Category Archives: 2015-16 Connecticut Theater Season

CT Critics Announce Award Nominations

By Karen Isaacs

Anastasia (Hartford Stage), My Paris (Long Wharf), La Cage aux Folles (Goodspeed Musicals), Hair (Playhouse on Park), South Pacific and Memphis (Ivoryton Playhouse) were among the top nominees in the musical and production categories for the Connecticut Critics Circles.

The plays receiving multiple nominations included Disgraced (Long Wharf), Good People (TheaterWorks), Indecent (Yale Rep), Red (Westport Country Playhouse), Happy Days (Yale Rep), The Moors (Yale Rep) and Broken Glass (Westport Country Playhouse.

The award recipients will be announced at the ceremony at Hartford Stage on Monday, June 13 at 7:30 p.m. The ceremony is free and open to the public; the general public can RSVP at hartfordstage.org. For information on the Connecticut Critics Circle Awards, visit ctcritics.org.

The awards recognize outstanding achievements from the state’s 2015-’16 professional theater season by the group comprised of theater critics and writers from the state’s print, radio and on-line media.

Connecticut Critics Circle Awards Nominations 2015-16 Season

Outstanding Production of a Play
Disgraced – Long Wharf Theatre
Good People – TheaterWorks
Happy Days – Yale Rep
Indecent – Yale Rep
Red – Westport Country Playhouse
Outstanding Production of a Musical
Anastasia – Hartford Stage
Hair – Playhouse of Park
La Cage aux Folles – Goodspeed Musicals
My Paris – Long Wharf Theatre
South Pacific – Ivoryton Playhouse
Outstanding Ensemble
Cast of Art – Westport Country Playhouse
Cast of Hair – Playhouse on Park
Cast of Indecent – Yale Repertory Theatre
Cast of Measure for Measure – Long Wharf Theater
Cast of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike – Music Theatre of Connecticut
Outstanding Director of a Play
Gordon Edelstein – Disgraced – Long Wharf Theatre
Jackson Gay – The Moors – Yale Repertory Theatre
Mark Lamos – Red – Westport Country Playhouse
Rob Ruggiero – Good People – TheaterWorks
Rebecca Taichman – Indecent – Yale Repertory Theatre
Outstanding Director of a Musical
David Edwards – South Pacific – Ivoryton Playhouse
Sean Harris – Hair – Playhouse on Park
Kathleen Marshall – My Paris – Long Wharf Theatre
Rob Ruggiero – La Cage aux Folles – Goodspeed Musicals
Darko Tresnjak – Anastasia – Hartford Stage

Outstanding Actor in a Play
Rajesh Bose – Disgraced – Long Wharf Theatre
Ward Duffy – Good People – TheaterWorks
Conor Hamill – Third – TheaterWorks
Stephen Rowe – Red – Westport Country Playhouse
Steven Skybell – Broken Glass – Westport Country Playhouse

Outstanding Actress in a Play
Felicity Jones – Broken Glass – Westport Country Playhouse
Brenda Meaney – And a Nightingale Sang – Westport Country Playhouse
Elizabeth Lande – Wit – Playhouse on Park
Erika Rolfsrud – Good People – TheaterWorks
Dianne Wiest – Happy Days – Yale Repertory Theatre.
Outstanding Actor in a Musical
Riley Costello – Peter Pan – Connecticut Repertory Theater
Carson Higgins – Memphis – Ivoryton Playhouse
David Pittsinger – South Pacific – Ivoryton Playhouse
Bobby Steggert – My Paris – Long Wharf Theatre
Jamieson Stern – La Cage aux Folles – Goodspeed Musicals

Outstanding Actress in a Musical
Christy Altomare – Anastasia – Hartford Stage
Adrianne Hicks – South Pacific – Ivoryton Playhouse
Renee Jackson – Memphis – Ivoryton Playhouse
Katerina Papacostas – Evita – Music Theatre of Connecticut
Rashidra Scott – Anything Goes – Goodspeed Musicals
Outstanding Featured Actor in a Play
Benim Foster – Disgraced – Long Wharf Theatre
Charles Janasz – Romeo & Juliet – Hartford Stage
Richard Kline – And a Nightingale Sang – Westport Country Playhouse
Michael Rogers – The Call — TheaterWorks
Richard Topol – Indecent – Yale Repertory Theatre
Outstanding Featured Actress in a Play
Shirine Babb – Disgraced – Long Wharf Theatre
Megan Byrne – Good People – TheaterWorks
Kandis Chappell – Romeo & Juliet – Hartford Stage
Birgit Huppuch – The Moors – Yale Repertory Theatre
Jodi Stevens – Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike – Music Theater of Connecticut
Outstanding Featured Actor in a Musical
John Bolton – Anastasia – Hartford Stage
Teren Carter – Memphis – Ivoryton Playhouse
Christopher DeRosa – Evita  – Music Theater of Connecticut
Tom Hewitt – My Paris – Long Wharf Theatre
William Selby – South Pacific – Ivoryton Playhouse

Outstanding Featured Actress in a Musical
Mara Davi – My Paris – Long Wharf Theatre
Caroline O’Connor – Anastasia – Hartford Stage
Mary Beth Peil – Anastasia – Hartford Stage
Patricia Schumann – South Pacific – Ivoryton Playhouse
Jodi Stevens – Legally Blonde – Summer Theatre of New Canaan.
Outstanding Choreography
David Dorfman – Indecent
Peggy Hickey – Anastasia
Kathleen Marshall – My Paris
Todd Underwood – Memphis
Darlene Zoller – Hair
Outstanding Scenic Design
Alexander Dodge – Rear Window
Alexander Dodge – Anastasia
Derek McLane – My Paris
Allen Moyer – Red
Alexander Woodward – The Moors
Outstanding Costume Design
Fabian Fidel Aguilar – The Moors
Linda Cho – Anastasia
Michael McDonald – La Cage aux Folles
Paul Tazewell – My Paris
Outstanding Light Design
Christopher Akerlind – Indecent
Andrew F. Griffin – The Moors
Donald Holder – My Paris
Donald Holder – Anastasia
York Kennedy – Rear Window
Outstanding Sound Design
David Budries – Red
Peter Hylenski – Anastasia
Brian Ronan – My Paris
Jane Shaw – Rear Window
Darron L. West – Body of an American
Outstanding Projection Design
Rasean Davonte Johnson – Cymbeline
Alex Basco Koch – The Body of an American
Sean Nieuwenhuis – Rear Window
Aaron Rhyne – Anastasia
Olivia Sebesky – My Paris

 

“Anastasia” New Musical Has Gorgeous Production Values But Needs Work

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Escaping Russia. Photo by Joan Marcus

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Ghosts of the Past. Photo by Joan Marcus.

