Phoenix ‘Fudge’ sweet and salty

By John Lyle Belden

2020 seemed to ruin everything, and in “The Rise and Fall of Holly Fudge” at the Phoenix Theatre, it’s messing with Christmas as well.

Carol (Milicent Wright) lives for the Yuletide, and her holiday Holly Fudge (named after her daughter, as well as its festive décor) has been the Number One Blue Ribbon winner in town for eight years. Friend and neighbor Chris (Emily Ristine), a fitness trainer who now Zumba’s over Zoom, has taken an interest during the year’s shutdown in making confections herself. They look forward to Holly (Terra Mcfarland) coming home from Seattle for the holiday, and learn she is bringing her new love interest, Jordan (Jaddy Ciucci).

This play by Trista Baldwin is not just a new twist on a holiday story, but on the “coming out” play as well, as, while Carol is accepting of Holly choosing to go from a past with boyfriends to living with a woman, it throws the Gen-X mom that rather than tagging herself a lesbian, Holly opts for “queer.” As events progress, the LGBTQ issue becomes trivial as more typical intergenerational strife comes to the fore.

Carol just wishes things could be as they were, for at least one more Christmas – the fact that the noise on the street outside isn’t carolers but Black Lives Matter protesters doesn’t help.

This sophisticated comedy, in a style much like cable shows or situations in “Modern Family,” brings a lot of laughs even as tensions build to the breaking point – which occurs in a fitting, hilariously dramatic (dramatically hilarious?) fashion. Director Daniella Wheelock said this play resonates with her, especially when going from her home in Chicago to relatives in Connecticut. Mcfarland and Ciucci both commented after opening night that it reflected their own memories of holiday homecomings and letting folks know their true selves.

Mcfarland makes an impressive debut in her first professional-level role. She admitted there was some pressure in having not only a lead but also the title character, but noted she learned a lot working with theatrical veterans, especially Wright. On stage, any nerves were channeled through her apprehensive character, a woman finding herself judged against the girl her mother wanted her to be, wanting to be seen for the person she is becoming and respected for her work as a journalist.

Ciucci and Ristine both nimbly play characters who mean well yet happen to say or do the right thing to make it feel wrong for Carol. As for Wright, typically playing the rock of an ensemble, this time she masterfully portrays a soul adrift, working to get her bearings on something familiar in a very unusual time.

Everyone join in: “Fa-la-la-la-la, No Justice, No Peace!” Performances run through Dec. 23 at the Phoenix Theatre Cultural Center, 705 N. Illinois St., downtown Indianapolis. Get info and tickets at phoenixtheatre.org.

Mothers know best in Epilogue comedy

By Wendy Carson

Parents – we all have them; we all love them; they all give us both good and bad advice; and they all drive us crazy. This is the basic premise of Katherine DiSavino’s “Things My Mother Taught Me,” presented by Epilogue Players.

Young Olivia (Erynne Sutton) and her long-time boyfriend Gabe (Ethen Romba) are in the process of moving in together. However, the new chair they picked out together is stuck in the doorway, which also alludes to how they are still stuck under their parents’ careful scrutiny, even after moving halfway across the country.

Since Gabe is a mama’s boy, he, naturally but to Olivia’s surprise, invites his parents to come help with the move. Lydia (Serita Borgeas) is the classic definition of a “Smother,” and her husband Wyatt (Tom Meador) is easy-going and totally oblivious to her overzealous nature. Once they arrive, Lydia takes over everything and poor Olivia is overwhelmed.

Things go even more haywire when Olivia’s parents Karen (Karen K. Temple) and Carter (R.C. Thorne) arrive as well. Add to this their moving van being stolen and the crazy antics of their building manager, Max (Stephen E. Foxworthy) and you can see how the laughs just keep on coming in this delightful farce.

Sutton gives Olivia a tender hopefulness that everything will eventually work out for everyone while Romba keeps Gabe at wits end trying to keep all of his plans together, no matter who spoils them.

