John Weber

Driving Miss Daisy at the 2nd Stage at Burlington County Footlighters

Community theatre completists owe Burlington County Footlighters’ 2nd Stage a debt of gratitude. This October they are presenting the first play in Alfred Uhry’s Atlanta Trilogy: the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for Drama winner Driving Miss Daisy. Three years ago Haddonfield Plays and Players staged the second and third parts of the series: The Last Night of Ballyhoo and Parade, respectively. I wondered when a company would provide South Jersey’s theatrical talent the opportunity to perform in one that opened it. The wait ended this October 4th at Burlington County Footlighters. Your correspondent attended that performance.

Driving Miss Daisy is a deceptively complex show to bring to the stage. It’s quite the antithesis to Parade. The latter featured an extensive cast, a high-tech spectacle and a catalog of musical numbers. Driving Miss Daisy contained no musical numbers, a sparse set and only three actors. The playwright, however, included 27 scene changes. The show did not contain an intermission, either. These unique challenges didn’t deter the cast and crew at Burlington County Footlighters’ 2nd Stage.

Director Alice Weber has a history of directing high minded, cerebral works such as Dr. Cook’s Garden (at Bridge Players Theatre) and Coyote on a Fence (also at Burlington County Footlighters’ 2nd Stage). Mr. Uhry’s exploration of race, poverty and hate crimes is still relevant today. Even with this disturbing background, the playwright infused his script with a belief in the redemptive power of humanity. I didn’t leave the theatre asking myself deep philosophical questions like I usually do after an Alice Weber show.

I asked Ms. Weber why she chose to direct Driving Miss Daisy. She replied that, in addition to liking the play, she believed it would work very well in the intimate setting the 2nd Stage provided.

For those unfamiliar with Burlington County Footlighters’ 2nd Stage, the room’s seating capacity is about 30 people. While some companies employ the theatre in the round format, the 2nd Stage uses a theatre in a semi-circle approach. The chairs are arranged in an arc consisting of two rows in front of the stage. This set-up allows the audience to watch just a few feet from the action.

Ms. Weber’s assessment proved correct. Performers Phyllis Josephson, Rick Williams and John Weber worked this close setting wonderfully.

Phyllis Josephson celebrated her birthday this October 1st. Ms. Josephson gave the audience a gift through her performance as Daisy Werthan.

In 2015 Ms. Josephson played the lead role in David Lindsey-Abaire’s Kimberly Akimbo; a show also presented by Burlington County Footlighters’ 2nd Stage. In that production, Ms. Josephson convincingly acted the role of a teenager. For Driving Miss Daisy, she portrayed a bitter old woman with just as much realism.

Ms. Josephson executed every facet of the role to perfection. Her expressions captured the character’s inner thoughts, she maintained the accent of a Southern belle, and she showed the protagonist’s change with extraordinary skill. Ms. Josephson combined all three dazzlingly in the scene when she told her son about a missing can of sardines.

Real life anchorman Rick Williams proved he’s just as adept at making news as he is at reporting it. Mr. Williams delivered an outstanding interpretation of Hoke Coleburn.

Mr. Williams chose a very realistic accent for his character. His delivery complimented it. Both enhanced his comic timing. When asking Boolie (played by John Weber) for a raise, his cheery vocal inflection made the scene even wittier. The final line about it “feeling mighty good” to have two employers compete for his services had much more impact.

Mr. Williams’ mannerisms were among the best I’ve witnessed at a live performance. He deserves special credit for his slouching and squinting while behind the wheel. The large glasses he wore added comedic effect. His slower ambling and walking with a cane in the later scenes both appeared lifelike.

Ms. Josephson and Mr. Williams put on an acting clinic. They played the show’s dramatic scenes with the passion and poignancy the script demanded. Their portrayals during the ones where Miss Daisy taught Hoke to read, their reactions to the temple bombing and the pair’s trip to Alabama were spectacular.

Both actors clearly devoted a lot of time to preparing for this show. During the talk back session following the performance, Mr. Williams thanked his wife, Jocelyn Mitchell-Williams for her assistance when he rehearsed the role. As well as he portrayed Hoke, audiences should thank Ms. Mitchell-Williams, too.

John Weber played a terrific supporting role as Boolie Werthan. Mr. Weber served as an excellent straight man during his comedic scenes with Mr. Williams. He also captured the latent humor in Mr. Uhry’s dialog when interacting with Ms. Josephson.

Jim Frazer again treated audiences to his genius for set design. For Driving Miss Daisy, he somehow developed a way to position a portion of a car on the stage. I recalled the car he placed on the set of Footlighters’ 2015 production of Bonnie and Clyde. That vehicle entered and retracted from the center of the company’s much larger main stage. The car for Driving Miss Daisy set upon a rotating platform in the center of a small room. The headlights and gear shift even worked. Mr. Frazer continues to push the envelope for set design with every show he does.

The remainder of the production team included: Shelly Tibbets (Assistant Director), Lindsey Kilchesty (Stage Manager), Angel Ezell (Light and Sound) and Pat Frazer (Gloryboard Design).