By Karen Isaacs

 The last time I saw a world premiere musical at Hartford Stage, I left absolutely entranced. The show was A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, which became a surprise hit on Broadway and won the Tony for best musical and the direction Tony for Darko Tresnjak.

Another world premiere musical is now at Hartford Stage and its Broadway transfer is already announced. Yet I left Anastasia with more doubts than the last time.

The production is opulent; every aspect of the production will take your breath away. Let’s start with the set by Alexander Dodge. He creates the court of Imperial Russia, Paris, and a wide variety of places in between. Particularly ingenious is his handling of the train on which Anya and her companions ride to escape Communist Russia.

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Mary Beth Peil. Photo by Joan Marcus

Then we can praise the costumes by Linda Cho – the gowns of Imperial Russia and later the gown for the Dowager Empress — are elegant and opulent. But she goes beyond that to create authentic 1920s costumes as well. Her costumes are supplemented by the wig and hair design by Charles G. LaPointe.

Let’s praise the sound design by Peter Hylenski and the lighting by Donald Holder. I marveled at some of the lighting effects Holder achieved including one scene where only Anya is in color.

But the highest praise must go to the video and projection design by Aaron Rhyne. His designs create three-dimensional images of St. Petersburg – the winter palace, the cathedral and so much more – Paris and the various scenes in-between.

Anastasia is billed as “inspired by the 20th Century Fox animated film” from 1997. Lynn Ahrens (lyrics) and Steven Flaherty (music) who wrote the score for that film are still involved and Terrence McNally has written a new book.

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Derek Klena, Christy Altomare, John Bolton. Photo by Joan Marcus

The basic story of Anastasia, the thought that the Tsar’s youngest daughter escaped execution, has been the basis of plays, films and even a musical (Anya) in 1965 for years.  Ingrid Bergman won an Oscar for the role in 1956. It is based on a kernel of truth: there was a search for Anastasia and a number of imposters tried to claim the money. In the 1920’s Anna Anderson, who claimed to be an amnesiac gained notoriety for her claim to be Anastasia. Most of the versions take some elements from her story and the 1952 French play by Marcelle Maurette.

I have never seen the 1997 animated film, but some cursory research reveals that McNally has substantially changed the plot to make it more probable. The basic outline remains the same: we see the royal family before the revolution when the Dowager Empress gives her youngest granddaughter a music box before she leaves for Paris where she lives. The revolution arrives and the royal family is captured and later killed.

Soon we are in the midst of the Communist regime of the mid-1920s. A young woman is sweeping the streets; she has no memory of her past. Two men (Dmitry and Vlad) – both of whom live by their wits — know that the Dowager Empress has offered a reward for finding Anastasia; they decide to look for someone to impersonate the Princess and find the young woman.  In a My Fair Lady like story, they tutor her and groom her so she can pass; occasionally she recounts a memory that surprises them.

They escape Communist Russia and travel to Paris – after some narrow escapes – where they manage to arrange a meeting with the Dowager Empresses’ companion and then the Dowager herself, who has become weary of the parade of imposters. Do you really need for anyone to tell you the ending? It is predictable.

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Christy Altomare. Photo by Joan Marcus.

McNally has added in Gleb, a Soviet bureaucrat whose father was apparently at the execution of the royal family and who is now charged by his bosses with tracking these Anastasia pretenders. That he seems somewhat smitten with Anya/Anastasia adds a dimension to the story.

Only a few of the songs from the film remain in the new musical: the Oscar winning “Journey to the Past,”  “Once Upon a December,” “A Rumor in St. Petersburg,” “Paris Holds the Key” and a couple of others.

The show is packed with songs, many of which are lovely. In addition to the songs from the film, I particularly liked “My Petersburg,” “I Never Should Have Let Them Dance,” “We’ll Go from There,” among others.

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Photo by Joan Marcus

Certainly Darko Tresnjak’s direction and concept is brilliant. He has his production team create wonderful effects, he transitions the multiple scenes and locations splendidly, gives us ghost-like flashbacks, plus he draws the best from his performers. He is aided by choreographer Peggy Hickey who creates everything from court quadrilles to folk dances and even a ballet.

Most of the performers are also terrific. Mary Beth Peil plays the Dowager Empress with both elegance and touching emotion. Derek Klena is fine as Dmitry but doesn’t really create a three dimensional character until the second act. John Bolton is Vlad, who is part comic figure and part somewhat tragic one. He really scores with the lovely song, “I Never Should Have Let Them Dance.” Manoel Felciano is the villain-like character Gleb. Felciano makes him more than just a villain; there is undercurrent of conflict between his commitment to the Party and his attraction to Anya. Caroline O’Connor plays Lily the Dowager Empress’ companion. She is excellent and brings both pathos and comedy to the part.

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Manoel Fleciano and Christy Altomare. Photo by Joan Marcus

Christy Altomare has the difficult job of transforming a somewhat typical “Disney princess” into a real woman. She succeed partly, yet I never quite believed in her or even cared about her. She is very effective in her songs, particularly the act one closer “Journey to the Past.”

If so much was right with Anastasia, why wasn’t I totally enchanted? First, the show needs cutting – act one is too long, the comic number “Land of Yesterday” goes on much too long, etc. The humor of that number seems to break the mood of the piece. But the real problem for me was that I never became emotionally involved in the show; I can see My Fair Lady multiple times and always root for Eliza and even the semi-romance with Higgins. Here I wasn’t invested in the show or the characters. They seemed more two-dimensional. Pleasant but not emotionally engaging.

