Observe a witness to history at the IRT

By John Lyle Belden

An exceptional treat for theatre fans and history buffs, the James Still masterpiece, “Looking Over the President’s Shoulder,” has returned to the Indiana Repertory Theatre through May 6.

Aspiring opera singer – and proud native of Lyles Station, Indiana – Alonzo Fields took one of the few jobs available to a black man in Boston in the 1920s: a household servant. Then a chance encounter with First Lady Lou Henry Hoover leads to a position at the White House, where he ascends to Chief Butler. As he says in the play, Fields planned to only work through the winter before returning from Washington to Boston and his music – “That ‘winter’ lasted 21 years.”

David Alan Anderson transforms fully into Fields, recounting his career to us as he waits for the bus after his last day at the White House. Through him – and Still’s researched work, based in part on Fields’ memoir – we gain an insight into the lives and personalities of four presidents and their wives, as well as visiting British prime minister Winston Churchill.

The political scene is largely beside the point, though the racist policies of of the era can’t be ignored. Fields remembers encountering segregated facilities, and reflects on President Harry Truman’s orders to integrate the military. Serving through the end of Herbert Hoover’s term and 12 years of Franklin D. Roosevelt gave him a unique perspective on the White House during the Great Depression, as well as World War II.

The most striking thing about the narrative is the focus on the presidents and their families, their humanity and the way they conducted themselves in public and private. In this context, the Executive Mansion becomes a fully fleshed-out character as well. Adding to the context of history we may already know, we gain a deeper understanding of the Hoovers, the Roosevelts, the Trumans, and the Eisenhowers. And, in turn, we get the measure of this man before us, our unassuming hero, as well as the hard-working staff who invisibly keep the White House running smoothly, allowing our leaders to do their jobs as best they can.

The IRT is at 140 W. Washington St. in downtown Indy, next to Circle Centre. For information and tickets, call 317-635-5252 or visit www.irtlive.com.

Satisfy your ‘Curious’ity at IRT

By Wendy Carson

Christopher John Francis Boone is 15, a mathematical genius but he finds all social and physical interactions to be terrifying. This is because Christopher is autistic. He lives alone with his father, who told Christopher that his mother died of a heart attack two years ago.

His great love of animals causes him to go out one night to visit the neighbor’s poodle, Wellington, only to find it murdered. Since he’s found kneeling with the dog, he is initially accused of its death. When the policeman tries to calm him down, the touch causes Christopher to lash out and be arrested. The misunderstanding is cleared up, but he is left with a warning on his permanent record.

Discovering that others think the murder of a dog is too irrelevant to be investigated, Christopher decides, against his father’s strong wishes, to do so himself. This results in him having to talk to his neighbors, who to him are strangers, but he is determined to overcome his fears and solve this mystery.

While he does eventually find out the murderer’s identity, the journey to that information has him discover a huge family secret and embark on a journey that tests his resolve and the very limits of his abilities, challenging his autistic limitations.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” opening the 2017-18 season at Indiana Repertory Theatre, is based on Mark Haddon’s critically-acclaimed 2003 novel of the same name. It won the 2015 Tony for Best Play. However, due to the novel being written in first-person and the production of it needing to have the various characters fleshed out and enacted, many technical alterations were made to bring the tale to the stage.

Shiobhan (played by Elizabeth Ledo), one of Christopher’s teachers, reads much of his inner dialogue from a notebook. He has written the story there in hopes of turning it into a book once it has concluded.

Much of the cast morphs from one character to another while also voicing the self-doubts and thoughts of Christopher. The medium of stage allows for non-linear and abstract elements required to tell the story, and even briefly goes “meta” with the cast discussing the play as themselves with Christopher.

This production includes IRT’s landmark casting of Mickey Rowe as Christopher, making him the first American actor with autism in the role. Familiar faces Robert Neal and Constance Macy portray his father and mother.

The entire cast, which also includes David Alan Anderson, Margaret Daly, Mehry Eslaminia, Eric Parks, Gail Rastorfer and Landon G. Woodson, do an impeccable job, true to the standards of an IRT performance.

Thought-provoking and surprisingly relatable, this drama brings you on an unusual journey through a unique mind, as well as through the English countryside and heart of London. And when you go, be sure to stay after the curtain call for a unique, and highly entertaining, mathematical encore.

No dogs were actually harmed in the making of this play, which runs through Oct. 14. Find the IRT at 140 W. Washington St. downtown or online at irtlive.com.

Boy overcomes inner blindness in IRT’s ‘The Cay’

By John Lyle Belden

It is interesting when a theatre, for its show during Black History Month, stages a production that gets us to think about race in a bigger context than the typical American struggle of black/white. Such is the case with “The Cay,” on the upperstage of the Indiana Repertory Theatre through Feb. 26.

Adapted from the Theodore Taylor novel by Gayle Cornelison, and directed by Richard J. Roberts, the two-person drama is told from the perspective of a white boy, Phillip (Dalyn Stewart), who has the adventure of a lifetime. It is 1942, and living in the Caribbean, he sees World War II as an exciting novelty. As the island of Curacao is home to a Royal Dutch Shell oil refinery, German U-boats lurk nearby. This fact goes from fascinating to frightening when one sinks the ship taking Phillip home to America.

The boy is pulled onto a makeshift raft by an old black man, Timothy (David Alan Anderson). Being from the Virgin Islands, he knows how to survive on the open sea, and later, upon the small island (the “Cay” of the title) where the raft is carried by the tides.

But their survival is complicated by two factors: Phillip being blind to his own white privilege and spoiled state, and being literally blinded by a head injury. Even without physical sight, he “sees” Timothy as “Black” as a cultural state of being, something fundamentally different than himself. Over time, Phillip’s inner vision is corrected as the old man teaches him lessons in self-reliance he will need in the coming tests.

Anderson is brilliant as always in his role, and Stewart is a revelation as he more than keeps up with his costar. A lot is put on his shoulders, being narrator as well as one of a two-person cast, and Stewart handles it with Tom-Sawyeresque charisma. (Or Huck Finn, if you wish, given the obvious plot comparisons.)

The other “star” of this production is Stew, the cook’s cat on Phillip and Timothy’s ill-fated ship, which ended up on the raft with them and as a companion on the island. Rather than wrangle a real housecat (with its own diva demands), scenic designer Eric Barker molded some common kitchen items into a metal cat which the actors move around as needed – sound designer and composer Matthew Tibbs provides violin-string “meows” when appropriate.

After the opening night performance, Roberts and Barker said the cat design inspired them to make other aspects of the set, including the towering palm trees and the fish the characters catch, constructed of the metal flotsam and jetsam of life that wash up on distant shores. The result is a strangely beautiful stage and unifying visual theme that fits the story perfectly.

Find the IRT downtown at 140 W. Washington St.; call 317-635-5252 or visit www.irtlive.com.

John L. Belden is also Associate Editor and A&E editor of The Eagle (formerly The Word), the Indianapolis-based Midwest LGBTQ news source.