Theatre fans will have limited opportunities to witness this masterpiece. The show runs through October 12th at Burlington County Footlighters’ 2nd Stage. Opening weekend sold out. Fans should purchase their tickets for next week ASAP.

South Jersey Community Theatre fans are also reminded that Alice Weber likes to direct thought provoking shows. Theatre aficionados who don’t take advantage of the opportunity to see this run of Driving Miss Daisy could very well end up the subjects of her next project.

Red Wrench at Burlington County Footlighters’ 2nd Stage

Playwright Tesia Nicoli received a unique birthday present from Burlington County Footlighters’ 2nd Stage. The company chose to present the opening night performance of this gifted playwright’s work on her actual birthday. Ms. Nicoli attended this show in-person. The audience felt like they’d received a present following this powerful performance of Red Wrench on April 5th.

This evening also featured a first for Burlington County Footlighters’s 2nd Stage. It marked the first time the group produced the work of a new playwright. They selected Ms. Nicoli’s Red Wrench for this inaugural endeavor.

Director Carla Ezell continued the tradition of bringing intense drama to the 2nd Stage. The playbill included the following tag line: Following a tragic car accident, a family struggles with their darkest secrets as their father’s life hangs in the balance. Ms. Nicoli’s website provided this summation: Once we know someone’s shocking secrets, can we still love them? The emotional turbulence in Red Wrench rivaled other works performed there.

Red Wrench told the story of a family drama. Harris family patriarch, Bill, (played by Lou DiPilla III) lay dying in the hospital following a car accident. Or was it? Speculation abounded that he intentionally collided with a tree. His son (Jonathan Edmonson), and daughters Casey (Lauren DiPilla) and Sofie (Kori Rife) gathered in the hospital waiting room. As they discussed their lives, past scandals, and family secrets bitterness came to the fore.

The resulting conflict made it seem the Harris family’s members contained more baggage than a Samsonite warehouse. The playwright offset this nicely by including unexpected sources of redemption in the forms of the eccentric stepmother Shannon Harris (Kathy Harmer) and people arriving in the visiting room from outside the Harris family: Daisy (Shay Fuller), Rosie (Stevie Neale) and Mikyla (Angel Ezell).

Ms. Nicoli provided an excellent setting for the actors to exhibit their craft. The hospital waiting room put characters that harbored deep grudges against each other in close proximity. They interrupted and spoke over one another. The behavior showed their latent animosities and lack of respect.

Lou DiPilla III delivered an impassioned performance as Bill Harris. He played an intense scene performing opposite the character’s son, Andy (Jonathan Edmonson). A discussion about Andy taking over the family business segued in Mr. Edmonson’s interjection of a family secret. The conversation became unsettling. Both performers captured the tension inherent in the moment.

Mr. DiPilla also played opposite his real life daughter, Lauren DiPilla. This dynamic carried over into the performance. Their most powerful scene together came as his character lay on his death bed. He revealed his guilt over a past action. The actors displayed the anxiety and the underlying hope in Ms. Nicoli’s dialog.

Jonathan Edmonson and Angel Ezell showed wonderful chemistry during their scenes working with one another. Mr. Edmonson played an unhappy, emotionally adrift adult while Ms. Ezell portrayed a teenage girl who collected unusual facts. This unusual pairing of characters led to one of the show’s pivotal moments. Both performers made for a memorable concretization of Mr. Edmonson’s character’s self-discovery.

Mr. Edmonson, Ms. DiPilla and Kori Rife impressed by playing the feuding siblings. They provided another one of the show’s impressive scenes. The rancor Mr. Edmonson and Ms. Rife exhibited in their performances made their exchange very realistic. Ms. DiPilla’s effort to serve as de facto referee added to the scene’s believability.

Kathy Harmer played the stepmother, Shannon Harris. Her interpretation of the eccentric free-spirit added levity to this intense drama. The playwright used the character to provide a moment of clarity for the Harris siblings later in the show. Ms. Harmer’s performance made the scene impactful.

Performers Shay Fuller, Patrice Cantrell Frazer, Stevie Neale and John Weber rounded out this extraordinary cast.

The incomparable Jim Frazer leant his stellar talents to this production. In addition to the scenic design, Mr. Frazer managed the lighting and sound. His use of the former for The Ether scenes created an unearthly ambiance throughout the theatre.

The opening night performance included a bonus for theatregoers. Following the show the company presented a “talk back” with the playwright, the director and the cast. Those in attendance were treated to insights on the writing of, rehearsal and final production of the show. Footlighters provided wine and cheese, as well. Another “talk back” is scheduled following the closing night performance on Saturday, April 13th.

An emotionally gripping story that at times became uncomfortable to watch, the theme of love ran through Red Wrench. Audiences who like their theatre to contain a lot of conflict moderated by the hope of redemption will love Red Wrench. These theatrical fans should give themselves either an early or belated birthday present by seeing it at Burlington County Footlighters’ 2nd Stage.

