Summit: Feel the love of ‘Mary Jane’

By John Lyle Belden

“Mary Jane,” as the name of both central character and the play presented by Summit Performance Indianapolis, refers not to a quasi-legal substance but to an American everywoman – dealing with one of the worst nightmares a mother could face.

In the drama by acclaimed playwright Amy Herzog (staged Off-Broadway in 2017), Mary Jane – played with bold optimism by Bridget Haight – is the primary caretaker for Alex, a nearly three-year-old boy with cerebral palsy and other conditions likely caused by a brain-bleed during premature birth.

Presented on the intimate confines of the Basile Stage at the Phoenix Theatre, the play is presented without intermission (as intended) but its scenes present the narrative in two acts: In the first, we are in Mary Jane’s apartment, which includes various medical equipment (much of it unseen behind Alex’s door) and a visiting nurse (Nathalie Cruz). In the second, we are in a hospital which becomes for Mary Jane a sort of home – her son still being cared for just off-stage.

The “third act” is the audience’s ride home, reflecting on what they have seen, heard and felt. Yes, it’s that kind of play. Expect no easy answers, or an ending that brings triumph or catharsis. This is a reflection of real struggles, how we find the strength to confront them, and the search for understanding among others in a similar situation, as well as through faith.

Cruz plays a doctor in the latter half; others in the cast take on dual roles as well. Mara Lisabeth Malloy twice plays a mother with a special-needs child – first a new mom receiving an avalanche of advice from Mary Jane on how to cope; later a Jewish mother of seven who, having faith and family for support, takes the mentor role. Kelsey Johnson is a young woman wanting to help but out of her depth, first as a visitor, charmed by the little boy then overwhelmed by the reality of the situation; later as a musical therapist shaken into not becoming yet another part of Mary Jane’s problems. Jan Lucas bookends the story, at first as a helpful apartment Super, and later as a serenely savvy Buddhist nun.

The play is directed by Summit founding artistic director Lauren Briggeman, who – like Herzog – has some understanding of being a caregiver. It’s easy to see the devotion she and all involved had in giving their production genuine heart – including many moments of appropriately uplifting or soothing humor. Haight plays Mary Jane with great strength, even in passing moments when the facade cracks. Castmates all exhibit empathy so convincingly it seems there truly is a sickly toddler residing on the corner of the set.

If you go to theatre for “the feels,” or are open to, I encourage you to visit “Mary Jane,” with performances through Aug. 18 at the Phoenix, 705 N. Illinois in downtown Indianapolis. Call 317-635-7529 or visit www.summitperformanceindy.com.

DivaFest: Bittersweet ‘Tomato’

This is part of the 2019 Diva Fest, presented by IndyFringe at 719 E. St. Clair St., Indianapolis, through April 21. All shows are by women playwrights, presented as one-hour one-acts at a Fringe price. For information and tickets, see www.indyfringe.org.

By John Lyle Belden

In “I Say Tomato, You Say Cheese,” by MaryAnne Mathews, Tom Harrison is superbly charming as Joe Carpenter, an 85-year-old man living alone — aside from the spirit of his recently-passed wife, Annie (Wendy Brown) — as best he can.

Joe’s daughter Sarah (Laura Baltz) is getting concerned, as he tends to forget and lose track of things, and keeps getting into accidents while driving. The doctor (Stefanie Patterson) confirms that his cognitive abilities are indeed on the decline.

It doesn’t help the situation that there are constantly scammers out to take advantage of the elderly. The voice of the “IRS agent” on the phone Joe can deal with, with great humor. But the fast-talking roofing contractor (Joe Maratea) is a different matter.

Mathews’ gentle drama is an interesting look at this serious situation with characters we can relate to, or even feel we’re related to. The title refers to a family story melding the old song with the meal of tomato soup and toasted cheese — like this play, comfort food for the soul.

Remaining performances are 8:15 p.m. Friday and 3:30 p.m. Saturday (April 19-20).

Phoenix: Unforgettable encounter with ‘Don’

By John Lyle Belden

Underlining the drama of “Halftime With Don,” a new play at the Phoenix Theatre, is the proposition – likely a fact – that America’s favorite sport is killing its players.