Borgeas shows the caring side of Lydia that is often overlooked due to her commandeering ways while Meador shows Wyatt is more interested in finding a fix to a situation that the repercussions his actions might have. Temple brings Karen’s fears of her child repeating her own mistakes to the forefront of her own neurosis while Thorne brings so much light-hearted sweetness to his role as Carter.

Director Brent Wooldridge keeps the laughs coming, while allowing the solid parental advice within the script to be heard.

Learning can be fun – at least when you’re in the audience. Take a lesson at Epilogue, “Hedback Corner” at 1849 N. Alabama, Indianapolis, through Sunday, Sept. 25. Get information and reserve tickets at epilogueplayers.com.

New ‘Oak Island’ musical a treasure

By John Lyle Belden

At last, “Oak Island: A New Musical” by Marian University alums Joe Barsanti (music) and Brandi Underwood (book and director) has its world premiere on the Basile stage at the Indyfringe Theatre. The show’s music was introduced in concert during the 2021 IndyFringe Festival, and this is its first full staging, produced by American Lives Theatre.

Oak Island is an actual place, located near Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. It has been the subject of stories and legends since at least the 1700s, as well as a recent nine-episode reality TV series. Like many islands from the Maritimes to the Caribbean, it is rumored to be the location of buried treasure (a top candidate for whose is pirate Capt. Kidd; more fanciful legends cite the Knights Templar, among others). For generations, repeated expeditions found old coins and mysterious objects. But time and again, when it seems a definitive answer is within reach, seawater floods in and the shaft collapses. Professional treasure hunters make plans to solve the mystery (and beat the “curse”) to this day.

But this musical is not about the treasure hunt; it focuses on the hunters, and one family in particular.

Frank (John B. Hayes) let this obsession take over his entire life, sharing the search with his son Will (Joseph Massingale) while his wife Grace (Carrie Neal) and other son Drake (Zach Hoover) stayed behind in the States. But now the father has died, leaving his sons to consider their legacy.

Andrew Horras and Tommy McConnell play Will and Drake, respectively, as young boys in flashback and memory, competing with the lure of distant gold for their father’s affection. In one of the best scenes, “Nothing You and I Can’t Do,” we see the adult brothers remember an impromptu backyard treasure hunt their father prepared for them, as their younger selves race about following the clues. Each came away with a different perspective on and lessons from the event, reflected in the bitter friction between them now.

Wendy noted that another song, “Miles Between Us,” sounds like something you’d hear on the radio.

Other roles are played by Maggie Lengerich, Jack Lockrem, Kerrington Shorter, and Dan Flahive, who portrays friendly Oak Islander Paul as well as rival treasure hunter Eugene, who offers to buy Frank’s claim from the sons.

The musical shows a lot of promise, with the creators always open to feedback. It manages to dwell on loss without becoming too maudlin, and creates an interesting conflict not only with two sons having very different experiences with their father – the more estranged struggling with the lost opportunity to reconcile – but also with the siren song of obsession. Is there an obligation to make their father’s sacrifices worthwhile? Does the next generation carry on the search, knowing what it could cost?

Massingale and Hoover, who sang their roles in the Fringe concert, comfortably embody the siblings, even with their roiling mix of emotions that include equal parts love and resentment. Hayes gives us a no-nonsense father (ironic when considering the eccentricity of his mission) while Neal’s Grace lives up to the name, understanding and accommodating to a fault. All four personalities are quick to point out selfishness in the others, while blind to their own.

We have an excellent opportunity with this show to be able to say you saw it before it potentially goes on to bigger stages. Performances run through Sunday at 719 E. St. Clair, off Mass Ave. in downtown Indianapolis. For information and tickets, visit americanlivestheatre.org or indyfringe.org.

IndyFringe: Driving Kenneth and Betsy Ross

This is part of IndyFringe 2021, Aug. 19-Sept. 5 (individual performance times vary) in downtown Indianapolis. Details and tickets at IndyFringe.org.

By John Lyle Belden

To say that Kenneth is stuck in his ways would be an understatement. A true Southerner, he won’t even travel north of the Mason-Dixon line, because the wrong side won The War. Fortunately for this lifelong Virginian, his new great-grandson is down in Atlanta, and his Liberal son Colin has agreed to drive him and his wife Betsy Ross down for a visit. Hopefully there will be a casino on the way.

