The Apple Tree Closed its doors in Sept. 2009
At the Apple Tree Theatre
By Dan Zeff
HIGHLAND PARK—“Third” was Wendy Wasserstein’s last play, and one of her best. The playwright’s death at the age of 55 from lymphoma robbed the American theater of one of its most literate and probing writers. Her passing came at a point in her intellectual life when she was reevaluating the political and personal positions that informed her earlier work.
“Third” is receiving its local premiere in a much too short run at the Apple Tree Theatre.
The play centers on Laurie Jameson, a typically assured
Wasserstein heroine—a feminist, a liberal, and a teacher at a prestigious
eastern university. But this time the normally strong willed heroine is on
shaky ground. Laurie faces family challenges at a time when she despairs for
the future of the country as the George Bush administration takes the United
States to war in Iraq.
And then there is Woodson Bull III, who prefers to be called Third. Bull is a student from the Midwest attending the college on a wrestling scholarship. He takes Laurie’s advanced course on Shakespeare and writes a term paper on “King Lear” that Laurie feels is too sophisticated to come from a student wrestler. So she accuses Third of plagiarism and brings him up on the charge before a faculty committee.
Third is a burr under Laurie skin. She sees him as white, male, privileged, and an athlete, representing every power base she has fought against in her distinguished career. Third accuses her of socio-economic profiling in presuming he’s incapable of writing a cogent “King Lear” paper just because of his background. Does Laurie’s conflict with Third mean that the brave political and feminist stances she has advocated for years have hardened into intolerant orthodoxies?
Laurie is also under attack from her younger daughter Emily. The woman is repulsed by attitudes her mother preaches that she finds biased and out of date. Emily announces she’s leaving the elite Swarthmore College to move in with a bank teller in Philadelphia 13 years her senior. “I want out of your world” Emily cries out in frustration and resentment.
Laurie’s troubles mount. Her father is in a downward spiral from Alzheimer’s disease. Her best friend and teaching colleague Nancy is suffering from breast cancer and votes against Laurie in support of Third. Laurie’s marriage to her professor husband is on the rocks, largely because Laurie marginalized him from her life because he disappointed her with a mediocre career in academia. And as an added indignity, Laurie is going through menopause and enduring erratic hot flashes.
Wasserstein tells Laurie’s story with wit and humor, but the overall tone of the play is bleak. The moral and intellectual certainties that elevated Laurie to the head of her profession are eroding away. Her inflexible worldview has damaged people around her. Although Third is exonerated from the plagiarism charge, the incident has ruined his college career and he transfers to Ohio State University. He’s bitter about the patronizing treatment he’s received from Laurie as well as his fellow students with their knee jerk liberalism. Laurie has lost Emily, who faces an uncertain future in her rebellion against her mother.At the end of the play, Laurie tries to make peace with Third and announces she is taking an indefinite leave from the college. The convictions that made her so powerful, influential, and confident are now suspect, leaving her with…what?
The Apple Tree production was a little unsteady on opening night, but it has the tools to bring this important and stimulating drama alive. Robin Lewis-Bedz morphs persuasively from doctrinaire intellectual to the vulnerability and uncertainty we see as the play ends. Michael Gonring is excellent as Third, in a losing fight against the prejudices of smug liberalism. There is also excellent work from Kristen Pickering as Emily and Susan Felder as Nancy.
Sarah Gabel directs the play with unobtrusive insight. The scenes between Laurie and Third and a scene between Emily and Third at a bar are especially convincing in their tension garnished with humor.
Tim Mann’s scenic design relies mostly on a few pieces of furniture on an otherwise open stage, facilitating the fluid transition from scene to scene. Lee Keenan designed the lighting, Kat Doebler the costumes, and Robert Steel the sound.
The richness of “Third” makes Wasserstein’s early death all the more tragic. The playwright was refocusing here themes and it would have been exciting to see the direction of her future work. For sure it would have been informed by her wit, compassion, and commitment. What a loss.
“Third” runs through June 28 at the Apple Tree Theatre, 1850 Green Bay Road. Most performances are Wednesday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 5 p.m., and Sunday at 2 and 6 p.m. Tickets are $38 and $48. Call 847 432 4335 or visit www.appletreetheatre.com.
The show gets a rating of 3 1/2 stars. June 2009
At the Apple Tree Theatre
By Dan Zeff
HIGHLAND PARK—Arthur Kopit’s “Wings” is an affecting portrayal of the damage a stroke inflicts on an individual, with all the confusion, panic, terror, paranoia, and disorientation the victim must endure.
Kopit’s play opened in New York City in 1978 and a musical version premiered at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago in 1992. The Apple Tree Theatre is reviving the musical adaptation in a sensitive and well staged production, cemented by Mary Ernster’s resourceful performance as the aging woman felled by the stroke.
I’m not sure the musical version improves on Kopit’s original, but it does provide an uninterrupted 75 minutes of drama, occasional humor, and instruction on the nature and impact of a stroke—all leading to the final dramatic climax when the victim and the disease both triumph.
