Sunday, February 11, 2018

Elgin Theatre Portrays War ... and "Piece"

The memories of women who survived the Vietnam War are brought vividly to life in Shirley Lauro's 1991 play A Piece of my Heart suggested by the book by Keith Walker, performed by Elgin Theatre Company Saturday night at the Elgin Art Showcase.

Written in documentary fashion, consisting of scenic vignettes divided up by monologues and music, Piece is a scrapbook of situations experienced by a collage of characters that suggest the range of capacities in which women served in the war: nurses, relief workers, entertainers and soldiers. Every woman had a distinct personal story, and many volunteered as a means of escaping the social constraints of pre-feminist, mid-century America. Once they arrive "in country," however, the alternating horror and monotony of daily experience drives them to escape to booze, drugs and rock 'n' roll.


Rather than develop each individual character in the cast of seven, the play often uses them interchangeably to stand in for generic people and voices of The War. In fact, the only male role is simply that of "The American Men," played by Mark Brewer. As "Leann" (Angel Novie) puts it when she arrives in Vietnam, "I'm not special. Everybody's here."

During the long first act, the characters become exhausted by the relentless assault on their senses, their ethics and their identities, and feel their humanity slipping away as routinely as the soldiers lose their limbs. When they escape the war to return home in Act Two, they find themselves wounded, once again in a country that seems entirely foreign to them.

A great script becomes an amazing production when the set, the action, and the sound and lighting tell the story as eloquently as the words. Superb interpretation by director Madeline Franklin presents the non-linear material as it should be envisioned: with an abstract set, symbolic costumes and minimal props.

In roles that border on "performance art," the cast gave inspired performances, shifting smoothly in and out of multiple characterizations, going from panic to intoxication, breaking into song, resetting the stage, never missing a cue or an entrance. Libby Einterz ("Martha") and Elizabeth Dawson ("Whitney") rose above the script in delivering key lines that may have been overwritten but were not overacted.

Kiara Wolfe ("Sissy"), Jamie McCalister ("MaryJo") and Marixa Ford ("Steele") added to the excellent talent that keeps Elgin Theatre Company still fresh after more than fifty-five seasons on stage. A Piece of my Heart closes with three more shows, Feb. 16th and 17th at 8 p.m. and Feb. 18th at 2 p.m. at the Elgin Art Showcase, 164 Division Street in downtown Elgin. For more information, go to www.elgin-theatre.org.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Steel Beam Theatre's "Dry Powder" is a Strong Buy

In the deal-making world of private equity investing, words do most of the work, and the four-member cast of Sarah Burgess' 2016 play Dry Powder does lots of hard work in a single act filled to the margins with fast-paced corporate-speak. Directed by Sean Hargadon, the play opened at the Steel Beam Theatre Friday, January 12th.

From left: Jennifer Reeves-Wilson as Jenny, John Westby as Rick, and Justin Schaller as Seth
 in Dry Powder, directed by Sean Hargadon at the Steel Beam Theatre

John Westby plays Rick, the firm's restless President who's constantly juggling deals, investors, and press coverage. He's a simple man who plays a complicated game very well. His two managers, Jenny (Jennifer Reeves-Wilson) and Seth (Justin Schaller) are more sharply defined. Jenny's decisions are as black-or-white as the numbers printed on her reports; she regards public relations as a mere necessary evil. Seth tempers his profit motives with qualitative principles, recognizing value in loyalty, patriotism and good will.

As a team, their constant verbal sparring over strategies is a three-person industry of its own that thrives on persuasion and competition. Yet as tightly as they are wound, the executives remain almost entirely impersonal toward each other, their employees, their families, even themselves (Rick: "My personal life can't factor in...")

The play revolves around the firm's leveraged buyout of a luggage manufacturer, headed by CEO Jeff (Richard Isemonger), who is quite the opposite: proud and paternal about his employees and their brand. Just like his suitcases, he's concerned about preserving and protecting what he already has: a reputation, a legacy. The main thing his corporate suitors are concerned with is keeping their powder dry, a metaphor for investment capital based on an old solider's maxim.

Richard Isemonger as Jeff (left), with Justin Schaller in Dry Powder.

Scenes set mostly in New York are dense with dialogue, leaving little or no space between lines. The well-prepared cast never faltered, and the limited physical action reminds us that we are looking into a world where looking good and talking smart are the essential qualifications. The script's comedic material was nicely delivered, and the audience laughed best at moments when the characters did a little acting of their own.

As the plot moves from office to restaurant to waiting room, music and video provided effective page-turns, and the stripped-down set was versatile and unobtrusive. The Steel Beam Theatre is comfortable, visually interesting, and there isn't a bad seat in the house. Snacks and beverages are available to sustain you through this 95-minute performance.

There's lots to think about after the play concludes with an interesting and refreshingly personal coda by Jenny. There are no clear victims, villains, heroes or clowns in Dry Powder, just lots of questions, among them "what is the price of a conscience?"

Make your own company valuation, Fridays and Saturdays at 8PM or Sundays at 3PM through February 4th. For more information go to steelbeamtheatre.com