Set in 2010, “Driving Kenneth and Betsy Ross,” by frequent Fringe contributor Garret Mathews (directed by wife Mary Anne Mathews), is based on his relationship with his own parents. 

Colin (Thom Johnson) is not looking forward to this road trip, and Kenneth (David Mosedale) isn’t making it any easier. It doesn’t help that Colin’s job is writing books on the Civil Rights era, or as his father puts it, “about the Negroes.” They bicker, as sweet Betsy Ross (Wendy Brown) tries to smooth things between them. When he can speak alone with her, Colin asks why she is so accommodating when she doesn’t believe everything he does; she brushes this off, citing her traditional wifely duty, but eventually on this long road, she’ll find her voice. 

Like many whites of his generation, Kenneth is more passively than actively racist, blind to his lack of perspective. Mosedale plays him with a steadfast curmudgeonly conviction that never rises to anger with a touch of humor to make him likable (or at least lets you see how son and wife could love him). Brown plays Betsy with natural ease. Johnson (who has ably taken the narrator role in plays such as “Drowsy Chaperone”) is our window into their world, and we feel Colin’s struggle to make connections with elderly kin he might not see again.

I must also note the craftsmanship of the main prop, a very solid-looking front half of an automobile crafted by Tom Harrison.

There’s quite a few laughs, some familial and conversational tension, and a lot of heart in this sentimental journey. So pack your “change-a-roonies” and beef jerky, and head on over to the Murat Oasis for this show.  

Not an easy road for family in IRT drama

By John Lyle Belden

It’s a story many can relate to: A family takes a road-trip to another state to visit a grandparent, in part to give the teenage son a chance, away from neighborhood distractions, to think about where his life is going. Little sister tattles when one brother pokes another. Younger brother has his favorite song played over and over and over. So, it’s a family comedy, right?

“The Watsons Go to Birmingham — 1963” (based on the book by Christopher Paul Curtis, adapted by Cheryl L. West) adds a more serious context: an African-American family’s journey into the Jim Crow South.

At the Indiana Repertory Theatre through March 1 (effectively throughout Black History Month), parents Daniel and Wilona (Bryant Bentley and Tiffany Gilliam) travel with misbehaving teen Byron (Brian Wilson), five-year-old daughter Joey (Dalia Yoder), and nine-year-old Kenny (Xavier Adams) — through whose eyes we see the story — from their home in Flint, Michigan, to Birmingham, Alabama, and the home of Grandma Sands (Milicent Wright). 

Though the family is fictional, the world they live in was all too real, and not that long ago. The Watsons carry the Green Book, a reference of places safe for black travelers to stop. They dare not go to just any gas station or motel — like a white family — and the idea of just driving until you are tired is foolhardy and dangerous, as the Watsons discover. Even the police, who should be there to protect them, are potential predators. At Grandma’s house they are safe, but they know venturing out at all carries risk. Still, nothing has prepared them for when one of the most tragic incidents of the Civil Rights Era rocks the family to its core.

Bentley plays a dad who is likeable and practical, and a little stubborn; for him, family is everything. Gilliam’s Wilona clings to her better memories of the Alabama she grew up in, her one blind spot for a mom otherwise prudent and cautious. The three youths excellently act “their age,” the boys showing some growth as the events affect them. Yoder’s Joey stays perpetually innocent, always charmingly standing up for whichever sibling is in trouble at the moment. Wright, a familiar face on IRT stages, is a welcome presence, effortlessly commanding. The cast also includes Grayson Molin in two starkly contrasting roles — as Buphead, Byron’s white best friend; and later as an unfriendly native Alabamian. 

Directed by Mikael Burke, with excellent visual effects by Reuben Lucas, the play is a study of contrasts, especially between the familial humor of the road trip and the moments of horror. Current events add the irony that Flint, a struggling, literally toxic place now, was in the ‘60s a thriving city and comforting home base for the Watsons. But they return there changed, and Kenny nearly broken. Find out how, why — and experience the terror of the “Wool-Pooh.”

