Matthew Reddin

Next Act puts faith in “Grace”

Director David Cescarini talks about his season's last play, an exploration of how we believe what we believe in. Plus: Next Act's 2013-14 season announced.

By - Apr 3rd, 2013 11:48 pm


Why do we believe what we believe?

David Cecsarini, artistic director of Next Act Theatre, isn’t hubristic enough to suggest he knows the answer. But it’s a question he has put to Milwaukee with the staging of Grace, the last play in Next Act’s 2012-13 season.

Craig Wright’s play centers on an evangelical Christian couple, Steve and Sara (Rick Pendzich and Libby Amato), who move to Florida in an attempt to capitalize on a immensely profitable real estate deal. While there, an exterminator (John Kishline) introduces them to their next-door neighbor, a NASA engineer named Sam (Jonathan Wainwright) who has lost his fiancée and been terribly scarred by a car accident.

Grace’s name and premise make it obvious that the play deals with issues of religion and faith. That, among other things, drew Cecsarini to program it and direct it. “Steve and Sara have a strong belief in the powers of prayer, letting God lead,” he said. “The result being that God will work to reward you in the material world.” Conversely, Sam has a scientific, agnostic mind. He admits to the existence of a historical Jesus but rejects organized religion. Karl, the exterminator, has “no need for God altogether,” thanks to his experiences during World War II.

Such a collection of volatile viewpoints seems too coincidental to be believable, and Cecsarini admits the play tends toward parable. He believes that the metaphorical structure strengthens the work and sees its themes and messages as more important than 100 percent realism. “I am hoping that people don’t bring the clinical need to see logical events with them,” he said. “Moreover, the more I work in this theater medium, the more I realize human beings are capable of anything.”

Perhaps the more pertinent coincidence is that Next Act is staging the 2004 play the same season that it is gracing Broadway; Cecsarini saw the New York production. “It was definitely informative to see the play in New York,” Cecsarini said. “But seeing the play in a big, 1,100-seat theater only confirmed my belief that intimate spaces work better for contemporary plays. There’s only so much distance plays can cover before they start to lose their effect.”

Next Act’s 150-seat venue brings the audience close to the set, a collection of condominium furnishings that represent both Sam’s and Steve and Sara’s homes. Simultaneously. Cecsarini isn’t too worried about audiences getting confused, at least not after a scene or two. He says the overlap serves as one of many examples of blurring time and space blurring that occur throughout the play.

Cecsarini believes his audience will get it. You might say he takes it on faith.

Next Act’s production of Grace runs April 5 to 28, with shows at 7:30 p.m. weeknights, 4:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays and 1 p.m. Wednesdays. Tickets are $30, $35 Saturdays and $25 Wednesday matinees. Order at (414) 278-0765 or the Next Act box office.

Interested in more from Next Act? You’re in luck: David Cescarini provided us with the following season schedule for 2013 and 2014, a collection of four plays built around the concepts of truth and deception, along with a returning Christmas show:

Perfect Mendacity, Sept. 19 – Oct. 13: This first show of the season, directed by Cecsarini, centers on a man learning to beat a polygraph machine, in order to protect the person he believes leaked a damaging memo about his employer. The dramatic angle? The consultant’s methods force him to delve deep into a past he would rather forget, leading him into self-destruction. Sounds like an excellent opener for Next Act, although that might all depend on exactly what secrets their main character is holding.

Groucho: A Life in Revue, Nov. 14 – Dec. 8: Next Act typically leans toward more dramatic fare, so an unabashedly zany tribute like this one is somewhat of an outlier. Pam Kriger directs the production, while Groucho specialist and favorite Milwaukee actor Norman Moses (also appearing in a remounting of The Mystery of Irma Vep later this spring) takes the pivotal role itself.

It’s a Wonderful Life Live Radio Show, Dec. 12-29: The Mary MacDonald Kerr adaptation will return to Next Act for its second year, with a tentative promise of more Milwaukee beer commercials to back up the heartwarming story of George Bailey, performed as a ‘50s radio drama with an off-stage backstory rounding out the production. Better yet, all six of the original performers are set to return.

Race, Jan. 30 – Feb. 23: I was surprised to see Race on Next Act’s list, but only because I’d thought the Mamet play had made its premiere much more recently than 2009. That’s more than enough time for this fascinating-looking play to make its Milwaukee debut. Edward Morgan will direct this examination of racial politics through the lens of two lawyers (one white, one black) debating the validity of a case where a wealthy white man is accused of assaulting a young black woman.

Three Views of the Same Object, April 3-27: Henry Murray’s play, to be directed by Shawn Douglass, would be an easy choice even were it as simple as it initially sounds: a aging couple who made a suicide pact several years prior are forced to determine whether they will follow up with that promise as one of them becomes ill. But it gets better: Murray offers us three different iterations of the conundrum, played by three different couples. I’m charmed already.

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