Saturday, May 21, 2016

After 38 Years, Independent Players Still Fresh with "Third"

Elgin's Independent Players theater company have three shows left in their 38th season — three more nights to present Wendy Wassertein's Third, a subtly complex period play that still sounds fresh and often funny ten years after it was written.

Set at an elite New England campus, the play explores the psyche of English Professor Laurie Jameson, an ultra-liberal academic with hardened views of gender, race, privilege, public policy and social status. When she meets an incongruous freshman who doesn't fit her theory of society, she endures two semesters of cognitive dissonance that confirm for us multiple ironies of the human experience, among them, that we tend to exemplify the very qualities that we condemn in others.

Lori Rohr plays Jameson with just the right haught, in prickly spars with her family, colleagues, and students.  Her quick head turns and flashing eyes project the arrogance and prejudice that Jameson can't see in herself, and crucial lines like "I shouldn't be here" (in therapy) and "I still know what I know" are bold-faced code words that signal her self-segregation from a larger, more complicated society.

Woodson Bull, III ("Third") is Jameson's freshman foil and in the title role, Wasserstein's artistic subject (though technically the antagonist) is portrayed stalwartly by Benedict Slabik II. At times awkward, and other times wise beyond his years, Third is an undersized wrestler who grapples with forces larger than himself, but ultimately settles for a draw. The wrestling subtext is clear and well-placed, but perhaps necessarily underdeveloped.

The plot revolves around a term paper writeup of Shakespeare's King Lear, and Wasserstein cleverly employs references to Wilder's Our Town and Austen's Pride and Prejudice as thematic devices throughout the play.  Jameson's aging and demented father Jack, played skillfully by Richard Westphal, is the image of Lear as a confused father, perfected (in a dance) by Third's own theory of the sublimation of desire.

Excellent performances by Molly Wagner (daughter Emily) and JoAnn Smith (Professor Nancy Gordon) add flavor to this well casted five-member ensemble, playing crucial scenes that deepen and advance the plot. Very careful touches by Director Larry Boller, like playing backs to the audience, and shaking or not shaking hands, did not go unnoticed.

With lights and audio on point, and the friendly acoustics of the Elgin Art Showcase helping lift every line, this play can't miss.  Listen carefully for the antecedents in Act One, and you'll relish every masterful dramatic cadence in Act Two of Wendy Wasserstein's final play.

Third continues May 21, 27, and 28 at the Elgin Art Showcase.  Go to for more information.

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