Mother and daughter go the distance in ’26 Miles’

By John Lyle Belden

Olivia is a precocious teenager living in the 1980s, when every car has a cassette player and, since the Internet is not a big thing yet, she expresses herself in a hand-made paper ‘zine. She is also a child of divorce, and of two worlds – her father a white carpenter, her mother a Cuban immigrant.

On a day she feels especially troubled – can’t reach her father, gets indifference from stepmother, and is constantly throwing up – Olivia calls the Mom she hasn’t talked to in years. Within an hour, Beatriz is there to pick her daughter up, but rather than drive to her home in nearby Philadelphia, she impulsively drives west. And keeps going.

This sets up the adventure of “26 Miles,” the coming-of-age drama now on stage at Fonseca Theatre Company. It was written by Quiara Alegria Hudes, co-writer of “In the Heights” (with Lin-Manuel Miranda) and Pulitzer winner for “Water by the Spoonful.” Hudes also adapted this play into the musical, “Miss You Like Hell,” which was presented by Fonseca just a couple of summers ago.

Whereas “Miss You…” tackles the issues of immigration and personal identity, in “26 Miles,” the focus is more on Olivia, a high school sophomore played endearingly by college sophomore Lily Weidenbach. She perfectly channels teen angst, without coming off whiny, and the naive optimism of youth. While barely realizing it, this one who embodies the “melting pot” puts herself on a very American visionquest, headed to the historic frontier in search of the embodiment of wild native spirit. But how and where will she belong when she returns to Pennsylvania?

Beatriz, played with maternal gusto by Lara Romero, is not as imperiled as her character in the musical, and, while impatient with others, a calm mentor to Olivia, awakening her to her full heritage.

Doug Powers has many roles, especially Olivia’s father, Aaron, a former free spirit who now obsesses over wood finishes and the perfect material for shingles. He’s a devoted, loving father, but struggles with being a Dad. Also in various characters is Ian Cruz, mainly as Beatriz’s beau in Philly, and a tamale seller the women meet on the highway (he played a similar role in the Fonseca production of “Miss You…” as well).

Directed by Fonseca Producing Director Jordan Flores Schwartz, the play makes use of the in-the-round set-up of the stage in the lot behind the Basile building at 2508 W. Michigan (west of downtown Indianapolis). Live performances, with distancing and other measures, run through June 27. Get tickets and info at fonsecatheatre.org.

IRT returns to ‘House that Jack Built’

By John Lyle Belden

The Indiana Repertory Theatre has done the most “IRT” thing it could have done, reviving (virtually) the play “The House That Jack Built,” by playwright-in-residence James Still, directed by the incomparable Janet Allen.

The performance, captured with the help of local public television station WFYI, is available to stream at your leisure through June 20 at irtlivevirtual.com.

“The House That Jack Built” is the start of a trilogy of three plays that can each stand alone, each with a distinctly different style. The character Jack almost literally haunts all three stories, a man of immense promise, beloved by friends and family, who disappeared in the destruction of the World Trade Center towers on 9/11. This tragedy affects his sister, driving her to her dangerous career in the second drama, “Miranda.” The quest to move on ironically brings Jack’s daughter and his mother to one of his favorite places, Italy, in the quirky third play, “Appoggiatura.” But now, we have again the first story, establishing this close and troubled family as they gather for Thanksgiving at Jack’s widow’s Vermont home in 2012.

English-born Jules (Jennifer Johansen) is striving to be a perfect hostess, and has a lot of support from boyfriend Eli (Aaron Kirby), close friend – and Jack’s sister – Lulu (Constance Macy) and her husband Ridge (David Shih), and Jack’s mother, Helen (Jan Lucas), who also lives in the area. Others were planning on attending, but foul weather and work issues prevent them (these appear in the other plays).

Indianapolis theatre audiences are familiar with these actors, especially Johansen, Macy and Lucas, and all bring their best effort to an excellent deep examination of these characters. We feel their love and experience their easy humor, with a treasure trove of memories into which they dare not dig too deep. But no matter what facet of the past they look into, Jack is there. This spiritual and psychological weight they have carried for over a decade raises the question: Does his spirit haunt them, or are they clinging to it, “haunting” him?

