Edwin Howard

The Laramie Project at the Maple Shade Arts Council

On October 6, 1998 a hate crime occurred in Laramie, Wyoming. This brutal act riveted the nation. It also inspired a team from the Techtonic Theatre Company to visit the site. Their goal: to develop and understanding of the community in which the incident occurred. Following a year-long investigation they brought their findings to the stage. They called it simply The Laramie Project. This summer the Maple Shade Arts Council presented this verbatim theatre classic on their stage. I attended the opening night performance on June 21st.

During the winter of 2017, I had the opportunity to interview The Laramie Project’s director, Lori Alexio Howard. At the time she was rehearsing for a production of To Kill a Mockingbird. Ms. Howard expressed the following thoughts on that drama:

 It’s a good time to be doing that show with what’s going on in the country. It will make audiences question their view of the world. It’s good to revisit and question the state of things.

Ms. Howard applied this sense of social consciousness to her latest endeavor. In the playbill she reflected upon the life of her first openly “out” friend.

I am grateful that JT has had 41 years (and counting) to be EXACTLY who he is. It’s because of who he is that I love him so. And yes, twenty years after the events in Laramie, Wyoming, things like hate, prejudice, violence, injustice, and intolerance of those who are different than us are all too common.

The Maple Shade Arts Council’s performance of The Laramie Project made for the most solemn evening of theatre I’ve experienced. All the actors delivered impassioned performances. Because of the story’s tone, no applause occurred between scene changes.

The Laramie Project contained an unusual format for a play. The scenes consisted of a series of interviews the Techtonic Theatre Company conducted with Laramie residents. They asked a variety of people for their thoughts on the murder of Matthew Shepard.

Mr. Shepard was beaten, tortured and left to die tied to a fence in a remote section of the Wyoming prairie. What motivated this brutality? Matthew Shepard was a homosexual.

The script crafted these different interviews into a coherent story. Because of the myriad people involved the show’s 16 performers played multiple roles.

The nature of the text added another challenge for actors. Steven Jackson (who played Matt Galloway, Jonas Slonaker, Doug Laws, William McKinney) observed that the script contained words spoken by real people. He dedicated much time to memorizing the text in order to speak his lines as written. “It’s a deep play,” he added.

The Maple Shade Arts Council has presented their summer shows in various venues over the years. The intimate space they selected at the Maple Shade Municipal Building well suited this show. Performers walked through the aisles during the haunting candlelight vigil. Actors entered the stage from the seating area. Cast members stood in front of the stage just a few feet from the audience when speaking. Ms. Howard utilized the entire room to bring the spectators into the story.

Lighting designers / operators Michael Melvin, Lori Howard and Jackie Duran crafted and executed the lighting impeccably. They managed it so well that it functioned like a character in the show. The darkening of the stage at the appropriate times set the mood. The eerie glow enhanced the scene where the cast re-enacted the discovery of Shepard’s body. The flickering during the hospital CEO’s (played by Nicholas French) press conference imitated cameras snapping photos.

The performances in The Laramie Project will haunt theatregoers. The events it depicted occurred in the recent past. It chronicled the thoughts and feelings of real people living in a rural community. It centered upon a tragedy all too common in the modern era. In a sense it was like the director turned the theatre into a mirror. The audience watched a reflection of itself play out on stage.

In one scene performers Abby Drexler and Phyllis Josephson played Laramie locals being interviewed by a member of the Tectonic Theatre Company (played by Nicholas French). Ms. Drexler and Ms. Josephson discussed life in Laramie in a playful and relaxed fashion: until he asked about the Shepard murder. Then the performers became guarded and laconic.

Marissa Wolf delivered a soliloquy expressing her character’s disagreement with the media’s portrayal of the killing. She delivered her character’s view that Mr. Shepard was “not a saint” in a way that didn’t sound bigoted. Her delivery brought out the complexity the events engendered.

Doug Suplee turned in a powerful performance as Matthew’s father. During the sentencing of one of the killers, Mr. Suplee presented a gripping monolog. His delivery combined with the message of temperance made one of the show’s most compelling moments.

The show contained many outstanding moments. Sara Viniar turned in impassioned performances as the Islamic woman and the college professor. Brian Gensel played the young man who discovered Shepard with uncomfortable realism. Steve Rogina brought out the conflict within the doctor who discovered he treated both Shepard and one of his attackers on the same evening the incident occurred.

When directors seek performers who can play multiple roles in the same show, Nick French is becoming South Jersey Community Theatre’s “go to” guy. After playing all eight members of the D’Yasquith family in A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder in January of this year, he cut back to just four in this show.

