It is a Brilliant Thing

After his mother attempts suicide, a little boy decides to write a list covering every brilliant thing in life.  This list follows the boy as he grows into a man and experiences the highs and lows of life.  This is Every Brilliant Thing by Duncan MacMillan and it kicks off the Blue Barn Theatre’s 29th season:  Connect.

MacMillan has written a pretty potent script “based on true and untrue stories” and it has a little bit of something for everyone.  It’s funny.  It’s poignant.  It’s thoughtful.  It’s relevant.  The play centers around the theme of suicide and provides a hopeful message:  things will get better.  This message is laid out with facts, stories, and audience participation.  I thought the audience participation element was positively inspired because this is a story that we are all part of as all of us have felt down in life and needed a little picking up.

An interesting thing about casts is that the smaller they are, the stronger they have to be.  When dealing with a one person show, not only does the actor’s talent have to be of phenomenal quality but he or she needs an almost symbiotic relationship with an equally talented director in order to find, develop, and relate the innumerable beats of the story.  Fortunately this show illustrates just such a relationship as the impeccable direction of Susan Clement-Toberer combined with the acting chops of Hughston Walkinshaw result in a night of theatre that is somber, moving, light, funny, and strong.

Ms Clement-Toberer’s staging is of superior quality as she breaks down the barriers between actor and audience.  Walkinshaw performs in the round and is centimeters away from the audience. Never is there a static moment as Walkinshaw constantly moves around the room and engages the audience, bringing them deeper into the world of this tale.

So natural and extemporaneous is Walkinshaw that it almost doesn’t seem like he’s acting.  It’s almost as if he’s telling his own life story.  But it is an arduous and triumphant performance as Walkinshaw has to constantly be on his toes and be aware of every moment as he may have to fill in the blanks or gently move things along during the audience participation moments.

Walkinshaw’s interpretations are so spot on and precise.  At one moment, he is an innocent little boy facing death for the first time when his beloved dog is put to sleep.  In a flash, he’s a college student finding love for the first time.  In the blink of an eye, he’s a jaded adult facing his own battle with depression which causes his marriage to crumble while he deals with the hideous reality of suicide in his own family.  Yet, through it all, he maintains his grip on hope with the ever growing list of brilliant things.

Shea Saladee softly lights the performance space with a series of vintage chandeliers.  Craig Marsh’s sounds take the form of music which plays an important emotional role in this show.  And the final number will be the “happiest sad song” you ever heard.  Amy Reiner’s properties of bits of the list truly enhance the spontaneous nature of the unnamed character’s writings.

This is theatre at its purest.  At its most intimate.  At its most beautiful.  At its peak.  It’s a masterful opening for the Blue Barn and you will regret it if you miss this one.

Every Brilliant Thing plays at the Blue Barn Theatre through Oct 15.  Showtimes are Thurs-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 6pm (The Oct 8 show will be at 2pm.).  Tickets cost $35 for adults and $30 for students, seniors (65+), TAG members, and groups of 10 or more.  For reservations, call 402-345-1576 or visit www.bluebarn.org.  The Blue Barn is located at 1106 S 10th St in Omaha, NE.

You’ll Feel this One ‘In The Bones’

A young man dies.  What are the factors that led to his death?  What are the consequences of his passing?  How do his family and loved ones cope now that he is gone?  These are the questions posed and answered in the drama, In The Bones by Cody Daigle-Orians, currently performing at SNAP! Productions.

Though the theatre season has just begun, SNAP! stakes an early claim to this year’s best drama with a tip top script that fuels one of the finest pieces of ensemble acting that I have seen in many a season.  Daigle-Orians’ story manages to strike all the right notes at precisely the right times.  It is serious where it must be.  Funny where it should be.  Heartbreaking where it needs to be.  M Michele Phillips’ direction is absolutely flawless.  She has missed no beat, maximizes each moment to its fullest potential, and has produced a bumper crop of fantastic performances from this amazingly talented cast.

In the hands of a lesser actor, the role of Luke could easily be treated as a throwaway part.  But Eric Grant-Leanna gives one of the best performances of his career in the role of the young soldier whose death drives this story.

The play opens on the day of Luke’s death and from there goes back and forth through time through the use of pre-filmed vignettes for the past and stage acting for the present and future scenes.  Grant-Leanna’s natural, boyish charm makes him ideal for the role of Luke.  Clearly, this young man is the glue that held his family and loved ones together.  One cannot help, but be infected by Luke’s sweet innocence.  He’s fun and a bit of a prankster and seems fixated on getting people to say nice things for his videos.

