the bright voice of Jeannine Robertson, the Playhouse’s Administrative Assistant.  She said that Jeff wanted to offer me the role of Abraham Lincoln.

That was about the last role I expected to get.  In a full production, I don’t think I would have been seriously considered for the role as I’m not a physical match for Honest Abe.  But in reader’s theatre, I thought there might be a chance.  And it worked out!  After giving one of the firmest yeses I’ve ever given, I hung up the phone with a song in my heart and a jaunty tune on my lips.

And that brings us to the end of this tale.  Rehearsals begin in August just after I get back from a theatre festival in Whitehall, MI where I’ll get to watch one of my favorite shows, Cotton Patch Gospel, and review 3 B & Bs on the long journey.  I look forward to this new adventure as well as more stories during this season of exploration.

Until we meet again. . .

The Weight of Faith and Secrets

On a stormy night, Confederate solider, Captain Caleb DeLeon, returns home (a wonderfully gutted manor designed by Jeffery Stander) shortly after the Confederacy’s surrender at Appomattox.  He finds the family’s major-domo (and freed slave), Simon, still guarding the house.  Later joined by another former family slave, John, the three men realize it is Passover and have a traditional Jewish seder in which secrets are revealed in Matthew Lopez’s gripping drama, The Whipping Man, now playing at the Omaha Community Playhouse.

Lopez’s script is one of the most thought provoking pieces of drama I’ve seen produced in a very long time.  It asks the audience questions of identity, what it really means to be free and to be a slave, the cost of secrets, and the price of faith.  Director Stephen Nachamie expertly navigates the multiple layers and themes of the show with well paced, skillful direction and has culled some powerful performances from his three actors.

Andy Prescott gives a fine accounting of himself in his debut performance at the Playhouse as Caleb DeLeon.  As DeLeon, Prescott demonstrates a great understanding of the use of body language as his character starts the show with a severely gangrenous left leg.  Every step had the audience wincing with him as he shuddered, gasped, and groaned from the pain.  Prescott is simultaneously sympathetic and unlikable as the former Confederate solider.  In some ways, he is more a slave than Simon and John as he is imprisoned by his culture, his cowardice, and his immaturity.  Yet he also has the soul of a poet and not as ingrained in the mindset of slavery as some of his contemporaries.

Prescott has a wonderful speaking voice which is capable of some very beautiful nuances.  This is especially crucial to his role as DeLeon is confined to a chair for the bulk of the play due to the amputation of his leg. But  I also thought that gift of voice could have been put to better use in some of the more dramatic moments.  A couple of poignant scenes seemed slightly too underplayed  and could have used a wider range of expression and emotion.

As Simon, Carl Brooks demonstrates complete mastery of his craft with a meticulously detailed performance.  Brooks’ presence is incredible as he fills the room with warmness, humility, and humanity.  Brooks’ Simon was brought up in Judaism as part of this household and he is very devout in that faith.  When he realizes that it is Passover, he decides to improvise a Jewish seder (Passover meal) which now means more to him than ever before since he is finally free and now has a true kinship with and understanding of his spiritual brethren on the night of the Exodus.

Brooks’ performance is flawless.  He ably moves from beat to beat, switching between joy, anger, pity, frustration, and concern on the turn of a dime.  Brooks also expertly handles the Hebrew pronunciation and possesses a fine singing voice as demonstrated during the seder.

Luther Simon’s cynically happy-go-lucky essaying of John brought a unique combination of lightness and darkness to the play.  As John, Simon presents a front of being jokey and lackadaisical.  But this front only serves to hide a very deep-seated hatred of his former life as a slave and his sense of betrayal by Caleb during a previous incident with the unseen whipping man.  Although he is now a free man, John is more of a slave than ever.  He is enslaved by  the bottle, by lying, by greed, and he is imprisoned in Richmond due to a life altering choice.  In turns, Simon is amusing and haunting.

Mounting a drama of this type requires a colossal amount of energy on the parts of the actors.  This is especially true for this show as each actor has enough dialogue for a one man show and must work his way through innumerable beats and moments.  This can severely tire a performer and was a bit noticeable in tonight’s show as it took a bit for the actors to really get going and their energy started to flag a bit at the end.  This in no way shortchanged this powerful tale which could be one of the finest dramas mounted this theatre season.

“This is who we are,” says Simon at one point.  And who they are was not determined by what they were born into, but rather by the choices that lead the characters to the climax of this sensational drama.

The Whipping Man will be performed at the Omaha Community Playhouse until November 16.  Performances are Thurs-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm.  The show deals with sensitive subject matter and contains some adult language.  It is not recommended for children.  Tickets cost $36 ($22 for students).  Contact the box office at 402-553-0800 or visit http://www.omahaplayhouse.com.  The Omaha Playhouse is located at 6915 Cass Street in Omaha, NE.