For any fans of Still’s work, (or if, like me, you missed this play the first time around) this is a must-see. And a wonderful way to conclude this unusual IRT season. Allen, the Margot Lacy Eccles Artistic Director, says a new – more traditionally staged – season for 2021-22 will soon be announced.

Even when history is changed, have we?

By John Lyle Belden

From time to time, we all consider what the world would be like if certain historical events didn’t happen – or if others did. These kinds of thought experiments take on a particular point of view in “Apologies to Lorraine Hansberry (You too, August Wilson),” by Rachel Lynett, presented live in the space behind Fonseca Theatre, directed by Jamaal McCray.

“This exists in the mind of every person of color,” says Lynett through a cast member. Welcome to Bronx Bay, an all-Black state created after the just-completed Second Civil War. We who are White, Latinx, etc., are granted a brief stay to see how the story before us plays out.

Alice (Chandra Lynch) is a struggling restauranteur – the problem being that since she is a quarter Asian, she’s attempting a “Korean fusion” eatery. Her husband Lorenzo (Chinyelu Mwaafrika) is supportive, though privately believes tofu has no place in gumbo. Their close friend Jules (Latrice Young) has a new partner, Yael (Aniqua Sha’Cole), recently approved to live in Bronx Bay. We also meet their freind Izaak (Josiah McCruiston).

Everyone on the stage looks like they belong there, but a stunning revelation threatens friendships, relationships and the tranquility of this new utopia. “People died to make these rules,” Alice reminds the others. But does that make what is happening right?

In the second act, we find ourselves in another imagining of Bronx Bay, a place for families like couples Alice and Jules, and Lorenzo and Izaak. So, how does Yael fit in?

The thesis statement of this absurd drama is literally written on the set pieces: “Blackness Iz Not A Monolith.” The “apologies” of the title allude to the tendency to see a playwright’s telling of a Black experience as “the” Black experience. The five persons we see before us are actually speaking Lynett’s words; so, being Black is the perspective of a young queer African-Latinx woman from California who lives in Arkansas?

To the credit of the writer, as well as McCray and the cast, rather than being confusing – even when going totally meta – this darkly comic journey is entertaining and thought-provoking. There’s even an alternative-history game show.

Scenic Designer Bernie Killian provides an interesting stage for an immersive “in the round” experience. Seating is properly spaced around the stage, however, there is no tent or awning so sunscreen and/or hats are recommended, especially during afternoon performances.

One weekend remains of this World Premiere production, May 28-30, at Fonseca Theatre, 2508 W. Michigan, west of downtown Indianapolis. Tickets and information at fonsecatheatre.org.

IRT drama of how stories are told, and remembered

By John Lyle Belden

The play “Mrs. Harrison,” by R. Eric Thomas, has nothing to do with either past U.S. President with Hoosier connections. What this two-person drama, presented online by Indiana Repertory Theatre, is about are issues we struggle with today, and the stories that connect us.

In a posh restroom at an elite university, two women meet. Aisha (Celeste M. Cooper) doesn’t seem to remember Holly (Mary Williamson), who definitely knows her – and not just because of Aisha’s very popular Off-Broadway play. As they converse, at first they seem to feel each other out, get a measure of what they had been doing in the decade since they were classmates in a playwriting course. Proud African-American Aisha’s writing is serious and issue-driven. Average-looking white woman Holly works in humor, from a few years spent in stand-up comedy to her present modest success as a storyteller. It’s her way of dealing with the issues in her life – all her issues, except one.

Thus do we arrive at the heart of the matter, revealing in both women feelings of betrayal and righteous anger.

The IRT promotes the play as a story of how we remember our pasts, but of course it goes much deeper than that. In the women’s tense exchange is the question of who has the rights to a memory, and the story it tells, especially when it points to a deeper truth.