“The Watsons Go to Birmingham” in one movie-length act on the IRT Upperstage, 140 W. Washington (near Circle Centre) in downtown Indianapolis. Call 317-635-5252 or visit irtlive.com

IndyFringe: The Day Penny Drowned

This show is part of the 15th Annual Indianapolis Theatre Fringe Festival, a/k/a IndyFringe, Aug. 15-25, 2019 on Mass Ave downtown. Info, etc., at www.IndyFringe.org.

By Wendy Carson

A successful playwright, Penny should be on the top of the world. She and Brad are on their way to a romantic getaway to celebrate the success of her Broadway show. However, her family proceeds to force their way into her plans, and she is soon overwhelmed by their presence — as well as their drama.

Ed Faunce is delightful as Brad, Penny’s devoted husband. He does an excellent job of showing us that he will do anything to protect his wife, yet still makes mistakes along the way.

Bridget Schlebecker’s portrayal of Judy, Penny’s overbearingly self-centered sister, gives us some of the much-needed comic relief in the piece. Her character is a force of nature, sweeping in and ensconcing everyone in her own personal drama without a care for anyone else’s feelings, leaving a swath of confused exhaustion in her wake.

Jonathan ‘JB’ Scoble gives a subtle performance as Jeremiah, Judy’s slacker son who has absolutely no clue about anything but eating and getting high.

Kate Hillman does an amazing job with the character of Francis, Penny’s neglectful mom who has just been released from the Fishkill Federal Prison. She brings out all of the redneck trashiness of the character while also sprinkling in some very sharp verbal abuse towards her “neglectful” daughter.

Rounding out the cast is Nancy Picket as Penny. She manages to show us the devotion the character has for all those around her to the detriment of her own self. However, she becomes so overwhelmed by it, she jumps into the lake just to get away from it all.

Can she find a balance between all of the forces demanding her time and energy? Will her family just give her a day or two alone to regain herself and sanity? Is she in over her head and if so, will she sink or swim?

Find out for yourself.

A play by local author Elizabeth Young-Collins, Remaining performances are today and Saturday (Aug. 22&24) at the District Theater (former TOTS location), 627 Massachusetts Ave.

Challenges of modern farm life in Still’s ‘Amber Waves’ at IRT

By John Lyle Belden

The story of the Olson family of rural Indiana is like that of many farmers across America, which is part of what makes “Amber Waves” by James Still such an important play.

Mr. Still, the playwright-in-residence at the Indiana Repertory Theatre, where this drama plays on the upperstage through April 28, took inspiration from his own upbringing on a Kansas farm, which his family has since lost.

The Olsons face the very real danger of losing what generations of kin had built, even as they witness an old friend’s farm, and its family’s possessions, going up for auction. Mike (Torsten Hillhouse), the only one of the “Olson boys” to stay on the farm, tries to only think of what chores and repairs must be done in the coming days, to keep the faith that it will be enough, and to search the skies for long-overdue rain.

Mike’s wife, Penny (Mary Bacon), is totally devoted both to her husband and their vocation. She largely succeeds in staying positive, even as unpaid bills pile up, but teenage son Scott (William Brosnahan) and 12-year-old daughter Deb (Jordan Pecar) become increasingly aware that something’s wrong.

Much of the story involves Deb’s point of view. She works for elderly neighbor Johnny Apple (Charles Dumas), who always seems to find more odd jobs for her to do, giving her a few more much-needed dollars. Her situation also strains her relationship with best friend, Julie (Riley Iaria), from a more wealthy family. Meanwhile, life goes on, with the County Fair, school activities, the Homecoming game — normal aspects of country living.

The atmosphere is made complete with music and songs by Tim Grimm and Jason Wilber, performed onstage by Grimm and Rachel Eddy.

First performed in 2000, the play has been updated, including tech references, but the core story is as current now as it was then. There is even a mention of recent tariffs affecting crop prices. It tugs at the heartstrings in a genuine manner, as we see a family experience what feels like a lifetime in a single year.