The musical version is presented mostly through singing, with music by Jeffrey Lunden and lyrics and book by Arthur Perlman. Their score may be original but it has Stephen Sondheim’s footprints all over it.
“Wings” is a chamber semi opera that traces Emily Stilson’s struggle with her stroke from its onset in the first moments of the show to the final blackout. Emily is a senior citizen who as a young woman was a barnstorming aviatrix who walked on the wings of her planes in flying exhibitions when aviation was in its infancy. The time of the time is never specified, but it’s probably in the 1960’s, covering an indeterminate span of time from the onset of the stroke through Emily’s therapy. Emily is the only character who counts in the musical, complemented by the sympathetic medical staff and a group of companion stroke victims (all played with versatility and vocal and acting skill by Rob Lindley, Heather Townsend, Anne Sheridan Smith, and John Leen).
Most of the story is told from the viewpoint of Emily’s confused brain. Occasionally we see her from the outside as the doctors and nurses attend her. The contrast is unnerving.
Emily must deal with aphasia, the result of brain damage caused by the stroke. Aphasia disrupts the victim’s ability to use language in a manner we take for granted, in speaking, understanding, reading, and writing. The disease isn’t like dementia or Alzheimer’s. Emily hasn’t lost her intelligence, but she can’t process ideas and things, like remembering the names of her children or connecting with other people. At first, she can’t differentiate between a comb and a toothbrush. The fact that Emily’s mind remains functional makes her condition all the more pitiable, and cruel. Emily does improve over time. Eventually she can acknowledge her condition, but she never understands it.
Emily is on stage for virtually the entire show and sings most of the score. It’s a role that requires stamina, a high level of singing, and an equally high level of acting. “Wings” asks the audience to walk in Emily’s shoes as she struggles to rehabilitate herself, and Ernster captures her character’s plight with a superb blend of restraint, frustration, resiliency, and heartbreak.
The production benefits from the intimacy of the Apple Tree performance space. Scenic designer Tim Morrison, lighting designer Gina Patterson, and sound designer Adam Smith combine to create an aural and visual environment that captures Emily’s disrupted mental processes. The jagged score is performed with just right mix of understatement and drama by a fine off-stage quartet of musicians led by music director Doug Peck.
Mark Lococo’s directing is unobtrusive but attentive to the jarring shifts in moods within Emily’s head as she faces a maddening blur of confused sights and sounds from the outside world.
The audience is likely to leave the theater slightly shaken, with a “There but for the grace of God…” reaction to Emily’s story. A stroke can happen without warning and its toll is frightful. The most poignant scene in “Wings” is a therapy session in which Emily and three other stroke victims sing a popular song of the day and accompany themselves on simple percussion instruments like docile children in kindergarten. Yet these are adults with their inner lives intact.
“Wings” runs through April 5 at the Apple Tree Theatre,1850 Green Bay Road. Most performances are Wednesday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 5 p.m., and Sunday at 2 and 6 p.m. Tickets are $38 to $48. Call 847 432 4335, or visit www.appletreetheatre.com.
The show gets a rating of 31/2 stars
Contact Dan at email@example.com. March 2009
At the Apple Tree Theatre
By Dan Zeff
HIGHLAND PARK—“PEN” at the Apple Tree Theatre is yet another contribution to the dysfunctional family genre that is ever present in contemporary American theater.
The 2006 off Broadway play by David Marshall Grant provides the usual abundance of bickering, backbiting, and around nastiness that sustains this kind of play, but the author adds a fantasy element in the second act that offers some relief from the relentless kvetching of the first act.
The time is 1969, the location Long Island, New York. Helen Bayer is an overbearing, politically liberal, and sharp-tongued woman dealing a broken marriage after her husband leaves her for a younger woman. Helen’s plight is complicated by a case of multiple sclerosis that confines her to a wheel chair. Helen spends much of her emotional energy trying to dominate her teenage son Matt, a lad with his own stresses and troubles, like shoplifting that may be either an act of rebellion and a cry for help. The third part of this agitated triangle is Jerry Bayer, Matt’s father and Helen’s now ex husband, a psychologist with plenty of mental tension on his own plate.
The pen of the play’s title has a couple of meanings. First, it refers to a to a zero-gravity writing instrument Helen can use to work crossword puzzles on her back without the writing instrument running dry. Then there is a pen as an enclosure, symbolic of Helen trying to confine Matt to their suburban New York home instead of him allowing him to follow his father to California. The actual pen also has a magical property that turns the second act on its head. It would be improper to divulge the reversal apparently instigated by the pen, but the plot device will be recognized by audiences familiar with the Craig Lucas play “Prelude to a Kiss.”
“PEN” has its moments of intensity and its moments of humor, mostly emerging from Helen’s barbed wisecracks. She gets in some nice zingers about the country’s political situation during the Nixon era. But the play is basically a vehicle about three people who don’t evoke much sympathy from the audience. Matt, at least at the Apple Tree, is a whiner, and Jerry is a shallow man who probably left his wife to flee from her illness. He’s a bundle of insecurities and vulnerabilities without much dramatic heft.