The audience certainly loved it and I oohed and aahed at the costumes, set and projections with the rest of the audience.

My theater companion said the show made her “feel like a princess.”  Right, but more like a Disney princess than a real live person.

I’m sure that before Anastasia opens on Broadway next season, it will be changed and tightened. I’ll even bet that no matter what the critics say, it will attract a delighted audience of women and girls of all ages.

Anastasua is at Hartford Stage, 50 Church St., Hartford through June 12. For tickets visit hartfordstage.org or call 860-527-5151.

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Photo by Joan Marcus

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Derek Klena and Christy Altomare. Photo by Joan Marcus.

The Call – Types Not Real Characters Inhabit Play

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Mary Bacon and Todd Gearhrat. Photo by Lanny Nagler

By Karen Isaacs

 Sometimes playwrights get so caught up in the issue they want to discuss that the work becomes merely a vehicle for the different points of view. George Bernard Shaw and Bertel Brecht managed to overcome this problem, most of the time.

Tanya Barfield, the talented playwright of The Call now at TheaterWorks through Sunday, June 19 had more difficulty.

The topics are certainly worthy of discussion: international vs. local adoption, interracial adoption, infant vs. older children adoption, infertility problems, ethics, morality, and uncertainty. And just to add more, a death that occurred years ago due to AIDS.

When the play opens Peter and Annie are discussing a baby soon to be born in California that the couple will adopt. But Annie is beginning to get the sense that the birthmother may change her mind. It is clear this is a couple that have wanted a child for a long time and gone through various treatments which have taken a toll on them.

In the next scene it is apparent that Annie’s fear has come to pass for the couple is now discussing other possible adoption alternatives. After a dinner with their friends Rebecca and Drea who have just returned from Africa, Annie suggests they consider adopting a baby from an African country. Many years ago, Peter had travelled extensively in Africa with Rebecca’s brother. We later learn that he died there.

As the play progresses, Drea plays the devil’s advocate. Why not adopt an African-American child?  Why go to Africa? Drea and Rebecca joke about the difficulty of doing “nappy” hair and would Annie be able to do it. And there is some discussion of possible psychological or physical problems. Later Annie asks a question: Why do so few African-American couples (Drea and Rebecca are African-American) adopt?

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Jasmin Walker and Mary Bacon. Photo by Lanny Nagler.

Soon Annie and Peter get “the call” telling them that a child is theirs. It’s not the infant that Annie wanted, but a two and half year old girl. Annie is a little hesitant; she wanted the child to have no memories of another mother or life before theirs. But she rationalizes that the girl is so young that she will have no long-term memories and the possible problems may be minimal.

The problem arises when Annie shares a picture of the girl with Rebecca. Rebecca points out the child looks way older than two and a-half; she could easily be four. With that news, Annie seems to be drawing away from the adoption idea while Peter is gung-ho.  While she is willing to give up on the experience of childbirth, she wants an infant so she will experience the “first tooth, the first steps.”

To add to the coincidences, their new next door neighbor in the apartment building is an African gentleman who all agree is “strange.” He seems to insinuate himself into their lives and soon he is bringing over boxes of goods –syringes, used shoes, soccer balls – that he wants them to bring with them when they go to pick up the child.

By this time, Peter has reluctantly accepted that Annie does not want to adopt. They are abandoning their dream of having child. Annie is tired of the processes either to conceive or adopt.

The play wraps up with Peter telling Rebecca some information about her brother’s death that he had withheld; he wasn’t with the man at that time.

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Jasmin Walker, Todd Gearhart and Maechi Aharanwa. Photo by Lanny Nagler

The characters in this play are mouthpieces not flesh and blood people. Annie, played very well by Mary Bacon, is a woman with “baby envy” – she wants a baby, not just a child. She is every woman who has gone through the emotional turmoil of hormone treatments and IVF. Bacon shows Annie’s reservations; you can see on her face the exact moment when she begins to really question the idea.

Peter is the positive force, sure that whatever the difficulties they can overcome them. Todd Gearhart gives us the “can do” spirit. He is baffled when his wife wants to back out.

Drea and Rebecca are also mouthpieces.  Drea, played by Maechi Aharanwa, is the tactless friend who says anything that comes into her head. She doesn’t even understand that some questions should not be asked and some comments should not be made. Rebecca played by Jasmin Walker is the voice of reason; it is she who brings up some of the problems of both international adoption and adopting an older child, such as the honesty of the agency’s information and the problems that may occur in a child bonding. Walker clearly portrays that rational thought, except when it comes to her brother and his death.

Michael Rogers plays Alemu, the next story neighbor. Rogers uses his body effectively to show us this man who still feels out of place in America and is hesitant about himself. He is the one encouraging Annie and Peter to go forward.

Director Jenn Thompson who has been working with this new play for a number of years, she directed the 2013 off-Broadway production, certainly makes the most out of the script. It is hard to tell if my response to the characters is due totally to the play or a combination of the play and the actors. Luke Hegel-Cantarella has created a set that can move easily from Peter and Annie’s apartment to a park, the nursery and other locations.

Some will find The Call and emotional play but I for one, found it too much like a debate with point and counterpoint.

The Call is at TheaterWorks Hartford, 233 Pearl St. in downtown Hartford, through Sunday, Feb. 14. For tickets and information call 860-527-7838 or online at theaterworkshartford.org

This content is courtesy of Shore Publications and Zip06.com.

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Michael Rogers and Mary Bacon. Photo by Lanny Nagler

“My Paris” – Musical at Long Wharf Should Go Far

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Bobby Steggert and Mara Davi Photo by T Charles Erickson.

By Karen Isaacs

 It is always exciting to be in at the beginning of something that has great potential.  Last summer, Goodspeed at Chester presented a “new” musical – My Paris. Now after more work, it is at Long Wharf through May 29. After New Haven, who knows how far it will travel.  Some sort of New York production should be in its future.

In reality it is not a new musical but a substantial revision of a musical that started life in the 1990s.  The famed French singer/composer Charles Aznavour wrote a musical about the life of Toulouse-Lautrec. During that period it had a brief run in London; most agreed including Aznavour that the production was poor and the English lyrics inadequate.

