Matthew Reddin
Theater

Wisconsin’s Newest Playwright

Milwaukee Chamber Theatre offers a Stoughton writer’s play set in her native state of Tennessee.

By - Feb 19th, 2014 12:08 pm
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Lori Matthews, originally from Tennessee, wrote "October, Before I Was Born" within the setting of a historic explosion that occurred shortly before her own birth.

Lori Matthews, originally from Tennessee, wrote “October, Before I Was Born” within the setting of a historic explosion that occurred shortly before her own birth.

If playwright Lori Matthews could tell me only one thing to report back about her play October, Before I Was Born, it’s this: “It’s not as dreadfully painful as it sounds.”

Not the most cheerful way to open a preview. But the play, opening at Milwaukee Chamber Theatre this weekend, is built around a naturally dramatic event, the real-life explosion at the Tennessee Eastman Company in 1960, which killed 16 and became an event as significant in the region as the Kennedy assassination or Pearl Harbor. Matthews’ play depicts three family members waiting to hear whether their loved ones are okay: grounded matriarch Martha (Raeleen McMillion), her ne’er-do-well son Houston (Ken T. Williams) and her eight-months-pregnant daughter-in-law Anne (April Paul).

And Matthews says there’s nothing to fear, because this play isn’t so much about the explosion but more about how these three adapt to their unusual circumstances. “The incident is really the backdrop,” she says. “It’s more about how they cope with uncertainty … not knowing what is happening in the next two minutes. Most of us live our lives assuming that what we think is going to happen this afternoon is going to happen, and I think it’s interesting dramatically when that framework of normal has been disrupted.”

And how they cope is … well, not always that well. “I wanted to put three characters together that didn’t necessarily interact gracefully with one another,” Matthews says. You’d think that’d be trickier among family members, but Martha’s had nine children, and Matthews says a family that big always has combinations of relatives who wouldn’t willingly choose to be together for an extended period of time.

She would know. Matthews was born into a Tennessee family much like the one she’s written; her grandmother had 11 children, and many of her own family members were present at the explosion themselves. Born shortly after the event, she grew up surrounded by its story, told in various forms by her parents, uncles and friends. Matthews has since moved to Stoughton, Wis., but the explosion became an effective catalyst for the action of October, although its three characters are otherwise unlike her family members.

While October got its first staged reading as part of MCT’s Montgomery Davis Play Development Series, she actually first submitted it to Madison-based Wisconsin Wrights project after completing it in 2010. But as luck would have it, MCT’s former literary manager, Jacque Troy, was on the reading committee, and passed the script on to artistic director C. Michael Wright. He called Matthews about the play before she’d even heard back from the Wisconsin Wrights committee, which ultimately chose her as the winning playwright.

Wright would ultimately become the director for both that staged reading and the upcoming MCT production (with the same cast as the reading), and Matthews says she couldn’t be happier about his assistance. “Michael Wright is the difference between the play being produced anywhere and it never being seen,” she says. “Michael was the first person to say ‘This is worth doing.’”

The play has since had its world premiere in Virginia, where Matthews won another playwriting contest with the same play, but she feels having it at MCT is bringing it back to its birthplace, where she, Wright and Troy worked through its earlier flaws and shaped it into its current form. The biggest improvement they were responsible for, she says, was helping her craft dialogue that could create the six off-stage characters in the minds of the audience, a key to making the play work. She’s also enjoyed seeing the cast grow into the characters over the past two years, making them more than the Appalachian stereotype she more commonly sees on stage and in the media.

And she’s glad to see the play isn’t the gloomfest she’s worried people could mistake it for – more a roller coaster, with ups and down like everything else. It’s a ride worth strapping in for.

October, Before I Was Born opens Friday, Feb. 21 and runs through March 9. Tickets are $36 Fridays and Saturdays, $31 all other nights, with a $5 student/senior discount. For more information or to order tickets, call (414) 291-7800 or visit MCT’s website.

 

PREVIEW: The Edge of Our Bodies at Youngblood Theatre

I missed this Youngblood show when it opened last week, which is dumb because I’m a huge fan of Youngblood shows – their last production of 2012, Cartoon, was one of my favorite plays that season, and I’ve rarely been disappointed by their other works I’ve seen. The company was quiet for most of 2013 (with some behind-the-scenes restructuring, it seems) before returning this fall with Dying City, a post-9/11 drama about a war widow whose husband’s twin shows up on her doorstep.

This play is a little different. The Edge of Our Bodies is a one-character play about a teenage girl (Megan Kaminsky) on her way to New York City with a singular purpose: to tell her boyfriend she’s pregnant. It’s by Adam Rapp, a playwright who Youngblood last turned to for his more famous Red Light Winter – and, incidentally, planned to turn to an extra time, as the original plans for this block of time included a production of his one-man show Nocturne in repertory with The Edge of Our Bodies. That never came to pass, but if Edge is anything like Youngblood’s last foray into the worlds of Rapp, it’ll be a thought-provoking, intimate and surprising piece to dissect. It’s also your first chance to see new company member Mark Puchinsky at work, as the show’s director.

The Edge of Our Bodies runs through March 1 at Hot Water Wherehouse, 818 S. Water St., with performances at 6 p.m. Tickets are $15 and can be ordered online.

ChesapeakePosterPREVIEW: Chesapeake at In Tandem Theatre

And speaking of shows that only feature one actor, In Tandem’s entrusting Matt Daniels with their next offering of the season, one-man show Chesapeake. But just because Daniels is the only actor doesn’t mean he’s the only character. Sure, he’s predominantly lead character Kerr, a controversial performance artist, but he’s also asked to portray Senator Therm Pooley, who launches a campaign to defund the National Endowment for the Arts that Kerr puts himself in opposition to, the senator’s wife and his assistant, and even the Chesapeake Bay Retriever that Kerr decides to steal and re-train as a way to embarrass his political adversary – with tragicomic results. It’s far from the most orthodox play, but Daniels is one of the more talented actors in the city, and I have no doubt he’ll be able to take on the task of telling this complicated story.

Chesapeake, directed by Chris Flieller, opens Friday, Feb. 21 and runs through March 16 at In Tandem’s Tenth Street Theatre. Tickets are $25, $23 for students and seniors, and can be purchased online or at (414) 271-1371.

 

CLOSING THIS WEEK

Alchemist Theatre: The Chairs, through Feb. 22

Next Act: Race, through Feb. 23

Skylight: In the Heights, through Feb. 23

Fireside Theatre: Solid Gold ‘60s, through Feb. 23

ALSO ON STAGE

The Quasimondo: Love and Cthulhu, through March 1

Youngblood: The Edge of Our Bodies, Hot Water Wherehouse, through March 1

Windfall Theatre: The Petrified Forest, through March 1

First Stage: The Cat in the Hat, Milwaukee Youth Arts Center, through March 2; Anatole (NEW!), Todd Wehr Theatre, through March 16

Milwaukee Rep: Woody Sez, Stackner Cabaret, through March 9; The Whipping Man, Stiemke Studio, through March 16

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