While Don Devers (an awesome performance by Bill Simmons) is fictional, the NFL heroes he mentions whose lives ended violently, often by suicide, were very real. Years after retiring from 10 seasons of pro football as a star defensive tackle, enduring, in his words, “a thousand car crashes a season,” Don’s body is in ruin with his brain succumbing to Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. Caused by long-term repeated head impacts, CTE symptoms include dementia, mood swings and violent impulses. It has been found, in autopsy, in numerous football players and other athletes.

About a week before the Super Bowl, devoted fan Ed Ryan (Michael Hosp) visits his idol in a meeting arranged by Don’s estranged daughter, Stephanie (Lauren Briggeman), and Ed’s wife, Sarah (Chelsea Anderson). Both women happen to be pregnant, with Stephanie due to deliver any day.

However, Ed finds that his hero, barely able to stand without a walker, spends all day in a reclining chair, a dozen pill bottles by his side, surrounded by what appears to be an endless supply of products he might have endorsed in his playing days – cans of Pringles chips and bottles of Gatorade. Don’s lifelong habit of writing Post-It notes (originally for motivation and inspiration) is now his lifeline, with little reminders of daily facts and random thoughts all around him. But when Don finds a note he wrote saying, “He’s the One,” he opens up to Ed, and in his moments of lucidity he knows how this young man will help him.

Hosp’s natural ability to play an aw-shucks type character suits him well here, while imbuing Ed with surprising depth. He finds himself in a situation befitting a madcap comedy, but with serious consequences, and nails the performance. Briggeman and Anderson are outstanding as well, with stormy Stephanie and sunny Sarah’s growing relationship a vital subplot.

We’ve come to expect brilliance from Simmons, and he does not disappoint. When Don is in pain, we feel it; when he innocently looks at a friend like they have never met, you fight the urge to speak up and remind him. Even when the focus is not on him, his presence is felt. Were this a Broadway stage, a Tony would be in order.

Written by Ken Weitzman, “Halftime With Don” is a National New Play Network “Rolling World Premiere,” meaning more than one NNPN theatre will produce it, each lending the drama different stylistic touches. Phoenix producer/director Bryan Fonseca, with set designer Daniel Uhde, made use of the open space of the theatre’s downstairs area, placing two small stages – one, Don’s living room; the other, Stephanie’s home – on opposite corners with an open path between. This helps focus the action with smooth transition between scenes, as well as close audience seating for an immersive experience.

A story that’s about far more than football and the man who played it, “Halftime With Don” runs through Feb. 4 at 749 N. Park Ave. (corner of Park and St. Clair, near Mass. Ave.) in downtown Indy. Call 317-635-7529 or visit www.PhoenixTheatre.org.

The lighter side of a heavy topic

By Wendy Carson*

Kate Huffman hates her body. I hate my body. In fact, all of the women (and many of the men) reading this hate their bodies. We are taught to do so from the moment we are able to understand the concept of beauty and acceptance. Our society’s definition of female beauty is unattainable, unhealthy and potentially deadly.

“I’m Too Fat For This Show” is a large step in one woman’s journey to come to terms with her OCD, control issues, eating disorder and general neurosis.

She presents both her struggle and unusual outlook by opening with scenes from the video for “No Rain” by Blind Melon (a band, like Huffman, with Indiana roots).

Growing up as a chubby dancing girl, she was often compared to the little “Bee Girl” at the center of the video’s storyline. While she put on a brave face and tried to shake off all of the teasing about her weight, it was a grade-school field trip to Eli Lilly that changed her fate.

She learned about nutrition and how much fat she was actually putting in her body. She vowed to change her habits and began to lose weight. This lead to praise, which reinforced her drive and once her mom introduced her to the concept of counting calories, her fate was sealed.

Her days are filled with logs of calorie intakes, exercise reps, and more data that she and her eating disorder (introduced as her “Best Friend”) use to process her OCD and control her world.

Her Bestie even pops up on the video screen (played by Huffman) to encourage her to “hit her numbers” and remind her she is the only entity that truly cares about her.

This show is a comedy – and quite funny – but obviously also quite dark. It doesn’t hold back on language, or the facts of dealing with multiple disorders and conditions, mental and physical. To give us a perspective on what living with her issues would be like, she plays a scene as her long-time ex-boyfriend. In fact, her talents as an actress and improv performer are on excellent display in the various characters she puts on, including some half-and-half costume work.