So, My Paris might have been buried in the cemetery of lost musicals. But some top notch Broadway talent found it and decided that it was worth resurrecting.

That process is still going on; the production at Long Wharf has substantial differences – and improvements – from the show seen in 2015 in Chester.

Alfred Uhry, who wrote Driving Miss Daisy, other plays and the book for the musicals The Robber Bridegroom and LoveMusik, took on the task for rewriting the book about the life of the famed artist Henri Toulouse-Lautrec. Jason Robert Brown, an award winning composer, lyricist and arranger, signed on to write lyrics and do the musical adaptation. Of course, Aznavour gave them plenty to work with; over the years, he had written more than 30 songs for the show,; he has also written new songs specifically for this production.

Then director/choreographer Kathleen Marshall came on board.

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Photo by T. Charles Erickson

My Paris tells the story of Lautrec who is best known for his iconic posters of Montmarte characters. His life has been immortalized in film and lore. The son of a nobleman, Lautrec was born with a congenital disease that caused his bones, particularly his leg bones to break easily. As a result he was under five feet tall.  He escaped his disappointed father and his smothering mother to move to Paris and to paint. There he gravitated to Montmarte, which was certainly déclassé for a nobleman. He was introduced to the various performers, starving artists and the can-can dancers. He started creating the posters of the performers as advertising; they soon provided him with a steady income. But he also succumbed to the lure of Montmarte – excessive drinking particularly absinthe, a very strong, anise flavored liquor that is said to be addictive and a hallucinogen. While its addictive qualities have not been proven, the liquor is banned in the US and many European countries.

The musical focuses on his life in Paris and his relationship with several friends and the model and artist Suzanne Valadon. Valadon not only became a prominent artist in her own right, but she was the mother of artist Maurice Utrillo.

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Donna English, Bobby Steggert and Tom Hewitt. Photo by T Charles Erickson

he play opens with Lautrec greeting us, but we are soon back at the country palace of his parents as they learn of his deformity. Marshall has created Lautrec as a child by using a puppet in a pram. His father seeks assurance that Lautrec will be able to ride and hunt, the father’s favorite activities besides affairs with other women. His mother wants to protect him.

As a young adult, Lautrec convinces his parents to let him go to Paris to study, but he soon finds his milieu in the bohemian Montmarte.

The production at Long Wharf differs from the one at Chester; several songs have been added and the show split into two acts. The dancing has also been beefed up.

Marshall has choreographed and directed the show with a polished touch. She cleverly produces the illusion of Lautrec’s shortness through the use of steps, chairs with lower seats and other devices. It helps that Bobby Steggert who plays Lautrec is not exceptional tall. She creates an almost living tableau to showcase some of Lautrec’s most famous posters.  A failure is the attempt to show the allure of absinthe as the “green fairy” who randomly appears; it takes a while for the audience to grasp and is also obvious.

The set design by Derek McLane combined with the projections design by Olivia Sebesky shows us Parisian setting around 1900. The costume design by Paul Tazewell as well as the wigs (Leah Loukas) add, if not an authentic feel, one we are familiar with from films.

Aznavour’s melodies are delicious and for the most part Jason Robert Brown’s lyrics not only fit the music but let us see inside the characters. You feel as though you would be humming these if you heard them just a few more times. I particularly liked “Paris!”  Vive La Vie,”  “The Honor of the Family,”  “What I Meant to Say,” and “Where Are You Going.”

The cast is excellent. Bobby Steggert has received numerous award nominations for his work and you can see why. He has created a fully dimensional character that you care about. He is a fine singer and in a few “dream moments” even dances. He is joined by two other performers from the original Chester show: Mara Davi as Suzanne Valadon and Donna English as Maman, Lautrec’s mother. Each has developed the characters more and show us multiple aspects of them. I particularly liked Davi. Both are excellent singers.  The role of Papa is now played by Tom Hewitt and it has been expanded. Hewitt brings a strong presence to the stage, an aristocratic air and an excellent voice.

Lautrec’s three drinking buddies are roles that still need some development, but Andrew Mueller, John Riddle and  Rachou do what they can with the roles while also playing other characters in the show.

I thoroughly enjoyed this show and would love to go back and see it again. It still needs work but it should a future.

Long Wharf Theatre, 222 Sargent Drive, New Haven through Sunday, May 1. For tickets call 203-787-4282 or visit longwharf.org.

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Photo by T. Charles Erickson

“Happy Days” – One of the Most Challenging Roles for Actresses

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Dianne Wiest. Photo by Joan Marcus.

By Karen Isaacs

 Diane Wiest has returned to Yale Rep, after a much too long absence, to play Winnie in Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days through Saturday, May 21.

Beckett, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature, is considered one of the fathers of the theater of the absurd, that mid-20th century movement that also included playwrights  Eugène IonescoJean Genet, and others.  The message was both simple and existential:  human existence is essentially meaningless and formless; verbal communication is inadequate; life is illogical, chaotic, uncertain and hopeless. The term does not refer to the more common mean of “absurd” as ridiculous.

Beckett mixed endless talk with puns, repetition of the obvious and circular thinking. In Beckett’s plays, plot can be described in a sentence or two; it is less important than the existential angst of the characters.  Yet, there is humor and in some of his plays – Waiting for Godot, for example – there are elements of vaudeville or commedia dell’arte.

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Dianne Wiest. Photo by Joan Marcus.

As the play opens, Winnie is waist deep in sand or earth on a barren landscape. She awakens and begins her morning rituals – brushing her teeth, looking in a small mirror, taking out a revolver, putting on her hat – all the while chattering away to her husband Willie who is on the far side of the sand dune.  Winnie cannot move from the pit, but she smiles and says this is “another happy day.”  Willie reads classified ads from an old newspaper, looks at and shares with Winnie an erotic photo and sings a song.  Though Winnie can barely see Willie, she tells him he helps her to go on. The day progress, she keeps chattering and soon it is time for sleep.

Act two finds Winnie buried to her neck in the dune. Though she can’t move and has no use of her arms, she continues to chatter on to Willie and still considers this a “happy day.” The play ends with Willie attempting to climb the dune – is he trying to reach Winnie or the revolver?

