Lost Lake (Wild Women Writing and Short North Stage – Columbus, OH)

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.” I’m not sure where I first heard that, and that quote has been attributed to many different people, but it encapsulates what I feel is the theme of David Auburn’s Lost Lake, currently being presented in a terrific production by Wild Women Writing and Short North Stage at The Garden Theatre in the Short North district of Columbus.

 

Photo: Geoff McTurner – Chiquita Mullins Lee (Veronica) and James Hughes (Hogan)
 

Lost Lake was first produced by Manhattan Theatre Club a year ago for a limited run, and this its area premiere. Sensitively directed by Katherine Burkman, the play is about two people who, on the outside, seem to be about as different as can be – Veronica, a black, widowed mother of two, a city woman making ends meet as a nurse practitioner; Hogan, a white middle-aged man, a virtual recluse (who considers himself a handyman) living off of his disability payments in a cabin on a lake. They meet via an online ad that Hogan posts offering up his cabin for rent for the summer, and Veronica agrees to a one-week stay with her children. What the two don’t realize until after they butt heads over a variety of problems and situations is how they are much more alike than they are different, a lesson I guess we could all learn when negotiating or facing adversity. This all probably sounds terribly serious and droll, but it’s actually quite a funny “dramedy” – that is,  if it belongs to any specific genre.

 

Photo: Geoff McTurner – Chiquita Mullins Lee (Veronica) and James Hughes (Hogan)
 
James Hughes is an enigmatic Hogan, his logic often circular and his motives understood only by himself. Mr. Hughes plays him as a kind of overgrown man-boy, blindly appealing and a little goofy at the same time. He has sudden moments of rage in which I caught myself looking away as it all felt too real, like it was rude to keep watching and not try to console him. Mr. Hughes has a physical presence as Hogan that leads me to believe he could get away with just about anything, either with charm or artfully changing the subject, and he is an exciting performer to watch.

 

Photo: Geoff McTurner – James Hughes (Hogan) and Chiquita Mullins Lee (Veronica)
 
Chiquita Mullins Lee is Veronica, playing her with so many more shadings than the stereotypical Angry Black Woman we see so much of. Does Ms. Lee get angry? Sure, but she leaves the finger waving and head bobbing by the wayside, exposing someone far more vulnerable than may be expected considering her firm voice and stance. Ms. Lee’s Veronica has a maternal understanding that I would imagine comes from having and nurturing children; she sees the need for attention in Hogan, but it doesn’t keep her from taking him to task for not following through on his promises. This Veronica is not “just black” – she’s so much more, a full rainbow of emotions, demonstrating that “just black” exists only to those who choose not to look deeper. Even though this isn’t a play about race, it does come up briefly in a moment that is more insightful and telling than any loud sermon on the subject.

 

Photo: Chuck Pennington III – Set by Edward Carignan
 
The Green Room at The Garden Theatre is the perfect setting for such an intimate two-person character study. Edward Carignan’s set for Hogan’s cabin says so much about him before he even appears on stage, with junk food and wrappers scattered about well-worn furniture and animal furs. So much care has been put into the set and props that they do exactly as they are meant to do: support and enhance the story.

Ms. Burkman only missteps once in her direction, but it’s a big flaw in an otherwise splendid production. There is a speech by Hogan that closes the first act in which he recounts his estrangement from his eighteen-year-old daughter; rather than let his words and performance speak for themselves, some sappy instrumental is played at a fairly loud level through the sound system. I’m not against using underscoring to supplement a moment in a play, but it is mostly a tool used in films to manipulate the audience’s feelings; here the music effectively neuters the emotion of the scene and comes off as heavy-handed. Having just a few minutes out of a two-hour play be misguided is a track record of which most directors would be envious.

 

Photo: Geoff McTurner – Chiquita Mullins Lee (Veronica) and James Hughes (Hogan)
 

Lost Lake is the kind of theatre that I love; it’s original and doesn’t contain the clichés of other love stories. Make no mistake, this is a story about love, though one that remains delightfully platonic. Not every relationship between a man and a woman needs to be consummated in a traditional way to be valid and meaningful; this is a play about such a relationship, one with two souls who are struggling and find strength in each other. Highly recommended!