Directed by Mikael Burke (who directed last year’s “The Watsons Go To Birmingham – 1963”), Chicago actors Cooper and Williamson make a stunning IRT debut. Aisha wears her supreme confidence like a shield, ever ready to go on the defensive, while using her intense need to know everything about others as a sort of disarming charm. Holly is no sheltered maiden, but still gives flashes of the naive student who too easily trusts. As for the woman of the play’s title, she seems to become present like an invisible third character – her story revealing much about the two women we see, perhaps more than they are aware.

Needless to say, there is a racial element at play. It is not explicitly spelled out, but rest assured it would have been a totally different show if both women were Black, or White – but that’s not the story we are presented. The social issues and assumptions underlying these characters and their relationships, and even the modification of a familiar fable that Aisha tells, are fertile seeds for audience discussion.

“The conversations you’ll have after the play are as important as the story you’re seeing on stage,” Thomas says in his program note. “To me, that’s one of the best parts of theatre.”

And with the show, recorded by WFYI Public Television, streaming at irtlivevirtual.com, you can have those talks in the comfort of your own living room.

“Mrs. Harrison” is available through May 30.

IRT’s ‘Cyrano’: The power of ‘words of love’

By John Lyle Belden

It is wonderful to see a well-staged production of a timeless story, but in five acts? Fortunately, the Indiana Repertory Theatre’s “Cyrano” uses the adaptation of Edmond Rostand’s “Cyrano de Bergerac” by Jo Roets, which slims the story down to its essence, an elegant economy of words that would impress the titular legendary French noble.

“Have him write to me,” Roxane (Melisa Pereyra, right) says to Cyrano de Bergerac (Ryan Artzberger) in the Indiana Repertory Theatre production of “Cyrano,” also starring Jeb Burris, viewable online through May 9 (Photo by Zach Rosing)

In fact, one of the original play’s most famous scenes – Act 1, Scene 1.IV, in which Cyrano cleverly comes up with every possible insult for his famously large nose – is related by the actors at the very beginning, to set the scene. That this is a man of incredible wit and passion, yet sensitive about his appearance, is foremost; that the story takes place in mid-1600s France is incidental.

Cyrano, leader of the noble Cadets that serve with the French Army, is renowned for his dueling prowess as well as his poetry, but while he can defend his heart from a blade, he aches for his cousin (distant in family, close in relationship) Roxane. As he considers confessing his love for her, she tells of her love for the handsome Christian, a new Cadet that she wishes Cyrano to take under his protection. This is not her only concern: The tedious Count de Guiche (Cyrano’s commander) wishes to marry Roxane himself.

While remembering his promise to not fillet Christian for mocking his schnozz, Cyrano hears the young man say that he, too, is in love with Roxane, but is at a loss with “words of love.” Thus comes the plan for the noble poet’s words in letters delivered in the handsome Cadet’s name. The plan is endangered, however, when she wishes to hear Christian woo her in person, resulting in likely the second most famous balcony scene in all of theatre.

Ryan Artzberger is Cyrano; the IRT regular slips into the role as he has done so many others, with all the heart-on-sleeve panache he can muster. Melisa Pereyra is also sharp as Roxane, strong-willed and clever, a heroine in her own right. Jeb Burris takes on nearly all other roles, notably Christian and de Guiche – nimbly transforming between the very different rivals, in voice and manner as well as costume, helping us to love the former and detest the latter.

Direction is handled by the IRT’s Margot Lacy Eccles Artistic Director – essentially, the boss – Janet Allen. Burris choreographed the swordplay. A simple but effective stage is designed by Russell Metheney, and costumes are by Linda Pisano.

Also notable is Cyrano’s prosthetic nose, by Becky Scott. It is imposing and hawkish, much like on the portrait of the historical figure on whom the play is based, and not an absurdly exaggerated ski-slope like one often sees.

With an approximately 90-minute run time, this exciting and endearing drama would be an excellent alternative to streaming an old movie (or most new ones). The play was recorded by WFYI Public Television and can be viewed at irtlivevirtual.com through May 9.