One can find numerous metaphors and symbols in Beckett’s work.  From the repetition and futility of daily life to the obvious idea of death approaching all of us, his view of the human condition might be considered by some to be bleak.

Since Willie has minimal dialogue, only some sounds, and is barely seen, one might question if he is essential to the play.  Couldn’t it just be a monologue by Winnie?  Yet, Willie is essential to the play; Winnie needs that human connection, that relationship even though she can barely see him.  Just knowing he is there, gives her a reason to go on.

And what is the point of the revolver that Winnie takes out of her bag and places on the dune where it remains during the second act out of reach to both Winnie and Willie?  Chekhov has been famously quoted as saying if there is a gun on the stage, it must go off at some point. This one does not.  Does it represent the ability to control one’s end? If so, it is tantalizingly out of reach.

James Bundy, artistic director of Yale Rep, has directed this production with a sure hand.

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Jarlath Conroy. Photo by Joan Marcus.

He wrote in his program notes, that part of the play’s allure is the “weaving of simple physical action with complicated characters and their fragile memories. Another is the dance of illusion and reality in performance.”  Bundy also mentions Beckett’s interest in our “common vulnerability.”

Diane Wiest shows us all elements of Winnie. She is part seductress and part housewife. She is lost in memories but also thinking of the future. She is flirtatious and vulnerable and yet she is also strong and enduring.  Like the Biblical Job, she continues to look at the bright side, often counting her “mercies.”

In act one, Wiest has both her voice, her expressions, her arms, and an attractive strapless top to help her achieve this conflicted character which has been referred to as a “summit part” for actresses.  In act two, she only has her face, voice and eyes to draw you into Winnie’s mind.

She succeeds so well, that you want to cry for her.

Wiest’s work at Yale Rep has always been exemplary. In the 1980s, she gave incredible performances as Nora in A Doll’s House and Hedda in Hedda Gabler.  I still recall these productions.

Jarlath Conroy plays Willie. He is the rock upon which Winnie’s foundation is built. It is a role that requires an actor to achieve a presence while seldom being seen or heard and with no real dialogue that allows us to know the character.  That he creates a Willie that we care about shows us his talent.

Izmir Ickbal has created the barren landscape that is home to Winnie and Willie.  Stephen Strawbridge’s lighting design moves us throughout the day.

It must be admitted that Happy Days would not lose its impact if it were shorter.  The first act is over an hour; there were some empty seats in act two.

But for serious theater goers, Happy Days is a play everyone should see at least once. New Haven audiences are lucky to have such a fine production and excellent performances available.

Happy Days is at the Yale Rep, 1120 Chapel St., New Haven through Saturday, May 21. For tickets visit yalerep.org or call 203-432-1234.

This content courtesy of Shore Publications and http://www.zip06.com

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Jarlath Conroy and Dianne Wiest.  Photo by Joan Marcus.

Ivoryton’s “Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks” Is Bittersweet Comedy

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Photo by Anne Hudson

By Karen Isaacs

 Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks now at Ivoryton Playhouse through May 22, is one of those plays that seems designed for old-fashioned summer theater. It is a gentle, bittersweet comedy about two disparate people who develop a caring relationship.

It is amazing that John Alfieri’s play was first produced in 2001 and reached Broadway for a brief run in 2003 starring Polly Bergen and Mark Hamill. In 2014, it was made into a film starring Gena Rowlands and Cheyenne Jackson.

The play is set on the west coast of Florida, where Lily has a condo overlooking the water. She is in her early 70s, a widow from South Carolina, and lonely. Her husband had been a Baptist minister. She has heard of a company called Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks which sends a dance instructor to the client’s home for hour lessons. She has signed up.

Michael is the instructor who arrives at her apartment door. After she cautiously lets him in and tells him her husband is out, the first lesson does not start off well. Michael is brash and loud; his humor does not go over with the apparently straight-laced Lily. When he insults her, she calls the company to report him, but he tells her his wife is ill and out of work. Lily relents and the first lesson commences.

As the lessons proceed, we learn more and more about both Lily and Michael. Each has been less than honest. Michael is not married, he is gay and had moved to Florida from NYC to care for his mother who had suffered from Alzheimer’s.

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Photo by Anne Hudson

Lily finally admits that her husband is dead and begins to reveal that the marriage had not been a terribly happy one. She had suppressed her own personality to be the “minister’s wife.”

It is also clear that Lily really does not need dance lessons; she is a good dancer but tells Michael that she finds going to public dances humiliating; because of her age she feels invisible.

Just as in so many other plays, movies and TV shows, these two very different people develop a very caring relationship. They become friends and each reveals more about their feelings and lives than they probably have told anyone else.

The play’s structure is predictable. Most scenes open with Michael ringing the doorbell and Lily answering it.  Michael is in an outfit that reflect the dance they will be working on, a pseudo-toreador outfit for the tango, a tux for the Viennese waltz, etc. They talk and dance until the fade out for the next scene.

The fact that the plot is predictable in many respects and similar to many others, does not take away from its charm or this very good production.

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Photo by Anne Hudson

Valerie Stack Dodge plays Lily. You may not believe she is 70+, but she maintains an excellent accent throughout. You see her slowly unthawing and letting the shield that protects her slowly drop. She becomes vulnerable and charming.

Michael Iannucci plays Michael Minetti. His characterization gives us a man who uses New York brashness and humor to hide his pain: his mother’s illness, a friend who has died of AIDS (the play is seemingly set in the ‘90s), a career as a Broadway dancer that is over and more. He too shows us the vulnerability beneath his shield.

Sasha Brätt has managed to hide some of the predictability of the plot; the repetition of scene opening and closings for instance. He has carefully helped the performers get the most of the gentle humor; there are some funny lines. Choreographer Apollo Smile has created typical ballroom dances; what a typical dance lesson would include. It’s appropriate for the characters. William Russell Stark’s scenic design gives us the condo/apartment with a gorgeous view of the sunset over the beach which is aided by the lighting by Marcus Abbott.  Lisa Bebey’s costumes again are absolutely appropriate; Lily looks like a repressed woman and Michael’s costumes reflect flash and low cost.