***/ out of ****

Lost Lake continues through to November 22nd in The Green Room at The Garden Theatre located at 1187 North High Street in downtown Columbus, and more information can be found at http://www.shortnorthstage.org/calendar/v/485

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Steel Magnolias (The Human Race Theatre Company – Dayton, OH)

 
There will always be a place for Steel Magnolias as long as there are actresses who want to perform as part of a strong all-female ensemble. Since premiering off-Broadway in 1987, it has been transformed into a hit 1989 film starring Julia Roberts and Sally Field, played Broadway in 2005 with Delta Burke, and been performed countless times for nearly thirty years all across the country. There are six productions (!) over the course of one month within 60 miles of Columbus alone, though The Human Race Theatre Company in Dayton is the only professional theatre company performing Steel Magnolias this fall in Ohio.

 

Photo: Scott J. Kimmins – (left to right) Carolyn Popp, Maretta Zilic, Julia Geisler, Christine Brunner and Patricia Linhart
 
Robert Harling wrote Steel Magnolias after losing his beloved sister to diabetes. He set the play in Truvy’s Beauty Shop in the fictional city of Chinquapin, Louisiana, in the late 1980s. Six women discuss their lives and loves all while either getting their hair done or doing hair. The play begins on the day M’Lynn’s daughter Shelby is to be wed, and it covers the next few years in their lives as Shelby suffers with her diabetes and the women bond over trying to see her through it. There is Truvy, the owner of the beauty shop; Annelle, her newly hired assistant; Clairee, a football-loving widow; and there is Ouiser, a grouchy neighbor who runs everyone the wrong way.

 

Photo: Scott J. Kimmins – (left to right) Carolyn Popp, Christine Brunner, Caitlin Larsen, Julia Geisler, Patricia Lindart and Maretta Zilic
 
It’s nice that the actors in this production aren’t trying to copy the performances in the popular 1989 film adaptation. There are many different ways to plays these parts, and the film is by no means definitive as far as I’m concerned (though I know every scene and line by heart). It’s refreshing to see Caitlin Larsen’s Ouiser even though I also enjoy Shirley MacLaine’s rather one-note performance. Ms. Larsen allows Ouiser to mellow and grow throughout, as even her clothing and tone reflect how having her old beau Owen back in her life (all because of Shelby) has changed her for the better. This Ouiser is still a pistol, but she’s a person too because of what Ms. Larsen brings to the table. Patricia Linhart as Clairee and Julia Geisler as Shelby are two other standouts in the cast, offering a bit more sass in those parts when compared with the film.

 

Photo: Scott J. Kimmins – (left to right) Christine Brunner, Caitlin Larsen, Maretta Zilic, Julia Geisler and Patricia Linhart
 
The only performance I find disappointing is by Christine Brunner as Truvy. Ms. Brunner stays close to the surface and appears to be listening for her cues more than listening to her cast mates. When Shelby announces that she’s pregnant, Ms. Brunner reacts before anyone else, so quickly that it didn’t seem like Ms. Geisler had even completed her line! She appears more concerned with getting her accent right and being consistent with it than offering much in the way of feeling. Some of Truvy’s best lines fall flat because of it.

 

Photo: Scott J. Kimmins
 
The set by Eric Moore is inspired and appears ready for business. The plumbing and appliances all work, and the kitchen off to the side (only visible to half of the audience) has a fridge and sink as well! Back issues of magazines, pastel patterned furniture, and beauty parlor equipment are all in evidence; so realistic is the set that it’s doubly odd that the backdrop outside the window and door are blank, ruining the illusion. The second scene in the first act takes place in darkness as a fuse has been blown and Truvy and Annelle are off futzing with the circuit breaker – yet a lamp and string of Christmas lights off to the right are still illuminated. These flaws stick out mainly because of how well handled the set and utilities are otherwise; they are unfortunate issues with an otherwise very impressive set and lighting design.

I should divulge that this is the second production of Steel Magnolias that I’ve seen in as many weeks, the first being the King Avenue Players production in Columbus. Though that production was pretty iffy with a cast of variable ability (I preferred their Truvy and M’Lynn though), I must admit that I teared up at the conclusion. I didn’t have the same reaction this time, though I’m not sure if it is the fault of the production, the acting, or my having seen it two weeks earlier. I suspect it is the latter, as so much of this production is strong and enjoyably familiar.