Mr. French portrayed the moralizing firebrand Fred Phelps. The upside down American flag he wore on his jacket accentuated his character’s views. Mr. French also played the empathetic hospital CEO with the same proficiency.

Performers Chrissy Wick, Chuck Klotz, Frank Simpson Jr., James Gallagher, Jerrod Ganesh, Kat Ross Kline and Michele Liberton rounded out the cast.

The production team included: Assistant Director Lisa Palena, Production Assistant Jackie Duran and Stage Manager Chrissy Wick. Edwin and Lori Howard designed the set.

Even with the disturbing subject matter, Ms. Howard brought out the latent message of hope at the end. As she wrote in the playbill: “All you need is love.” The Laramie Project is one small step towards making that message more common. It runs through June 29th at the Maple Shade Arts Council.

The Boys Next Door at Bridge Players Theatre Company

“I can’t tell if this is the saddest place I’ve ever been or the happiest,” social worker Jack observed. That’s a good summation of The Boys Next Door. It contained both a heart-rending and heart-warming story. I attending this opening night performance at the Bridge Players Theatre Company on February 1st. Edwin Howard directed.

The Boys Next Door related the stories of several men living at a group home. Arnold Wiggins (played by Stephen Jackson) possessed a compulsive and nervous disposition. Mentally retarded middle aged man Lucien P. Smith (Jay Scott Burton) had a fascination with books. Norman Bulanski (Matthew Brent) fixated on donuts and locks. Schizophrenic Barry Klemper (Jeff Skomsky) believed himself a golf instructor.

Case worker Jack Palmer (Thomas Everett) attended to these clients. The continuous struggles of helping these men fit into society strained him. He confessed to feeling burned out. “Either they deserve better or I deserve better,” he mused. Maintaining his composure proved a challenge.

Bridge Players’ production featured some powerful performances. Stephen Jackson played a convincing compulsive obsessive personality. His repeated counting, quick pacing and even faster talking captured Arnold’s essence. It’s difficult to speak clearly when delivering a machine-gun like barrage of words. I credit Mr. Jackson as he spoke in a way that I could still understand him.

Jay Scott Burton delivered the most powerful speech in the show. After his genuine portrayal of a man with mental deficiencies, he stood upon a soap box. Mr. Burton delivered a disquisition on the plight of the mentally retarded. He animated playwright Tom Griffin’s dialog with authority.

Matthew Brent played the lovable donut aficionado, Norman Bulanski. Perhaps, because of that, his character was the only one with a love interest. His scenes with Lisa Croce (as Sheila, the resident of a different group home) made for the show’s most sentimental. I give Mr. Howard and the performers credit for not allowing this relationship to deteriorate into melodrama. Their portrayal of the conflict that resulted when Ms. Croce innocently asked for Mr. Brent’s keyes aided in that regard.

The most moving scene occurred at the end of Act One. Mr. Bulanski and Ms. Croce danced together. They performed a well-choreographed routine. They showed each character’s affection for each other by smiling the entire time. So did the audience.

Jeff Skomsky played an exceptional Barry. Through the serious way he discussed “business” and conducted his golf lessons, I had difficulty telling why the character was even in the group home. Then Barry found out that the father he hadn’t seen in nine years was coming to visit him. At this point, Mr. Skomsky brought out the character’s inner turmoil.

Mr. Skomsky kept a blank look on his face while staring straight ahead. In an eerie monotone he told unbelievable stories about Barry’s father. He described “Kipper” Klemper as a third base coach for the Yankees, a defensive coach for the 49ers and Ted Williams’ fishing buddy. The performer’s interpretation of Barry’s mental state showed that the two men’s reunion would not end happily.

This segued into the show’s most memorable scene. Russ Walsh played Mr. Klemper as socially inept and crass. When he asked Jack to leave the two alone, Mr. Everett paused and gave him an uncomfortable look. Mr. Walsh then showed the dark side of “Kipper” Klemper’s personality. He and Mr. Skomsky played a very unsettling scene together. The emotions involved and the quality of the acting made it very difficult to watch.

With characters of this nature, humor becomes a challenge. The cast and director conveyed it respectfully. One of the most comical moments occurred when a neighbor (played by Andrea Veneziano) visited. While sitting on the couch sandwiched between Mr. Brent and Mr. Skomsky she asked if they’d seen her son’s hamster. I’ll avoid giving away spoilers, but the startled looks on their faces showed that they had.

The production also included some spectacular lighting. It figured. Bob Beaucheane is one of the best lighting designers in South Jersey community theatre. The Boys Next Door showed why. The multi-colored lights that simulated the dance hall looked very authentic. It complimented the music very well. (Mr. Beaucheane also handled the sound design.) The full moon projected on the backdrop created a superb ambiance for the outdoor night scenes.