Some praise is also due to her director Scout Durwood, and videographers Kenneth and Mariana Lui, for their parts in putting the pieces of this otherwise one-person show together.

It’s a cruel irony that Huffman is actually quite slender, and beautiful, yet only she (and the cruel standards of Hollywood, an issue she also addresses) sees herself as “fat.” But that is the nature of the disorder she and far too many others live with: Irrational impulses are irrational.

Kate Huffman bravely entertains us by sharing her pain, allowing us to admit that, in some ways, we all feel it too.

“I’m Too Fat for this Show” might still have some tickets left for Sunday, Dec. 10, at the IndyFringe Indy Eleven Theatre – see www.indyfringe.org – before she takes the show to Ireland the next week, then to New England stages. See www.KateHuffman.com for more information on the show and future performances.

*(John also contributed to this review. Considering the personal nature of the show, there was a lot of discussion and collaboration, but this is mostly me.)

IndyFringe: ‘The Pink Hulk’

By John Lyle Belden

(Yes, I know the 2017 Fringe Festival is over, but the shows move on to points elsewhere, and sometimes return for limited engagements at the IndyFringe theatre building. And if you have been referred here by a link or blurb — welcome! — read on:)

After beating cancer, Valerie David felt heroic. When cancer returned years later, she had to be superheroic.

But she was angry at having to endure chemotherapy again, and at the changes that  treatment would make to her life and her body, especially after exposure to radioactive rays, so her comic-book persona was clear — David (not-Banner) is The (Pink) Hulk!

Being a lymphoma survivor (as Valerie was, in her first found with cancer), I was glad to see that this narrative was about more than breast cancer. However, the fact that the second time was in the breast added a new dimension to her struggle.

The disease not only threatened her life, but how she felt about herself as a woman. Could anyone truly love her or be intimate with her after the disease had taken its toll?

Valerie relates the story of her journey and eventual triumph with frankness and humor — two of the best weapons one can muster against cancer. And most inspiring, she takes on the disease on her own terms: For instance, if she must lose her hair, she sets the date for it to be shorn off and invites her friends to make it a party.

That frankness — about both the disease and the sex life it’s potentially ruining — also makes this a show for mature audiences. But for anyone teenage and up, especially those who know first- or second-hand the difficulties of dealing with cancer, this hero’s journey is equal parts inspirational and fun.

Find The Pink Hulk’s adventures here.

IndyFringe: ‘Free the TaTas’

By Wendy Carson and John L. Belden

Even though it sometimes seems the whole world is pink, we still must understand that awareness of breast cancer — and all cancers — includes knowing that it affects real people, including those you know (or even yourself).

Set in an atypical breast survivors support group, this show touches on how various people deal with cancer in their lives. These women are trying to overcome their grief and be upbeat, but it is no easy task.

Miss Bettye (Sandy Lomax), the octogenarian leader of the group, is outright hateful, dismissive and rude to everyone, yet you sense she feels for them. While she insists on honesty in dealing with disease, she hides the fact they could soon lose their meeting place.

The members of the group range from a starry-eyed dreamer (T. Studdard), an overworked cleaner (Tamara E’lan G.), and a desperate woman just trying anything to get by (Georgeanna Anthony). The women are trying to support each other, but Bettye keeps them at each other’s throats more often than not.

Enter into this group the indomitable presence that it Bass (China Doll), so named because her fishing-obsessed husband thinks she’s his best catch of all time. Bass tries to get everyone back on track but is met with resentment and venom at every turn. Meanwhile, she masks her own pain with humor.

Can these women turn their personal drama into a loving and supportive environment?

As they open up their journals to share with each other (and us), the true beauty of this piece is revealed. Much of the play’s content is in fact based on actual people and events. Taken as a whole, this is a hot mess that transforms into a heart blessing.

At the end, there is a short talkback session for the audience and actors to discuss their own personal journeys.

Remaining performances are Saturday night and Sunday afternoon, Aug. 26-27, at the Firefighter’s Hall, corner of Mass. Ave. and St. Clair.

Festival info: www.indyfringe.org.