*** out of ****

Steel Magnolias continues through to November 29th in The Loft Theatre at 126 North Main Street in downtown Dayton (just over an hour outside Columbus), and more information can be found at http://humanracetheatre.org/1516/steel-magnolias/index.php

The Outgoing Tide (Curtain Players – Galena, OH)

“Wouldn’t it be great if every time you really screwed up in life, every time you lost your temper, every time you did something really stupid, they’d let you do it over?” That’s the question one character asks in the Gallery Players production of The Outgoing Tide, a winning play concerning the decisions we make, our inevitable future, and how we can attempt to make up for past transgressions in the face of a bleak future. Did I mention that it’s also a comedy? Well, perhaps “dramedy” would be the right term, but by any categorization this is a play that needs to be seen.

The Outgoing Tide by Bruce Graham is about Gunner, an irascible old man suffering from the effects of Alzheimer’s disease. He still has his wits about him much of the time, but his lapses in memory and judgement are growing worse every day, putting a strain on his marriage to Peg. Their only child Jack comes to visit and finds himself having to choose between two very different ideas of how to handle the future; Peg wants to move them into an assisted living facility, and Gunner… Well, he has another solution in mind. As depressing as all of this sounds, it is actually quite a funny comedy, full of laugh-out-loud foibles, misunderstandings, and a generally upbeat examination of such dire subject matter.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – (left to right) Sean Brinker (Jack), Dave Morgan (Gunner), and Eve Nordyke (Peg)
 
Dave Morgan is a gift from the community theatre Gods as Gunner; he’s grouchy, funny, spry – so natural and likable in a tricky part. Mr. Morgan is the key ingredient that makes this production work; no matter how strong the writing, a performance of his caliber is needed to make us laugh and care as much as we do. Mr. Morgan is delicately subtle when showing the effects of Alzheimer’s, superior even to Julianne Moore who won an Academy Award for it in Still Alice (2014). His bio states that he is returning to Curtain Players after a thirty-three-year hiatus; welcome back, Dave, and please don’t stop performing!

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – Dave Morgan (Gunner) and Eve Nordyke (Peg)
 
Eve Nordyke is a good match as Gunner’s wife, Peg. Ms. Nordyke is at her best in the scenes in which she and Mr. Morgan act out moments from their youth, raising her pitch slightly and shrinking into a youthful bashfulness that is adorable and just right next to Mr. Morgan’s bravado. She reacts to what is being said to and around her extremely well, always appearing poised to pounce with little provocation.

Sean Brinker as their son, Jack, certainly knows his lines well; he sometimes speaks them in a way that spells out the punctuation, which is unfortunate. Mr. Brinker rarely appears comfortable on stage, and it’s a real shame as he gets to share it with such good cast mates but doesn’t seem capable of enjoying it. It’s not that he’s awful or wrecks the production; he is merely serviceable – a weaker link in an otherwise strong chain. 

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – (left to right) Sean Brinker (Jack) and Dave Morgan (Gunner)
 
Director James F. Petsche is to be commended for keeping the tone in check throughout. This isn’t a play that belabors the issues at hand, and Mr. Petsche doesn’t allow any moment to linger too long. Sound designer Eric Ewing also deserves recognition for his ambient sound effects, the volume of the music cues, and for how transparent everything sounds; every line can be heard clearly, and the sound of the motorboat chugging around the rear of the theatre is well handled.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – Eve Nordyke (Peg) and Dave Morgan (Gunner)
 

The Outgoing Tide takes a topic that could be full of maudlin tears and sloppy kisses and brings humor to it. It’s disarmingly funny and joyful, and that’s why it works so well. If one were to simply read the synopsis and see the key advertising art, it would seem like this is a cousin to On Golden Pond, but it really isn’t; it’s much better, actually. So much of life is funny in its absurdity, even death and illness, and plays like The Outgoing Tide help give us permission to find the humor in the situation to carry us through.

***/ out of ****

The Outgoing Tide continues through to November 8th at the Curtain Players Theatre located at 5691 Harlem Road in Galena (a little over half an hour outside Columbus), and more information can be found at http://www.curtainplayers.org/season/2015-2016/2_tide.php