Bridge Players Theatre Company President Timothy Kirk rounded out the ensemble.

Director Edwin Howard wrote in the playbill:

In today’s world of tolerance and acceptance, sometimes we forget that everyone has wants and needs. Just because simple things are harder to do for some people, doesn’t mean they are any less human and deserve any less care and love.

The Boys Next Door is a solid commentary on these sentiments. The show runs through February 16th at the Bridge Players Theatre Company.

True West at Burlington County Footlighters 2nd Stage

There’s a saying in sports that, “you don’t see a lot of big plays involving two rookies.” After Burlington County Footlighters’ 2nd Stage production of Sam Shepard’s True West no one can apply that expression to theatre. It featured the debut of both a director (Edwin Howard) and a leading man (Darin DeVivo) when I attended the opening night performance on April 13th.

The show featured a creative script. Screenwriter Austin (played by Kevin Roberts) house sat for his mother (Regina Deavitt Beaucheane) during her sojourn to Alaska. His hermetic brother Lee (Darin DeVivo) ended up visiting. Austin worked on a story that he’d been pitching to a Hollywood producer. Lee discussed his travels. During the course of their conversation, Austin agreed to help Lee write a story he had in his head. Complications ensued when the producer, Saul (played by Chuck Klotz), arrived. He decided that he liked Lee’s story more than Austin’s. He wanted Austin to abandon the one he’d been working on and help his brother with his.  Perhaps as a bit of homage to Eugene O’Neil’s Beyond the Horizon, the brothers came to realize they’d been living each other’s dreams.

Edwin Howard did a superb job with Sam Shepard’s material. He ensured True West hooked the audience’s attention from the moment the lights went up.

Most theatrical shows focus on visual elements. This one placed much more emphasis on sound. It opened with an unconventional scene. Mr. Roberts sat at a kitchen table clacking on an old typewriter. Crickets chirped in the background. Mr. DeVivo walked about the stage. He used a gait that allowed his boots to tap percussively against the floor.

I first thought it brave of both the playwright and the director to begin a show with neither character speaking for several minutes. Then I realized the various sounds compensated for the silence. The performers established the mood through their actions.

Mr. DeVivo and Mr. Roberts displayed extraordinary chemistry working together. During the first act Austin’s dialog contained a lot of questions. This writing approach could have made the story drag. These two performers ensured that it stayed interesting.

Mr. Roberts looked the part of an intellectual. I thought it clever how he kept his collar buttoned through most of the show. His choice of voice sounded like that of an erudite Ivy League educated intellectual. When his character became intoxicated, he adjusted his delivery and played the scene convincingly.

Mr. DeVivo made his stage debut at Lee. He delivered such a strong performance that I have to believe the playbill contained a misprint. One has to respect his selection of such a demanding role to begin his career. He brought the character to life through both his dialog and mannerisms.

The character experienced a range of emotions during the play; the most memorable of which was anger. Mr. DeVivo portrayed the character’s temper so realistically that I flinched whenever he raised his voice. Whenever he became upset I felt uncomfortable watching him. In perhaps a theatre first, he hit a plate loaded with toast so hard that he sent the bread several feet into the air.

As memorable as I found the toast toss, my favorite scene was much more low- keyed. During one discussion, the two men stood across from one another. They each placed their hands on their hips and struck the same pose. While showing the characters’ similarity as brothers, they drew attention to the physical contrasts between them.

Chuck Klotz portrayed, Saul, the Hollywood producer. He selected the perfect voice for the role. He attempted to persuade Austin into working with Lee like a true Tinsletown dealmaker.

Even with the limited stage time afforded her, Regina Deavitt Beaucheane turned in a fine performance as the mother. The laid back approach she took towards the role contrasted well with the tension occurring on stage.

Both Edwin Howard and Jim Frazer played multiple roles behind the scenes. Mr. Howard worked with Mr. Frazer on the set design. Mr. Frazer and Tim Sagges teamed up to handle the lighting and sound.

Earlier in this review I mentioned the importance sound played in True West. Those with sensitive hearing should be aware that the show contained a lot of noise. Aside from Mr. DeVivo’s hollering, it included pots and pans getting tossed onto the floor, aluminum cans either getting thrown into a sink or being hit with a golf club and pounding on a table.

Those with an aversion to getting hit by toast may not want to sit in the front row, either.

To see newcomers perform so well with material this challenging, one wonders what kind of show would suit them for their sophomore efforts. Just a thought: are Mr. Howard and Mr. DeVivo familiar with Buried Child? Until then, True West runs through April 21st at Burlington County Footlighters 2nd Stage.