We should feel some compassion for Helen because of her medical problems, but she’s a manipulator and an emotional bully, even if her bitchiness comes from the grim vision of seeing herself alone with her disease, abandoned by husband and son.
The performances under Kurt Johns’s directing all serve the play well enough. Hollis Resnik is excellent as the verbally barbed Helen. A newcomer young actor named Austin Campanion is impressive as Matt, a lad turned into a loser by the psychological buffeting he’s taking from the fractured marriage of his parents. Robert Allan Smith is soft and confused as Jerry, a man in this production a little overmatched by the belligerence of his wife and the rebellion of his son.
Tim Morrison designed the minimal set, Elizabeth Wislar the costumes, David Ferguson the lighting, and Steve Ptacek the video and sound.
“PEN” runs through October 19 at the Apple Tree Theatre, 1850 Green Bay Road. Most performances are Wednesday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 5 and 8:30 p.m., and Sunday at 2 and 6 p.m. Ticket prices run from $38 to $48. Call 847 432 4335 or visit www.appletreetheatre.com.
The show gets a rating of three stars. Sept. 2008
Contact Dan at firstname.lastname@example.org.
at the Apple Tree Theatre
By Dan Zeff
HIGHLAND PARK—Stephen Belber’s “Match” had a brief five-week run on Broadway in 2004. Apparently audiences that season weren’t interested in serious plays with humor, explosive passion, suspense, and entertaining characters.
The Apple Tree Theatre is reviving “Match” in a superior production includes at least one performance which should be in the forefront of Jeff Award nominations later this season.
Belber’s play is a three-hander that takes place in New York City in the late winter of 2003. The first character we meet is Tobi (short for Tobias), a 62-year old ballet dancer turned teacher. The opening minutes of the play are a virtually pantomime as Tobi fussily prepares for a visit from a Seattle married couple. By the time the guests arrive we have a complete picture of Tobi as a prissy, pretentious, artsy, droll (and probably) gay man.
The two visitors are a young woman (Lisa) and her husband (Mike). Lisa has made an appointment with Tobi, stating that she wants to interview him for a history of dance in America dissertation. She does most of the talking but the atmosphere is colored by Mike, seething with attitude, who occasionally contributes belligerent questions that mark him as a man with his own abrasive agenda.
It would be unfair to future viewers to disclose the real reason for the visit from Seattle, though it’s easy to predict about halfway through the first act and is disclosed with great upheaval by the end of the act. The second act plays out on the “Is he or isn’t he?” question raised so tumultuously in the opening act.
The plot twist establishes the play as a study of three people under different kinds of stress. Mike is a Seattle policeman turned brutal on his job as he wrestles unsuccessfully with demons going back to his paternity. Mike is bitter and vengeful, and his hostility has seeped into his marriage, dividing him from Lisa (they hadn’t had sex in 11 months). It was in desperation that Lisa concocted the visit to Tobi in the hope that the meeting will relieve the psychological tension that threatens Mike’s career and marriage.
By the end of the play, all three characters undergo radical changes, ending in a burst of reconciliation that will seem entirely appropriate to some viewers and too schematic and pat to others. In the play’s final moment, the author injects a teasing note of ambiguity that sends the audience out of the theater re-examining what they have just seen in the previous two hours.
The Broadway production was not a box office success but reviewers still heaped ribbons of praise on Frank Langella for his brilliant portrayal of Tobi. The Apple Tree Theatre doesn’t have Langella, but the company does have Mark Douglas-Jones and that is sufficient. Douglas-Jones starts out as arch, witty, and affected, and then deepens into pathos, anger, regret, and sad self-knowledge. Tobi has most of the play’s lines, including some set pieces that are mesmerizing. It’s a performance of enormous depth and humanity and it carries the play.
An attractive young actress named Michelle Courvais contributes a marvelously shaded portrait of Lisa, though the character spends much of the play reacting silently to Tobi and Mike.
As Mike, Raymond L. Chapman has the bluntest of the three roles and perhaps the one lacking a bit in credibility. His Mike swings volcanically from silent rage to eruptions of violent anger, ending in near emotional collapse. Chapman’s physical bulk makes him appropriately intimidating next to Tobi’s slender vulnerability and the audience eyes him anxiously throughout the play as a ticking mental time bomb.
Steve Scott directs with perfect pitch, balancing the tensions of the action with its warmth and yearning and humor. J. Branson designed just enough set in the intimate stage space to convey Tobi’s seedy life in his Manhattan apartment. Carol J. Blanchard designed the costumes, Robert Steel designed the sound and composed the original music, and Gina Patterson designed the lighting.
“Match” runs through April 6 at the Apple Tree Theatre, 1850 Green Bay Road. Most performances are Wednesday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 5 and 8:30 p.m., and Sunday at 2 and 6 p.m. Tickets are $38 to $48. Call 847 432 4335.
For more information contact: www.appletreetheatre.com
The show gets a rating of 3½ stars.
Contact us: email@example.com March 2008