When you see this production, you might wonder how Michael Iannucci could play the same role as Mark Hamill (though he wasn’t as svelte as he once was) and Cheyenne Jackson, a certifiable hunk. I can only assume that for the film, some details of Michael’s life were changed for the younger actor.

Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks is at Ivoryton Playhouse, 103 Main St., Ivoryton, through May 22. For tickets visit ivortyonplayhouse.org or call 860-767-7318.

“Red” – A Look at Perception

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Photo by Carol Rossegg

By Karen Isaacs

 Red by is supposedly a play about Art with a capital A and about how the artist works.  But it really is much more about perception and vision:  What do we see?  How do we see it? Why do we see it? What do we think it means?

This play by John Logan was presented first in London and then on Broadway during the 2009-10 theater season. It starred Alfred Molina and an unknown Eddie Redmayne, winning the Tony for best play with Redmayne winning a Tony as Outstanding Featured Actor in a Play.

The play opens with the artist Mark Rothko asking Ken, a young student, “what do you see?’ as they both look out over the audience, supposedly at a painting.  That sets the theme of the piece.

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Stephen Rowe as Mark Rothko. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Rothko was one of the most prominent abstract expressionist along with Jackson Pollack and Willem de Kooning. When the play takes place, 1958-59, he is in his later period where he focuses on blurred blocks of color and canvases of vertical design.  He has said that he wants the viewer to be enveloped by the painting and to stand close to the large works for a sense of intimacy and awe. It was also at this time that he had a commission from Seagram to provide murals for the about-to-be opened restaurant, The Four Seasons, in the new corporate building in Manhattan designed by Phillip Johnson and Mies van der Rohe.

Artistic Director Mark Lamos has paired to plays that are ostensible about art to play in repertory with different casts.  Art plays on the even days and the second, Red, plays on the odd days.  Each play, Lamos points out, explores the relationship between men and art: making art, viewing art, collecting art. It also points out how art can be used as validation or a status symbol. It is interesting that each of these plays features an all-male cast, though Art is written by a female playwright.

Ken is hired as a studio assistant, running errands, fastening canvases to stretchers, preparing paint and preparing the canvases which Rothko starts with a background color. Although Ken is an aspiring painter, Rothko never asks about his art and never volunteers to look at it.

At first, Rothko talks.  He is amazed that Ken is not familiar with literature and philosophy. He tells him to read Nietzsche and others; that you cannot be artist without a foundation in philosophy, history, literature.

As they continue to work together – the play takes place over 18 months or so – Ken begins

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Stephen Rowe and Patrick Andrews. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

challenging Rothko’s theories of art, his dislike for the new pop artists, and his political views.

Ken tells him he is being hypocritical accepting the lucrative commission for the murals at this very expensive restaurant where the moguls of capitalism will dine while still maintaining that the work will be viewed as if in a museum.  It is, Ken, says, just interior design. By the end of the play, Rothko has resigned the commission.

But underneath this play, there is not only the discussion about perception and how each of us views things so differently, but also the fear that the aging artist has not only of death but also of becoming irrelevant or overlooked. Just as the abstract expressionists were young men who disdained the conventions of their elders and redefined art, the pop artists like Warhol, Lichtenstein and Rauschenberg were redefining art and rejecting the approaches of the older generations, including artists like Rothko.

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Patrick Andrews. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

In a telling moment, Rothko admits to Ken that what he fears most is that the black on his canvases will overtake the red.

Under Lamos’ fine direction, Stephen Rowe gives a stellar performance as Rothko, letting us slowly inside the man to see the fear of death emerging.  Patrick Andrews as Ken goes from the admiring student to an artist willing to challenge and confront.

The scenic design by Allen Moyer creates the studio space beautifully.

Of the two plays, Art and Red, I found Red to be both the most interesting theatrically and from the standpoint of the ideas discussed; I think it also the better production. But either is an enjoyable and thought provoking theatrical experience.

Red is at Westport Country Playhouse, 25 Powers Court, Westport through May 29.  For tickets visit westportplayhouse.org or call 888-927-7529.

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Patrick Andrews and Stephen Rowe. Photo by Carol Rosegg

“Art” at Westport Is about More than Collecting

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The painting that causes the problems between Marc (Benton Greene) and Serge (John  Skelley). Photo by Carol Rosegg

By Karen Isaacs

 Art by Yasmina Reza which is getting a fine production at Westport Country Playhouse through May 29 was a hit on Broadway in 1998, winning the Tony as Best Play.

Looking at it today, particularly in the context of her subsequent play God of Carnage, I see the connections to that work, it less about contemporary art and more about power in friendships. What happens when the power dynamic in a friendship shifts? Can the friendship continue? At what cost?

Artistic Director Mark Lamos has paired to plays that are ostensible about art to play in repertory with different casts.  Art plays on the even days and the second, Red, plays on the odd days.  Each play, Lamos points out, explores the relationship between men and art: making art, viewing art, collecting art. It also points out how art can be used as validation or a status symbol.

It is interesting that each of these plays features an all-male cast, though Art is written by a female playwright.

In Art, which is set in Paris, Serge, a dentist has spent 200,000 Euros (about $228,000) on a large contemporary painting by a well-known artist. He wants to show it off to his two best friends, Marc and Yvan. The painting, which we see, looks like a large white canvas with no visible patterns. Serge states that there are various lines on the painting in a variety of white colors.

Marc is the first of the friends to see the painting. He thinks it is ridiculous, especially that someone would spend that much money for it. He describes the painting as “a piece of white shit.”  Serge is successful but not wealthy.  But Marc is also upset that Serrge made this purchase without consulting him. Very quickly, we realize that Marc believes he is the arbitrator of all that is cultural or good.  He doesn’t like contemporary things, so Serge should not like them either; or if he must like them, at least not to buy them.

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Benton Greene and Sean Dugan. Photo by Carol Rosegg

Marc and the third friend, Yvan, who is both uncertain and eager to please, discuss the painting. Yvan obviously wants to avoid confrontation, so it is clear that he has told Serge that he likes the painting, but agrees with Marc that the cost was ridiculous.

