Pain of decades-old loss lingers in McNally play

By John Lyle Belden

We are often reminded to “Never Forget” a devastating event or era, but those who went through it often can’t stop remembering. Every day, any little thing can bring up a memory of someone who was lost.

“Mothers and Sons” by Terrance McNally, presented by Main Street Productions in Westfield, has a cast of four actors, but there are five characters. Not present but very much felt is Andre, who died 20 years earlier during the AIDS epidemic. We are in the New York apartment, with a view of Central Park as lights come on during the longest night of the year, of Cal (Austin Uebelhor), who had been Andre’s partner and caregiver in his final days. To his mild surprise, he is visited by Andre’s mother, Katherine (Elizabeth Ruddell). Recently widowed, she arrived from Dallas (where Andre grew up) with plans to fly to Europe. Cal shares his home with husband Will (Nicholas Heskett) and their young son, Bud (Tyler Acquaviva).

We come to learn a lot about Cal, Will, Katherine, and Andre. Will chafes at the thought of competing with a ghost. Katherine still harbors resentments and denial – “Andre wasn’t gay when he went to New York.” Cal tries to keep the pain of the past in perspective even as it rises up to overwhelm him again.

“Who’s Andre?” Little Bud is chock full of questions, lots of questions.

This heartfelt play is a comedy, with lots of chuckles throughout, but there is pain that must be dealt with. Grief has no time limit or expiration; before the evening is done, so that Bud and his family can trim the Christmas tree, each adult will have their say.

Ruddell makes Katherine hard to love, but easy to understand. Heskett presents as a superficial millennial, but he emerges Will’s own sense of maturity. Acquaviva delivers the right level of charm. Uebelhor is superb as the man who has had to be a rock for so long, the cracks are undeniable.

Jim LaMonte directs, happy to present this play that he hopes “will broaden [people’s] definition of family.” For those of us who remember the 1980s and ‘90s, this show is also a loving tribute to the struggles so many endured – those who became names on a quilt, and those left behind to stitch them on.

Remaining performances are Thursday through Sunday, Nov. 17-20, at Basile Westfield Playhouse, 220 N. Union St. Get info and tickets at WestfieldPlayhouse.org.

Wacky ‘Idiots’ in Westfield

By John Lyle Belden

“Flaming Idiots” is not Shakespeare, but the Bard does get a shout-out. This farce by Tom Rooney, presented by Main Street Productions in Westfield through Sunday (April 10) is the kind of laugh-out-loud escapist fare that comes in handy in ever-troubled times. 

The cast features many kinds of fools: 

  • Phil (Ethan Romba) is really good at jumping into things and not thinking them through, while convinced he has a fool-proof plan. So he accepts a local mobster’s offer to take over a failing restaurant, though Phil knows next to nothing about the business (which is apparently more than enough, in his mind). 
  • Phil’s partner Carl (Austin Uebelhor) is the kind of general dunce who is randomly curious about everything and understands nothing. His one stroke of genius is creating the eatery’s signature cocktail, the Flaming Idiot (“One drink makes you silly,” he explains.) 
  • Local police Officer Task (Jeffrey Haber) has an IQ somewhere between that of his horse and his last donut (so, of course he’s studying to become Detective) but at least he’s friendly and helpful.
  • Eugene (Austin Hookfin) is a waiter and aspiring ACTOR! who is really invested in his method and eager for his chance to shine.
  • Ernesto Santiago (Chris Taylor), a busboy from the barrios of Norway(?), seems to have some sense about him, as well as a mysterious briefcase, though he does lose his cool when anyone mentions “laundry.”
  • Bernadette (Wendy Brown) is the most sensible of the bunch, and the best vegetarian chef in town, but also completely deaf from a recent accident. (Will this be exploited for comic misunderstandings? Note the word “farce” above.)
  • Jayne Fryman (Ashley Engstrom) seems to do everything for the hometown newspaper – advertising, food critic, crime beat – which, having been a small-paper writer myself, I find the most believable character. However, she is plagued with a “wardrobe malfunction” that is the cause of a lot of cheeky laughs.
  • The play’s plot includes the idea to fake a mob murder to give Phil’s Restaurant the buzz of noteriety; enter Louie (Eric Bowman), the past-his-prime hitman who needs a diagram to make sure he goes through the correct door.
  • Aside from Bernadette, the smartest character by far is a random Body that, when shaved, somehow resembles a famous stage producer. He gives a truly moving performance (in a wheeled office chair).

Actually, it takes a lot of smarts to make an “idiotic” performance funny, and this crew delivers a MENSA-level effort under the genius direction of Brian Nichols. And for an all-ages show, you end up seeing a lot of underwear!

It’s all in good fun, at the Basile Westfield Playhouse, 220 N. Union St. Get information and tickets at WestfieldPlayhouse.org.

CCP: Trial drama revisits USS Indianapolis tragedy

By John Lyle Belden

The story of the USS Indianapolis, a World War II heavy cruiser sunk by a Japanese submarine after delivering essential parts of the first atomic bomb, is well known to Hoosiers. But less known is the fact that the ship’s captain, Charles McVay III, was court-martialed afterward – the only U.S. commander to ever face charges for losing a vessel in wartime.

This is portrayed in the drama “The Failure to Zig-Zag,” presented by Carmel Community Players. The title is also one of the charges against McVay – a violation of the practice of constantly changing course in good weather to avoid being targeted. The play by John B. Ferzacca (which premiered at Indiana Repertory Theatre in 1981) examines the trial, as well as the events that led up to it. It combines courtroom drama with flashbacks to the ship and the survivors’ ordeal, lending elements of horror.

Director Susan Rardin brings this powerful story back to central Indiana with a cast of varying experience, including military veterans, but all dedicated to bringing an important part of history to life. They even got to perform scenes for the annual USS Indianapolis survivors’ reunion.

Tim Latimer portrays McVay with constant unshakable dignity, mingled with disbelief that the Navy to which he had devoted his entire life would so crudely abuse him. Powerful performances run through the entire cast, including Kevin Caraher as Cpt. James Harcourt, the defense counsel; Ron May as Cpt. Dwight Effis, the prosecutor; Robert Fimreite as Rear Adm. David Wall, tasked with keeping the Navy’s reputation spotless; Jeremy Teipen as Lewis Greene, a reporter and grieving father; Brad Staggs as Lt. Cmdr. Alan Brett, the USS Indianapolis Executive Officer; and especially Ron Gotanco as Commander Mochitsura Hashimoto (another unprecedented element of the trial was testimony by the enemy). Other roles, including ship’s crew, were played by Kirk Donlan, Drew Hunter, Hank Kratky, Tyler Marx, Nolan Karwoski, Rich Phipps, Pavel Polochanin, Jeremy Ried, Austin Uebelhor and Joe Wagner.

Wendy and I had an opportunity to read the script over a year ago, and this is one of the plays we had most anticipated. It’s hard to describe the impact of seeing this unfold in front of and around you, all based on actual events, tragedy compounded by travesty – but with the spirit of a survivor throughout.

The term “must-see” gets thrown around a lot (even by us) but this play definitely qualifies. Performances are Thursday through Sunday, July 25-28, at the Cat, 254 Veterans Way in downtown Carmel. Tickets are selling fast (Thursday is already sold out) at www.carmelplayers.org.