 

Coyote on a Fence at Burlington County Footlighters’ 2nd Stage

When I realized Alice Weber would be directing this show, I felt glad I stopped off for that extra cup of coffee before entering the theatre. Two years ago I attended a performance of Dr. Cook’s Garden which she directed at Bridge Players Theatre Company. I still lose sleep at night trying to wrap my mind around that one. To the delight of theatre fans, Ms. Walker brought her unique brand of high minded, thought-provoking drama to Burlington County Footlighters 2nd Stage. She selected the perfect vehicle in the form of Bruce Graham’s Coyote on a Fence.

The Cinnaminson venue continued its own tradition of intense drama, as well. I didn’t believe it possible for 2nd Stage to follow-up their October presentation of ‘night Mother with a show of comparable intensity. They sure found one; and they selected the prefect director to stage it. A haunting evening of theatre resulted. I attended the opening night performance on March 24, 2017.

Coyote on a Fence told an uncomfortable story to watch. Death Row inmate John Brennan (played by Robert Beaucheane) passed his time writing for and editing the prison newspaper The Death Row Advocate. His flattering obituaries of those executed by the State neglected to mention their crimes. This apotheosis of sociopaths gained the attention of New York Times reporter Sam Fried (played by John Weber). Upon receiving the journalist’s letter informing Brennan that he’d like to meet with and write a story about him, a new prisoner entered the next cell.

White supremacist, the loquacious Bobby Reyburn, (played by AJ Krier) occupied it. While feeling no remorse for his crime, he accepted his guilt and didn’t want to appeal or delay his execution. Ironically, he developed into the more gregarious of the two men. This conflicted with Brennan’s view that he, and all those preparing for execution, were merely “accused” and had a duty to appeal their sentences. An existential debate ensued between the educated writer and the slow minded bigot. It concerned making one’s peace with God and accepting responsibility for one’s actions. Their exchanges made for a heady 90 minutes.

The playwright didn’t reveal the nature of both men’s crimes until mid-way through the show. Not knowing what each had done kept me engaged and added a sense of mystique to the drama.

Ms. Weber made outstanding casting choices for the two lead roles. Mr. Beaucheane and AJ Krier played off each other extraordinarily well. These two thespians’ complimentary skills as a dramatic team could only be compared to the aptitude of Footlighters’ comedy legends Al Krier and Dan Brothers. (Both of whom I had the pleasure of encountering in the audience prior to the show.)

It’s difficult selecting the appropriate superlatives to describe AJ Krier’s performance. He infused a sense of boyish innocence into the character. That’s not an easy achievement when continually reciting the Aryan creed. While playing an ostensible psychopath, he still drew laughter from the audience when either delivering comedic lines or imitating a seal. The man has range. He added authenticity to his role by speaking in a Southern accent. In spite of delivering myriad lines that made the audience cringe, he still evoked sympathy through his enactment.

Robert Beaucheane shares Ms. Weber’s artistic tastes. He played the title character in Dr. Cook’s Garden. For this show, he accepted the role of another complex character. He credibly played a pretentious, pseudo-intellectual, death row inmate who wrote and edited a prison newspaper. It’s difficult to animate abstract concepts such as denial, but Mr. Beaucheane established the standard for doing so. He also managed to adjust from the psyche of an austere scholar to that of someone with anger issues. His approach to the character reflected the overall play: he got me thinking. As with the role of Dr. Cook, I struggled to understand the character’s true nature.

Regina Deavitt (another cast member from Dr. Cook’s Garden) and John Weber rounded out the ensemble. Ms. Deavitt (as prison guard Shawna DuChamps) evoked sympathy for those awaiting death sentences through her moving bar-room monologs. She brought such realism to these scenes I felt like I was having a beer with her.

Mr. Weber (as Sam Fried) took on the most difficult role in the play. As a father and writer who shared many of Brennan’s views, he needed to show how the two were similar but different. Through his mannerisms, speech inflections and rational thinking he proficiently balanced curiosity and irritation in his scenes opposite Mr. Beauchane. I even jumped when he threw his wallet. Still, he kept his anger controlled.

I did have a few issues with the script. It seemed far too cliché that the playwright made the unapologetic racist a Southerner. I found that too stereotypical; especially in a play that premiered in 1997.

I also thought the story took long in developing. That’s common with ‘serious’ character driven plots. I’d encourage audience members to hang in there through the first 20 minutes of exposition. The remainder of the play made it worthwhile.

In the playbill, Ms. Weber expressed the trenchant thought:

In vivid scenes, Coyote on a Fence explores the disturbing question: Can one be innocent though proven guilty? This penetrating new drama offers no clear verdict, just utterly compelling theatre.

I always appreciate this director’s intellectually provocative contributions to South Jersey Community Theatre. I leave her shows with a broader perspective on intricate questions. I’m sure other audience members do, too. Now, is there any chance Ms. Weber would consider making a career change and become a political analyst?