Local Theater Companies Invest in the Unknown
Established Milwaukee theaters will present playwrights whose work may be unfamiliar to the local audience.
Emerging playwrights will learn something about us this September as patrons learn about them.
“I am as ignorant of Midwest audiences as I am of the Midwest,” playwright Christian O’Reilly said in an interview from his hometown in Galway, Ireland. Though that changed last season when Chicago’s Northlight Theater staged “Chapatti” with a cast headed by Tony winner John Mahoney (the father on TV’s “Frasier”). The result of the experience, including Q and A sessions with the author, was mutual admiration.
Two of Milwaukee’s most established professional theater companies are matching established acting and directing names with playwrights who are unknown locally, but widely recognized elsewhere.
The Milwaukee Chamber Theatre, now in its 40th season, along with Next Act Theatre, in its 24 year since combining out of two predecessors, are starting the fall with the fresh more than the familiar. Their strategies make clear that many subscription season companies hereabouts now trust patrons to lean into the unknown.
“We had full houses, standing ovations and a six week run that was extended to a seventh. I found the audience warm, attentive, curious and very open to my play,” O’Reilly recalled. “My impression of Midwest audiences to date is that they know, love and respect theatre and are curious, intelligent and open-minded. I was blessed with a wonderful production and in turn by a wonderful reaction.”
Now with “The Good Father,” he says, “I also have great faith in the judgment of Milwaukee Chamber Theatre in choosing to stage the play and therefore believing their audience will respond well to it.”
If that sounds like the eternal optimism of a playwright introducing a new work to a new audience, it also has convincing components. The Chamber Theater, founded by Ruth Schudson and the late Montgomery Davis, has proven astute in making choices it’s audience responds to. Unknown intimate dramas often fill the studio theater while alternating with bigger casts at the large Cabot proscenium in the Broadway Theater Center. (There, the excellent “Master Class”has been packing them in.)
Artistic Director C. Michael Wright has such hopes for O’Reilly’s exploration of the casual coupling of a house painter and a posh lawyer – and the provocative aftermath.
Class distinctions play a peripheral role – and while class bias certainly exists in America, it often takes different forms in Europe. But O’Reilly has no worries on that score – pointing out that drama is more about human truth than geography.
“My hope for ‘The Good Father’ is that the cultural specificity of the play is secondary to, or transcended by, the universality,” he said. “We talk in general terms about audiences when in fact we’re really talking about numerous individuals who bring their own hopes and expectations to the theatre.”
It’s such humanity that O’Reilly relishes beyond stereotypes and he seems to enjoy upending expectations. “Chapatti” deals with an offbeat romance between elderly animal devotees, while “The Good Father” unspools the unforeseen complications of a casual sex encounter between young adults.
Our interview demonstrated O’Reilly’s attention to precise English wording and erudition. He’s deeply Irish, so did he worry that American audiences expect some familiar John Ford type characters and themes? He thinks that’s blarney.
“I didn’t get the sense that the Chicago audience expected a certain kind of Irish character or that the play confounded this expectation in any way – and I expect the same in Milwaukee,” he said. “They just seemed open to a new theatrical experience.”
“I can’t say for sure,” he mused, “but perhaps American audiences have a fascination and an appreciation with the sort of language Irish playwrights use in our plays. Maybe there is an expectation or a hope for language that is lyrical.”
Next Act Theatre has the other new work, also particularly timely. “The Good Father’s” exploration of the consequences of an unexpected pregnancy is topical, but the Next Act production seems torn from the headlines – a Marine mom with only one leg and nightmares from Mideast wars, suffering a traumatic re-entry to the States and trying to face up to going home to her kids. “Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter” also opens formally September 19th and closes October 12.
If Milwaukee audiences know little about O’Reilly and his growing reputation, they know even less about Julie Marie Myatt, though she is a resident member of the New Dramatists and since 2007 her plays have made the rounds of theaters from L.A. to Minneapolis to Louisville. She currently enjoys commissions to write new works for the Yale Rep and Roundabout Theater, partly based on the positive reception to “My Wandering Boy,” “The Sexual Habits of American Women” (a comedic turn) and more recently “The Happy Ones” at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre.
“Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter” premiered in 2008 at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and has had a dozen subsequent productions, including at the D.C. Kennedy Center. It traces a disabled Marine’s despairing and humorous reach into a growing community of fellow social rejects to understand her situation.
This production’s community partner is Dry Hootch, the local group dedicated to returning injured veterans to health and social purpose. DryHootch.org has its own gathering hole on Brady St. and has drawn support from veterans groups and public officials.
But Myatt tackled the topic dramatically long before the current political uproar over delays in health care at the VA. Years ago, a D.C. commentator noted that the theatrical elements of a scarred soldier trying to return to society are “as timely as it gets.” A Chicago reviewer of another production cited its “darkly funny humor.”
To play Jenny, Next Act has cast Chelsea D. Harrison, an actress from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts who has also trained in South Africa and spent a season with the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park.
Her director is a staple of the Milwaukee theater scene – literally. Deborah Staples. She is well known hereabout for countless credits and multiple seasons at the Milwaukee Rep, where she will be back later this season in “Harvey.”
Many others in the cast are also familiar talents in Milwaukee theater, including husband and wife John Kishline and Deborah Clifton, featured in previous Urban Milwaukee Dial reviews of Three Views of the Same Object and Midsummer in Midwinter.
A tragic note: Molly Glynn died Saturday September 6 as the result of a freak accident the day before. A sudden storm erupted as she and her husband, fellow actor Joe Foust, were riding bikes on a favorite nature trail in the Chicago area, uprooting a tree and crashing it down on her. She died from the injuries. She was in her mid 40s and has two teenage children. Friends have set up a support fund for the family here.
Over two decades, Glynn had grown dynamically as a major go-to presence who many directors not only relied on, but also anticipated ever greater things from in their planning. She was best known as a regular with Chicago companies such as Steppenwolf, Chicago Shakespeare and Northlight, but she also performed in Wisconsin with Milwaukee First Stage and Door County’s Peninsula Players, on TV shows such as “Boss” and “Chicago Fire” and in movies such as the 2002 “No Sleep Til Madison,” filmed in Wisconsin. Her unexpected death produced a flood of sadness and memories from the close-knit Midwest acting community.
Her husband has been posting memorials on Facebook.
Dominique Paul Noth served for decades as film and drama critic, later senior editor for features at the Milwaukee Journal. You can find his blog here.