Past pain reflects present in IRT drama

By John Lyle Belden

The drama “No. 6,” presented by Indiana Repertory Theatre, is set in an early-21st-century American city where a white police officer has killed a black man, and violent responses to apparent injustice ensue.

Doesn’t narrow it down much, does it?

That’s the problem, and that’s why the IRT chose this play by T.J. Young, inspired by this repeating narrative, centered on the April 2001 riots in Cincinnati. A fully-produced stage performance, directed by Dwandra Nickole Lampkin, was captured by public television station WFYI and is available to stream at irtlive.com through April 4.

The steady progress of unrest has finally reached the storefront of the Anderson family’s laundry/cleaners, while proprietor Ella (Milicent Wright), with teen twins Felix (Jamaal McCray) and Felicia (LaKesha Lorene), shelter in the upstairs apartment. Felicia, who is on the autistic spectrum, dwells on her dinosaur obsession while Felix is out on the streets, scavenging for food from what past looters left behind. But he comes back with more than Spam – dragging in an unconscious white man.

Our mysterious houseguest (Michael Stewart Allen) has booze on his breath and a gun in his backpack, but as the others discover who he is, they find themselves in the very heart of the city’s issues.

Wright is a rock, as always, the mother-hen and conscience of this play. She has reasons behind her righteousness and shows real pain with her perspective that makes her feel genuine, not just a means to the drama’s message. McCray plays an emotional, impulsive idealist – like a teenager – but also reflecting the open spirit of his martyred father. Lorene gives a sensitive, endearing portrayal of an unconventional genius who has an uncanny grasp of the big picture at work here – big, as in global.

Allen hits all the emotional buttons as a man finding himself in a sort of Purgatory, never completely likable nor hateable. He is forced to deal with the perspective of those not like himself, while we must also acknowledge his. Still, what can one do when he is literally part of the problem?

“People across the globe take to streets and cry, ‘Never again!’” Young says in his program note. “And then it happens again. And again. And again.”

This play is important because it continues the much-needed conversation – but also see it because it is gripping drama with solid human performances, punctuated by sound (credit Matthew Tibbs) and light (Xavier Pierce) that makes the danger feel real and immediate, even in an otherwise comforting home (scene: Rob Koharchik). Support local professional theatre, and boot it up on the big screen.

IRT ‘Tuesdays’ provides lesson for any day

By John Lyle Belden

Morrie Schwartz wrote his own epitaph: “A Teacher to the Last.” But the lesson hasn’t ended; he’s still teaching us about life today.

The old college professor’s wisdom was captured by friend and former student Mitch Albom in his bestselling book, “Tuesdays With Morrie.” The stage play, adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher, is presented by Indiana Repertory Theatre through Feb. 21. The production, directed by Benjamin Hanna with Ryan Artzberger as Mitch and Henry Woronicz as Morrie, was recorded on the IRT mainstage earlier this month by local Public Television station WFYI for viewing online.

Mitch had treasured his time with Morrie at Brandeis University, taking every one of the old man’s Sociology classes. They inspired him to follow his dream of becoming a jazz pianist after college. But life has a way of killing one’s dreams, so Mitch turned to his other talent, writing, and became a successful sportswriter and columnist. He left Morrie’s gentle guidance in the past, embracing the hard-hitting world of chasing the next deadline.

Until the night he happened to watch an episode of “Nightline.”

Morrie’s life had changed as well. His spry energy – he loved to dance – was failing him, and it was discovered he had ALS (popularly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease) and, at most, months to live. His decision to confront dying head-on, ironically enriching his life, got the attention of local media, and eventually Ted Koppel.

Upon learning of Morrie’s condition, Mitch took a brief moment from his frantic schedule to pay him a visit. It was only going to be one Tuesday afternoon, but he eventually went back, and kept returning to Morrie’s Massachusetts home every week until the professor was gone. Ever the journalist, Mitch asked questions, which his mentor gladly answered, re-cementing a bond that not even death could break.