As the men continue to meet, it gets even more contentious, with Marc and Serge nearly coming to blows and Yvan trying to mediate by waffling between the two.

In the end, Serge finds a way to salvage the longt erm friendship, but you suspect it will flare up again soon.

This play is less about whether the painting or contemporary art in general is meaningful or worthwhile.  On one hand it is about the person who collects art or other things for the status and affirmation it provides. The person who may be swayed to like something only because it is valuable or trendy.

It is also about friendship.  The three men have been friends for 15 years and the pattern of their relationship is well established.  Marc, who may be a few years old, is the dominant one in the group.  He is very sure of himself and his opinions.  He wants the affirmation of the others. But now, several things are threatening the group. Yvan is getting married; he is ambivalent about it and seems already under the thumb of his wife and her mother.  Serge is,, with his interest in art, also stepping away into new groups and asserting independent thinking.

Like any leader, Marc will fight to retain his position of dominance, even if it means hurling insults and demeaning comments.

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John Skelley and Sean Dugan. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Mark Lamos has done an excellent job directing this piece and letting us see the various dynamics occurring. His multi-ethnic casting adds another dimension to the play and the possible motivations of the characters. He has three fine actors to work with, as well as a spacious living room of an apartment – sometimes, Marc’s, sometimes Serge’s – designed by Allen Moyer. He is added by the lighting by Matthew Richards and the sound design by David Budries.

Benton Greene gives us a Marc who is arrogant in certainty that his opinions are the correct ones. He stalks around Serge’s apartment as though he owned it. Sean Dugan has to portray the indecisive, eager to please, Yvan.  It is to his credit that we not only like this character but feel sorry for him;  at times I wanted to tell him to call off the up-coming wedding.

John Skelley is adding to his fine performances at Westport with Serge. At times I wished he was a little stronger, but you see a man sure of his opinions but not wanting to have them get  in the way of the friendship.

As you leave the theater following this one act production, you will certainly have much to consider and discuss.

Art is at Westport Country Playhouse, 25 Powers Court, Westport. For tickets visit westportplayhouse.org or call 888-927-7529.

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Benton Greene and John Skelley. Photo by Carol Rosegg

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John Skelley, Benton Greene, Sean Dugan. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

 

“Anything Goes” at Goodspeed Not Quite the Top

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Rashidra Scott as Reno Sweeney and the ensemble. Photo by Diane Sobolewski.

By Karen Isaacs

 Cole Porter’s classic Anything Goes, now at Goodspeed in East Haddam through June 16, even in its original version featured so many classic songs and so much fun that it has been revived numerous times.  That it had never made it to Goodspeed is somewhat surprising.

A 1962 off-Broadway revival of the show brought attention once again to it; that production started the trend of interpolating classic Porter songs from other musicals. It was the 1987 revival at Lincoln Center that put the show on the theatrical map.  It featured a revised book, re-ordered songs and starred Patti LuPone and Howard McGillan. From then on, it has had multiple worldwide productions.  In 2011, Sutton Foster won a Tony for starring in the most recent revival that also featured Joel Grey.

All of these outstanding productions, and the memories from either seeing them live (as I saw the 2011 revival) or hearing them on CD, sets a very high standard for any production. Goodspeed also has reputation for producing excellent work, so it too causes an audience to expect an almost perfect production.

I wish I could say that this production meets these expectations.  It is professional, overall well sung, danced, acted, and yet, it falls short.

It is the type of production that audiences will enjoy, but those more knowledgeable will find numerous flaws with it; not enough to spoil the experience, but to leave them wishing it were better.

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Hannah Florence and David Harris. Photo by Diane Sobolewski

The story is a typical silly plot of the 1930s.  Aboard a ship sailing to England are a variety of passengers:  Reno Sweeney, a nightclub evangelist; Billy Crocker a young Wall Street assistant; Elisha J. Whitney – an aging Yale alumni and millionaire who employs Billy; a debutante – Hope Harcourt; her mother; her fiancé, Lord Evelyn Oakleigh; and for the comedy an on-the-lam criminal (Public Enemy #13) Moonface Martin and man-loving Erma, the girlfriend of Snake Eyes Johnson, Public Enemy #1 who has gotten left ashore.

The complications include  Billy stowing away and masquerading as Snake Eyes and is arrested:; ruses to keep Elisha from knowing Billy is on board (he was supposed to go to Wall Street and sell some shares); Billy pursuing Hope who is only marrying Evelyn because her mother insists they need the money; Reno attracted to first Billy and then Evelyn. In fact, the complications are on-going.

But in reality the plot is there for humor, exposition and to keep the songs coming.  From the original show these include the title song, “Blow, Gabriel, Blow,” “I Get a Kick Out of You,” and “All Through the Night.”  The current production has added (as did the most recent revivals) such Porter classics as “You’re the Top,” “Easy to Love,” “Friendship,”  “It’s De-Lovely,” and “Goodbye, Little Dream, Goodbye.”

Rashidra Scott is a terrific Reno Sweeney. She sings, dances and carries the comedy well.  This is a show that demands a dynamite leading lady and Scott delivers. David Harris plays Billy with the right amount of brash youth, mooning young love and cunning.  Hannah Florence is the debutante who loves Billy but is following her mother’s insistence of the marriage to the English lord due to diminishing family wealth.  Again, she sings nicely but the chemistry between the two is lacking.  Are these characters truly attracted to each other? I didn’t believe it.

While individual performances are good, the balance of the show seems off and chemistry among the cast members is also missing.

The balance issue is most obvious with Stephen DeRosa as Moonface Martin.  DeRosa is a

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Stephen DeRosa and David Harris. Photo by Diane Sobolewski.

gifted comic actor but here he hijacks the show.  Too often, when your attention should be on another major character, he has a bit of business that diverts your eyes. Often the bits aren’t that funny, as in a couple references to Connecticut towns in the duet “Friendship” with Reno.  Director Daniel Goldstein needed to rein him in.  Yet he scores with his one solo number “Be Like the Bluebird”.

No other supporting cast member overdoes it to the extent DeRosa does. The other major comic role is that of the English Lord, Sir Evelyn Oakleigh. Benjamin Howes is fine and handles his one song, “The Gypsy in Me” effectively.