But Luke also carries some heavy burdens.  He is a closeted homosexual who has finally decided to reveal to his mother that his “renter” is actually his long term boyfriend.  Luke is also a soldier who has done 2 tours of duty in Afghanistan.  On one of those tours, he made a choice which haunts him until his death.  Grant-Leanna’s delivery during the more serious moments is nothing short of mesmerizing and some of the best scenes in the play are when Luke is watching the video footage he has shot where Grant-Leanna’s clean and clear facial expressions tell you all the story you will need.

Sally Neumann Scamfer is splendid in the role of Dee, Luke’s mother.  Through Ms Neumann Scamfer’s wonderful storytelling abilities, you will know the angst and anger of a woman unable to cope with the death of her son and unwilling to accept his sexuality.  At points, Ms Neumann Scamfer’s Dee will seem like a heartless shrew as she, more or less, forces Luke’s lover out of their home before disavowing his existence, makes her daughter feel like she ranks a distant second to her dead son, and nastily (sometimes hilariously) snipes at her sister.

Then, just as easily, Ms Neumann Scamfer will show Dee’s better qualities such as her kindness and witty sense of humor.  Her Dee is not a bad person, merely broken and devastated that so many things were left unsaid with Luke.

Dan Luethke is sympathetic as Ben, Luke’s partner.  At the play’s beginning he is already a crushed man as his slightly bent shoulders and soft-spoken delivery reveal his immense sadness over the loss of his lover.  As the years go by in the show, Ben’s sadness transforms into anger not only due to Luke’s demise, but because his part in Luke’s life is essentially erased by Luke’s family, especially Dee.  This anger could easily be overplayed, but Luethke keeps it perfectly real.  It’s neither too much nor too little.

Luethke is just as strong in the pre-filmed vignettes where he plays Ben as a much happier man with a dry wit and a willingness to play with Luke and his sister, Chloe, who was aware of their relationship.  My only criticism about Luethke’s performance is for him to be a little more natural with his gestures.  In tonight’s performance, some of his hand movements seemed rehearsed.

Corie Grant-Leanna (the real life sister of Eric Grant-Leanna) is sweet and vulnerable as Chloe.  The casting of a real life brother and sister was a stroke of casting genius as it lent gravitas and power to Ms Grant-Leanna’s interpretation of Chloe.  All of the emotions she feels towards Luke are so very, very real and natural.  You’ll be brought along for the ride as you share her pain at Luke’s death, her uncertainty when Luke decides to reveal his sexuality to their mother, her skittishness as she tries to connect with an old army friend of Luke’s, and her anger with her mother who just cannot move on from Luke’s death.  Ms Grant-Leanna does need to put just a tiny bit more power into her projection as she sounded a touch breathy, but this did not take away from her beautiful performance.

Stephanie Anderson kept the audience in stitches with her energetic and raucous rendition of Kate, Luke’s aunt.  Ms Anderson easily handles the comedy of Kate with well aimed zingers and imbues Kate with a strong zest for life.  But Ms Anderson also takes care of Kate’s more serious moments with equal grace.  A meeting between Kate and Ben a year after Luke’s death and a heart to heart talk with Dee at the play’s climax will have your heart aching.

David Mainelli returns to the stage after a four year hiatus and has not lost a step.  Mainelli plays Kenny, a friend of Luke’s from the army.  Mainelli makes for a fine Southern gentleman as his Kenny is laid back and easy going, but a little persistent as he constantly tries to contact Chloe to learn why she was trying to get hold of him.  He is also thoughtful and intelligent and has a wonderful monologue towards the end of the play where he discusses his thoughts on his faith and marriage which I consider the most thought provoking moment of the play and was enhanced by Mainelli’s straightforward, sincere delivery.

Aside from the tremendous acting and directing, this show was equally brilliant on the technical side.  Ronnie Wells’ simple, broken wall set accurately depicts the brokenness caused by Luke’s death.  Joshua Mullady’s light design is well suited to the shifting moods of the play.  Daena Schweiger’s visual media and sound design, especially her music choices, bolster this play admirably.

A young man dies.  His death means different things to different people.  I do not know what Luke’s death will mean to you after watching In The Bones, but I do know that you will be in for an epic night of theatre and a drama that will rank among this season’s best.

In The Bones runs at SNAP! Productions through September 13.  Showtimes are Thurs-Sat at 8pm and Sundays at 6pm.  The closing performance on Sept 13 will be at 2pm.  Tickets cost $15 for adults and $12 for students, seniors, T.A.G. members, and the military.  Thursday night shows cost $10.  Due to the subject matter and coarse language, In The Bones is not recommended for children.  SNAP! Productions is located at 3225 California St in Omaha, NE.