The script by Albom and Hatcher is loaded with refreshing drops of wisdom by Schwartz – a welcome relief from the spiritual drought of this last year – delivered with sincere joy by Woronicz, who also contemplated life’s final chapters in his previous IRT role in “Morning After Grace.” Artzberger, a familiar face to local audiences, also played Mitch at the IRT about a decade ago, and comfortably still fits Albom’s shoes.

Like real life (which this is based on), there are many sad and heart-touching moments, but there is also an abundance of humor natural to the exchange of quips between a wise teacher and the student who doesn’t realize he has so much to learn, or between two souls who truly love one another. The overall arc is uplifting, something we all need right now.

To take this master class in life, visit irtlive.com. A $30 virtual ticket gives access to those gathered around the screen, perhaps the IRT’s best value (though your friends should consider hitting that “donate” button).

Summit tells us a story

By John Lyle Belden

“Tell me a story.” 

Helen of Troy sits in a room at a mythical Egyptian hotel where all of time and technology is possible, but there’s still nothing but crap on TV. 

This is the setting of “Helen,” by Ellen McLaughlin, performed as a staged reading (limited movement and props, but scripts in hand) at the outdoor amphitheater on the campus of Marian University, presented by Summit Performance Indy. 

The touchstone of this comic drama is Euripides’ play of Helen, in which it is her doppelganger that goes to Troy with Paris (abduction? elopement? little of both? legends vary), launching the later-cited “thousand ships” and an epic war as King Meneleaus of Sparta seeks to fetch her back, while the “real” woman is exiled to Egypt to await her husband figuring things out and coming for her.

But as McLaughlin’s play makes clear, the real Helen is lost among various brave, frightened, virtuous, evil, wise, vapid, humble, and ambitious personae — every one so beautiful that you hate her, and also love her, with all your heart. She has launched a thousand stories, from antiquity, to Medieval fairy tales, to the perfect faces on your TV screen. While adding to the lore, the script is a deft synthesis of the legends that have gone before. 

Helen dares not leave her room, as the gods have ordered her to wait there, so she berates, cajoles and converses with “the Help,” a longsuffering maid, and is visited by a talking cow — the legendary Io — and later the haughty goddess Athena, before, at long last, her husband shows up. But he’s confused, and not that happy to see her.

All this is done beautifully by an excellent local cast (I don’t have names available to me, so won’t make errant guesses), who are familiar enough with the material to be “semi-book” and to move and emote naturally. The Allen Whitehill Clowes Amphitheater is a beautiful setting, with lawn seating (bring your own blanket or chair) that is close, but perfectly spaced by Summit staff (you get a “box” area to sit in, with boxes set about six feet apart). 

There is one performance left as this is posted, today (Aug. 29, bumped to Sunday, Aug. 30 if it rains). Tickets are $10 each, available online at SummitPerformanceIndy.com. Marian is located at 3200 Cold Spring Road on Indy’s west side.

Search for understanding takes author back to ‘Fun Home’

By John Lyle Belden

Before Alison Bechdel was a “test” — the means the graphic novelist proposed to check a popular work for how it treats women — she was a girl growing up in Pennsylvania in a home with perfect antiques and a perfectionist father who was a teacher and a funeral director, and she had feelings she didn’t understand. Later, when the girl discovered herself, she lost her father. The woman she has become now wants to understand why.

This is the Tony-winning musical “Fun Home,” based on Bechdel’s graphic novel, adapted by Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori, on stage at Footlite Musicals, directed by Maria Matters.

We meet the mature Alison (Kristin Cutler) looking back at her child self (Sadie Cohen) and her typical-but-unusual family: father Bruce (Tim Spradlin), mother Helen (Emily Gaddy), and brothers Christian (Lincoln Everitt) and John (Evan Cohen). The kids are so used to the funeral home (the “Fun Home” of the title) that they even compose a silly commercial jingle for it.