With the more minor characters I have some quibbles in the casting or interpretation. Why is it necessary for the purser to be played as such a gay stereotype?  Why is Elisha J. Whitney, the alcoholic, Yale grad played with a southern drawl?  I have to admit that the outstanding performance by John McMartin as Whitney in the last revival has set a high standard.

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Rashidra Scott as Reno Sweeney and the ensemble. Photo by Diane Sobolewski.

Even the scenic design – the deck of a ship – by Wilson Chin – seemed to cause problems. First,  though it may be an optical illusion, that the small Goodspeed playing area was even less deep than usual. The placement of the orchestra on the top deck  limited the area up there that could be used.

The costumes by Ilona Somogyi were terrific. The lighting by Brian Tovar and the sound by Jay Hilton were also excellent.

Kelli Barclay choreographed the show which always features terrific tap numbers in the title tune and “Blow, Gabriel, Blow.”  I do wish there had been one or two more women in the chorus.

Director Daniel Goldstein does a good job yet some of his decisions kept this from being the “top” show you would like it to be.

Anything Goes is at Goodspeed in East Haddam through June 16. For tickets contact goodspeed.org or call 860-873-8668.

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Desiree Davar as Erma and the sailors. Photo by Diane Sobolewski.

“Wit” Doesn’t Sugar Coat the Issues

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Elizabeth Lande as Dr. Vivian Bearing. Photo by Richard Wagner

By Karen Isaacs

The 1999 Pulitzer Prize winner, Wit, is getting a fine production at Playhouse on Park in West Hartford through May 8. But those who think of the word “wit” as meaning clever or funny, will be in for a shock, though there are some humorous moments.

This play by Margaret Edison does not pull its punches about cancer, experimental treatments and death.  If you have had personal experiences with these issues, the play can be emotionally draining.

Wit had an early production at Long Wharf, starring Kathleen Chalfant in the leading role, which transferred off-Broadway and had a long run.  It was revived on Broadway with Cynthia Nixon in 2012.

The title of the play, Wit, refers to the literary wit of the metaphysical poets, particularly John Donne and the sonnet “Death Be Not Proud.” In this context, wit refers to relating disparate elements so as to enlightenment, astuteness and reasoning power.  Donne is often considered a “difficult” poet for his metaphysical discussions, namely for his exploration of faith, religion and the spiritual world.

Dr. Vivian Bearing, a professor, is the narrator of the play.  We first see her in a hospital gown and hospital setting where we learn she has been undergoing treatment for cancer.  She is thin and wears a baseball cap to conceal her hair loss. Soon we realize that she is dying.  In a variety of flashbacks, we see both incidents from her life – with her mentor, her father, her students as well as her days since the diagnosis.

We see the young Vivian, a promising scholar of literature, with her mentor, Professor E. M. Ashford.  Ashford considers Vivian’s paper to be sentimental and superficial. She instructs her in how the selection of the text (and its punctuation) that Vivian used for the paper on “Death Be Not Proud” has misled her. The use of a semicolon and explanation point rather than a comma and period have changed the meaning dramatically.

Vivian takes the lesson to heart and has become a leading scholar on Donne and his “wit” as well as a demanding professor. She is viewed as one of the toughest at the university where she teaches. But Vivian, who has never married, is tough in other ways as well.

She is confronting advanced ovarian cancer (stage four) and is undergoing experimental chemotherapy. Not only has she agreed to the experimental treatment but she has been determined to take the maximum dosage in the study.

The first time I saw this play, I viewed it as too much a lecture on Donne, but now I see the many connections Margaret Edison makes between Vivian, the literary scholar, and the researcher in charge of the study, Dr. Harvey Kelekian, and the graduate fellow, Dr. Jason Posner, handling the day-to-day treatment.  Each of them is rigorously intellectual, not allowing emotion to enter the equation in the relationships. Each is seeking for knowledge and each wears blinders that doesn’t let him see the fuller picture.

Vivian takes pride that her course – which Dr. Posner took om a dare – is so tough and she is so demanding and strict with her students, not giving any thought to them as individuals. The two physicians are equally strict and equally unable to put aside their desires – for maximum useable data – to consider the human cost of getting that data.

Edison raises also the issue of the ethical conundrum in medical research.  Often it does not benefit the patient but may provide important knowledge that will help future patients.  In fact, it often harms the patient or at least makes the waning days of life physically more difficult.  Yet the researcher often does not know when to stop and let nature takes it course since stopping treatment or not resuscitating might jeopardize the data already collected.

This is played out at the end of Vivian’s life between Dr. Posner and Nurse Susan Monahan who, unlike the two researchers, has developed a real relationship with Vivian.  It is she that talks her about a DNR (do not resuscitate) order and she that battles Dr. Posner when, despite the order, he tries to resuscitate Vivian to protect that data.

Elizabeth Lande is excellent as Vivian. She gives us a woman, who while in the classroom was unsentimental and tough, does in fact have feelings not just for the literature but also for life. At times she paints a picture of a woman who is still trying to please like the little girl who tried to please her father and later her mentor.

Tim Hackney as Dr. Posner, the graduate fellow, has the most difficult role and only partially succeeds at creating this young researcher.  He must blend the confidence of youth with the callousness of someone who is aiming big.  His comments about the waste of time in medical school for a researcher to take a course on dealing with patients, may make you want to scream at him. He views this study as just a way station to getting his own lab.

Chuja Sea endows Nurse Monahan with the humanity and warmth that most of the other characters, including Vivian, lack.  She manages to keep the character from being only the “good cop” to Posner’s “bad cop.”  David Gutschy allows Kelekian to be the breezy supervisor who stops in occasionally.

Director Stevie Zimmerman has handled the awkwardly large playing space well, creating separate areas for the various earlier memories.

Wit is the only play Edison has ever written. For a first play, it is certainly a good one and, I suspect, she wrote from the heart.

It is at Playhouse on Park, 244 Park Rd, West Hartford through May 8.  For tickets visit playhouseonpark.org or call 860-523-5900.

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Photo by Meredith Anderson

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