Directed by Lisa Rothe, the performances feel natural, like these actors truly are family, or that Hillhouse really stepped off a tractor before coming onstage. Bacon is outstanding as a mother finding the multiple roles of a farm wife almost overwhelming, but persevering through willpower and love.

The simple wooden stage set and old latch-handle refrigerator at the back suggest a timeless, well-worn comfortable setting (kudos to scenic designer Narelle Sissons). Lighting designer Mary Louise Geiger makes clever use of glass-jar lighting. Grimm grounds this production with his music, singing and connection to the original production; Eddy provides a perfect compliment, an Appalachian virtuoso of various string instruments, and a beautiful voice.

The IRT is located at 140 W. Washington St. in downtown Indy, near Circle Centre. Call 317-635-5252 or visit irtlive.com.

BCP: Life’s changes not always a laughing matter

By John Lyle Belden

The title “Making God Laugh,” for the comic drama now on stage at Buck Creek Players, refers to the old joke about giving the Almighty a giggle by telling Him your plans.

And this good Catholic family’s matriarch, Ruthie (Gloria Bray), definitely has plans. With postal-worker husband Bill (Tom Riddle) at her side, she wants to see: son Rick (Matt Spurlock) succeed at something, any scheme at all, other than high school football MVP; son Tom (Ben Jones) become a priest, maybe Monsignor (maybe the Vatican?); and daughter Maddie (Jenni White) to get being an actor out of her system so she can settle down with a nice young man.

The scenes are set at various holidays: Thanksgiving 1980, Christmas 1990, New Years Eve 2000, and an unusual and emotional “Easter” in 2010. We see the evolution of these characters, and what remains unchanging. From the life-changing choices made by Maddie and Tom, to Ruthie staying ever set in her ways and expectations, at the core of this family story is love. There is also the struggle for acceptance, both of others and of self, giving the plot surprising depth.

This cast wear their roles like the comfortable clothes one wears around kin. Bray is a rock; Jones gives one of his best performances; and White excels as a person that she admits felt a bit autobiographical. Cathy Cutshall directs.

For those of us who lived through the eras, the references to each decade bring a knowing smile. (There is also a mention of the game Catholic Jeopardy — which apparently does exist, as a box of it is under the coffee table.) At the end of each scene, there is a family photo, leading to a full album in the end.

You don’t have to be Catholic to appreciate this family’s struggles – we all know a Ruthie we’re related to. And God isn’t the only one laughing. Performances run through Sunday, April 7, at Buck Creek Playhouse, 11150 Southeastern Ave. (Acton Road exit off I-74). Call 317-862-2270 or visit www.buckcreekplayers.com.

P.S.: As an example of the fact that anything can happen in live theatre, during a scene change on opening night there was a spontaneous audience sing-along. The BCP crew were both surprised and amused.

BCP presents truly off-kilter comedy

By Wendy Carson

It’s said that you can never go home again. After seeing the comedy “37 Postcards,” on stage now at Buck Creek Players, you might think twice about even trying.

Avery Sutton has spent the last eight years traveling throughout Europe. Now he’s decided to return home with his new fiancé. He tries to warn her that his family is a bit odd, however, just how crazy things have gotten in his absence will throw them both for a loop.

The house itself is tilted; his dead Grandmother is very much alive; nobody’s fed his dog for 5 years; and his father has become golf-obsessed. Add to this his Aunt’s new “Cottage Industry” and Mother’s spotty memory, not to mention those mysterious 37 postcards, and you have the makings for one hilarious tale.

Under the direction of Jan Jamison, who also designed the wonderful tilted stage set, this production revels in the whimsy throughout Michael McKeever’s script and gives us a thoroughly enjoyable show.

I’m sure none of you are familiar with the story, but it may become a favorite once you have watched it all play out. We sort of described it as “Arsenic and Old Lace” without all of the murdering.

Dave Hoffman perfectly portrays Avery, a man who is struggling to figure out what is going on around him and desperately trying to keep sane while doing so. As we discover why he had left home eight years before, he discovers that his relatives had been escaping each in their own way as well.