Ironically Titled “Slabs” Bursts with Life & Sensitivity

Funerals and memorial services are funny things because they are not for the dead.  They are for the living.  It gives people a chance to say good-bye (or good riddance depending on the relationship), to share stories and memories, and to make peace.  These ideas drive Slabs, an original play written by local actress, Kaitlyn McClincy, and presented as a staged reading on Monday and Tuesday at the Shelterbelt Theatre.

Ms McClincy’s script shows a remarkable amount of promise.  It is a well told story (even the stage directions are a nice bit of prose), is well paced, features some strongly developed characters, and has a brilliant twist in the plot.  Throw in some powerful direction and a cast of talented storytellers and you have all the necessary elements for a fine night of theatre.

Noah Diaz, a relative newcomer to directing, has an instinct for direction that seasoned veterans would envy .  He coached some marvelous performances from his cast, set a nice, steady pace, and displayed an intimate understanding of the beats of the script.

Brent Spencer gave a haunting performance as Walter Clarke, the mortician of his small town.  Walter takes his work very seriously.  He is a stickler for rules and procedures, but he also has a great respect for the dead.  Spencer does excellent work in communicating both the firmness and the sensitivity of Walter.  At one moment, Walter will come down on his subordinates for not following protocol, but in the next he will show tender loving care towards the dead by insisting on replacing a beat up suit with a nice one, demanding that the dead be referred to by their names instead of slabs (the medical school nickname for cadavers), or comforting grieving family members of the departed.

Spencer also gives a nice little bit of social awkwardness to Walter.  He is clearly more comfortable around the dead than the living and often makes weak jokes and puns on death.  Walter is also a workaholic who doesn’t have enough time to spend with his family.  This becomes most apparent in the show’s final monologue as Walter grieves over a corpse that has personal significance to him.  Spencer handles the scene beautifully and several members of the audience shed tears during his speech.

Cathy Hirsch and Jonathan Purcell shine as Nancy Dawson, the funeral home’s office manager, and Henry Rollins, Walter’s apprentice.  Ms Hirsch and Mr. Purcell had a spot on chemistry with each other that was essential for the attraction between the two characters.  The two performers had some of the best scenes of the night with their humorous and witty banter.

As Nancy, Ms Hirsch is the more animated and snarky of the two.  Whether she was lamenting a date that was not to be, telling Henry she had a crush on him to see if he was actively listening, or setting a basketball behind the driver’s seat of the hearse to make Henry think a severed head was rolling around, Ms Hirsch made Nancy the life’s blood of the funeral home with her love of living and her sense of humor.

As Henry, Purcell was the yang to Hirsch’s yin.  Henry was a bit more aloof than Nancy and somewhat misanthropic.  He dropped out of med school due to his dislike of dealing with patients.  Instead, Henry entered mortuary sciences due to its formulaic nature and lack of contact with living people.  But Henry also has a wry, even dark, sense of humor evidenced by a practical joke where Henry made Nancy think a corpse had returned to life. Purcell’s knack for comedy served him well as he ably handled the funny dialogue as well as demonstrated his difficulty in dealing with the living when he has an argument with a rude client (played by Ben Thorp).

Matthew Pyle’s turn as Hank Cartwright is tragic and heavy.  The play opens with the death of his son and Hank embodies the sadder side of death.  Pyle’s Hank is so stricken with grief that he is almost numb.  He’s angry at his son for not being a safer driver, angry at the drunk driver who killed his boy, angry at his son’s girlfriend for asking for a ride home that night, and probably angry at himself for not being the husband his wife needs at this sad time.  Hank doesn’t say much, but Pyle is able to say plenty in the silence with skillful reactions and revealing expressions.

Judy Radcliff has a memorable part as Mrs. Withem, who embodies the happier side of death.  Her husband has recently passed and while she is sad, she chooses to remember the good times.  Ms Radcliff’s Mrs. Withem is a talkative sort who is also prone to making bad jokes about death.  Her charm is infectious and talking about the death of her husband and the little things they did to make each other happy is crucial to helping Pyle’s Hank begin to work through his own crushing grief.

Other strong performances came from Connie Lee who played Emily Cartwright, the grieving wife of Hank, Jim McKain, as a pastor with his own doubts, and Lauren Krupski who did an admirable job with the prosey stage directions.  The only flaw, such as it was, in the performances was that some of the actors needed to speak louder and project more.

Although Ms McClincy has written a very solid script, I did see some room for edits.  An extended joke about a clogged toilet seemed unnecessary for the story and an arc focusing on an ungrateful son needed some more development and a more satisfying conclusion.  With that being said, the script does have an immense amount of potential and I would encourage the Shelterbelt to make this a full scale production in the near future, especially with the caliber of direction and acting displayed in the staged reading.