I saw Keith Huff’s “A Steady Rain” in February of 2013, at ICT’s Theatre on the Edge, a black box housed in a deceptively humble strip mall in the boondocks of the DFW Metroplex. Or at least it felt that way. Two actors played Chicago cops Denny (Scott Nixon) and Joey (Shane Beeson) : friends who are close as brothers, who endure the excruciating demands put on homicide detectives in the City of Big Shoulders. Denny and Joey deliver alternating monologues, describing the raw, punishing beat they must face together, every day. On their days off, they spend time together, visiting each other’s homes, personal boundaries between them beginning to blur. Considering the grueling nature of their jobs, it is not difficult to understand why Joey begins to crumble from the inside. Denny can navigate the constant assault, without letting poison get the better of him. Huff takes careful steps to clarify, this has nothing to do with backbone or character, one is simply luckier than the other. A Steady Rain was beyond catastrophic, far worse than heart-breaking. Joey and Denny gradually drag us into their shadowy, horrific, devastating experiences and the effect is overwhelming. Brutal. Flawless, merciless theatre.
Also set in Chicago, “Superior Donuts” may be one of Tracy Letts more accessible plays. It’s a fairly straightforward narrative, exploring the cruelties of the world without asking us to consider some of the ugliness to be found in say: Killer Joe or August : Osage County. I saw it in February of 2014 at the Greater Lewisville Community Theatre. Gruff and reticent donut shop owner Arthur Pryzbyszewski (Steve Schreur) wrestles with demons from the days he fled the draft, during the Vietnam war. Now he’s just trying to make an honest living, running a business in a sketchy part of town, dealing with vandalism, robbery and organized crime. Fortuitously, Franco Wicks (J.R. Bradford) an exuberant, African American young man shows up with big ideas to help Arthur make palpable success. Wicks simply shimmers with sweet, genuine charisma, and not only that, he’s working on the Great American Novel. When Franco runs into trouble with local loan sharks, Arthur’s ethical and spiritual marrow is sorely tested. Letts could have easily turned “Superior Donuts” into a kitschy, cloying fable, in which redemption is earned without real loss or bloodshed. But it’s just the gritty, quirky, enervating details that makes the story work. It’s effective because it has streetcred and audacity.
In September of 2014, Dallas Pride Performing Arts Festival (through Uptown Players) staged Jane Shepherd’s “Commencing.” Through miscommunication and whimsical fortune Kelli (Susan Riley) and Arlin (Angela Allen) wind up on a blind date, Kelli assuming Arlin’s a man, Arlin believing Kelli’s lesbian, like herself. With this premise, you might predict a lot of hi-jinks and zaniness would ensue. Now there is some of that, and the banter is first-rate. But what we don’t see coming is the incisive, fearless, intelligent turn the dialogue between them takes. Shepherd takes the dangerous step of working in a fair amount of feminist rhetoric, but surprisingly, it feels pointed and appropriate, never didactic or overbearing. Arlin and Kelli actually open up to one another, and the process feels natural, glistening with wit and humanity.
In May of 2015, The Greater Lewisville Community Theatre produced “The Understudy” supposedly a comedy of errors in which the paths of Jake (Ben Phillips) Harry (Shane Strawbridge) and Roxanne (Jennifer Stoneking) intersect, with catastrophic results. Jake is a Hollywood action film star, Harry is a struggling Broadway thespian, and Roxanne is the stage manager who’s there to run lines for the sake of the new understudy (Jake). What follows is an exploration of intense resentment, career politics and the pain of profound disappointment. Playwright Theresa Rebeck does exploit the comic possibilities : Harry views Jake as a celebrity philistine, Jake sees Harry as a bohemian poseur, and (is if all that weren’t enough) Roxanne hasn’t seen Jake since he canceled their wedding and dropped off the grid, without having the decency to face her. What makes The Understudy so bracing and unforgettable is Rebeck’s seamless transition from comedy to unexpected drama, revealing her character’s most vulnerable moments. Those times when aching and confusion push them dangerously close to despair.
I was fortunate enough to meet Ashley White at a Christmas party, not long after seeing her in a glorious production of “Into the Woods.” At the time I had no idea she was also a director. What has caught my attention in the shows under her direction is the consistently high quality and brilliance of her touch. They are never quite what we expect, and she takes on difficult, disturbing pieces that demand courage and confidence on the part of the director. Whenever I have seen a show that Ms. White directed, I was overwhelmed, captivated, consumed, and always deeply, deeply, moved. Her skills in navigating emotionally-charged, risky, fresh material seem intuitive, razor-sharp and far beyond mere competence. Time and again she stands in the midst of a deluge, poised to trap those dangerous lightning bolts in a bottle. She summons the elements for the sake of our enlightenment and humanity. If you hold your theatre experiences sacred and are constantly looking for your next raucous rush, she is the one you should never miss. Ahley H. White has courage to spare.