Mary McNelis does a wonderful job portraying Avery’s confused mother, Evelyn; though her selective memory mimics a sort of early dementia, her portrayal never mocks the condition. Wendy Brown is hysterical as the foul-mouthed and still very much alive Nana. Tracy Brunner begins as the picture of sanity in this confusion as Aunt Ester, then quickly shows her own wild side. Mike Harold gives a heartfelt performance as Avery’s father, Stanford, who avoids his own uncomfortable secret.

Between being mistaken by the maid by Evelyn, constantly insulted by Nana , and forced to golf all night by Stanford (not to mention what Aunt Ester says to her), Letitia Clemons gets to show her range of exasperation as Avery’s finance, Gillian.

Last, but not least, is the exceptional debut of a fresh talent in Lucy Telpin’s layered take on Skippy. One note, she can be a bit of a Diva so don’t expect a meet-and-greet with her after the show.

Performances are 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday at the Buck Creek Playhouse, 11150 Southeastern Ave., near the Acton Road exit off I-74 southeast of Indy. Call 317-862-2270 or visit www.buckcreekplayers.com.

I would also like to point out that this show has been rated PG-13. There are a few harsh words and innuendo (plus one term most parents will not be eager to define to younger children). So, you might want to consider leaving the little ones at home, but bring the teens and the rest of the family out for a great look at what family really is and how crazy it can make you.

TOTS: Bitter arguments in a ‘City of Conversation’

By John Lyle Belden

In today’s political climate, many wonder how and when America became so polarized, with right and left (Republican and Democrat) in separate camps, each fiercely partisan and bitter. In the days of a more traditional Washington “establishment,” was it truly both sides talking to each other, or merely D.C. elites talking among themselves?

These questions and their accompanying history are played out with members of one Washington family in the drama, “The City of Conversation,” playing through April 29 at Theatre on the Square, 627 Mass. Ave. in downtown Indy.

In the late 1970s, a country in recovery from Vietnam and Watergate is being led by a Georgia peanut farmer with few friends in the D.C. Establishment. And Colin Ferris (Carey Shea) returns home from college in London, bringing his fiance, Anna Fitzgerald (Emily Bohn), to the Georgetown home of his mother, Hester (Nan Macy), and Aunt Jean (Forba Shepherd). A longtime liberal firebrand, Hester shares her bed with Virginia Senator Chandler Harris (Doug Powers), and the evening includes a dinner with fellow Sen. George Mallonee (David Mosedale) and his wife Carolyn (Anna Lee).

The ulterior motive of the gathering (and there always is in Georgetown dinners) is for the senators to discuss aiding Teddy Kennedy in his efforts to take the 1980 Democratic nomination and restore the glory days of liberalism to Washington.

But Anna, an economics student from Minnesota, gives her outsider view that the growing support for California Republican Ronald Reagan should be taken seriously – to Hester’s horror, Colin agrees.

A decade later, Colin and Anna are working for GOP officials, but their son, Ethan (Max Gallagher), is getting a different political point of view from his grandmother and great-aunt. As the hard-fought battle over the nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court wages downtown, in Georgetown, Anna demands that Hester no longer have contact with Ethan, forcing Colin to choose sides.

The last scene takes place on the day of Pres. Obama’s inauguration, when adult Ethan (Shea) brings his partner, Donald (Bradley Lowe), to meet his grandmother.

This play is a conversation of its own, a conversation with us with our 2017 point of view, and a conversation starter to be sure. Macy is glorious, like a more-grounded Auntie Mame – well-versed in what she understands, but blind to what she doesn’t. Shea ably plays the complexity of being the kind of young person whose means of rebellion against his parents is to become more conservative, even while refusing to cut his long hair. Bohn’s Anna is very much like Hester in that she has to be always certain and in control of her world, which sets up their inevitable clash. Powers’ smooth voice and manner makes him well suited to playing the kind of politician used to compromise in a world where that is starting to become difficult.

The intimate feeling of the family living room setting is completed by inhabiting the intimate TOTS Second Stage. This also means seating is limited, so contact 317-685-8687 or visit www.tots.org.