Only visible to Alison in hindsight, we find that Bruce was having secret gay affairs and Helen was under constant stress maintaining their perfect facade.

Alison goes to college (played by Elly Burke) where some library research and soul-searching lead her to realize she’s a lesbian. Fellow student Joan (Emma Socey) awakens all that that entails. After coming out to her parents, Alison makes a home visit for what turns out to be her final moments with Bruce. Helen has clued her in on his double-life, and she wants to understand better this thing they now have in common. But days later, he walks into the path of a truck — distracted, suicidal, or both?

Cast and crew do an excellent job with this powerful musical, on a set designed by Matters that places the orchestra, led by Ainsley Paton, visibly at the back of the stage. The three Alisons each acquit themselves well. Gaddy wears Helen’s pain like part of her costume. Spradlin effectively keeps Bruce a cypher, neither entirely good nor bad, while enticing us to look closer; Job Willman and Dustin Branum complete the cast as the young men in his life.

A wonderful and touching theatrical experience that is sure to be mentioned when local awards are given, performances run through March 22 at Footlite, 1847 N. Alabama St., near downtown Indy. Call 317-926-6630 or visit footlite.org.

FTC: ‘Cake’ a complex confection

By John Lyle Belden

Though every aspect of a thoroughly-planned wedding seems critical, the most important thing is still the people involved.

That is the approach playwright Bekah Brunstetter brought to “The Cake,” now presented by Fonseca Theatre Company, directed by founding staff member Jordan Flores Schwartz. In this “issue play” tackling recent conflicts of homophobia, religious freedom, and free commerce, while a bakery avoiding making a wedding cake for a same-sex marriage is at the center of the story, it is the people and their very human feelings that we explore.

Della (Jean Arnold) appears to have her life in order. Her shop, Della’s Sweets of Winston, N.C., is doing well and she has been selected for the “Big American Bake Off” television show. She is a stickler for following the directions, whether it be with a generations-old recipe or the centuries-old wisdom of the Bible. We meet her speaking on this to a young freelance writer, Macy (Chandra Lynch), who, while working on her next story, has an ulterior motive. This is revealed when Jen (Kyrsten Lyster) arrives. 

Jen grew up in this neighborhood and is friends with Della. She is also Macy’s fiance. After first insisting on making the wedding cake, before finding out it is for “two brides,” Della suddenly remembers how busy she will be around the wedding date and changes her mind. 

At this point you might expect characters to dig in their heels as they take sides, each individually convinced they’re right, and maybe even go to court. But the consequences are more nuanced. 

Della, who has known and loved Jen since babysitting her years ago, almost immediately feels regret over her decision. While her husband, hard-working plumber Tim (Adam O. Crowe), supports her on it, she finds herself haunted by the voice of the Big American Bake Off host George (Dwuan Watson) questioning her motives and methods. Also, she can’t help but notice the true love between Jen and Macy, a feeling she struggles to find between her and her dutiful but distant spouse.

Meanwhile, a rift forms between our engaged couple. Macy, a New Yorker, sees all she feared from the South coming true, and wants to strike back, or at least give up the fancy nuptials for a simple civil ceremony — elsewhere. Jen, on the other hand, is determined to have her dream wedding. It turns out you can take the lesbian out of North Carolina, but you can’t take North Carolina out of the lesbian.

As with all genuine stories, no matter how serious things get, some of it you just have to laugh at. There are plenty of comic moments in this play, especially when Della tries to rekindle her own jaded romance.

Arnold makes Della surprisingly sympathetic, given the spot events have put her in. Though playing a staunch conservative, Crowe gives Tim enough heart that we can see what she saw in him.

Lynch and Lyster make a good couple, as in their roles their yin and yang of protector and nurturer balance each other out. Still, neither woman is all hard or all soft. Is it enough to save the wedding? (And will there be cake?) You’ll just have to see to find out. 

Performances run through March 22 at FTC’s home, the Basile building at 2508 W. Michigan St., west of downtown Indy. Call 317-653-1519 or visit FonsecaTheatre.org.