‘Big Day’ for little guy at Phoenix

By John Lyle Belden

Phoenix Theatre’s holiday tradition continues with “Winston’s Big Day: A Very Phoenix Xmas 14.”

(Note the originator of the series, Bryan Fonseca, also has a holiday variety show at the new Fonseca Theatre Company, but think of them not so much as competitors as companion pieces — each with its own nice yet mildly naughty take on the winter holidays.)

The Phoenix production works on a theme developed by director Chelsea Anderson over the course of the year. It’s Christmas Eve, and elf Winston (Dave Pelsue) — who had been planning to leave the North Pole to pursue a music career, with Rudolph (Ramon Hutchins) as his manager — is tapped to be co-pilot of the Sleigh. But Santa is missing! That means it’s up to the reluctant elf and his bright-nosed companion to make the deliveries and save Christmas. 

During the night, Winston looks in on several scenes, performed by the cast of Nathalie Cruz, Andrea Heiden, Jan Lucas, Pearl Scott, John Vessels, and Justin Sears-Watson. Scenes and songs are by a diverse lot including Anderson, Pelsue, Paige Scott, J. Julian Christopher, Jen Blackmer, Riti Sachdeva, Zach Neiditch, and Phoenix playwright-in-residence Tom Horan.

There is an abundance of wonderful performances, including Lucas and Heiden as ghosts of Charles Dickens; Vessels at his manic best; and dancer Sears-Watson’s smooth moves, as well as showing his singing and acting chops. 

Perhaps one of the best scenes, showing off all the talents on hand, is Blackmer’s “The Twelve Theatrical Genres of the Totally Non-Denominational, Absolutely Inclusive Holidays…” This gentle jab at both political correctness and community theatre, when its reach goes way beyond its grasp, results in a hilarious holiday scene so “inclusive” it hardly appeals to anyone: The Misguided Mechanicals present something like, “Stella and the Zombie Cats of Thebes” (that’s my best-guess title for it; you’re welcome, Chelsea). 

And, of course, there’s Pelsue and Hutchens, doing a great job of tying this whole silly and sweet mess together, as they struggle to rush through their duties, hoping to make their stage time at Fa-La-La-La-La-Palooza. 

Also impressive is Zac Hunter’s stage design, including a turntable with pop-up-book effects, and frequent clever use of the trapdoors.

Yet another holiday tradition to add to your schedule, performances run through Dec. 22 at the Phoenix Theatre, 705 N. Illinois, downtown Indy. Call 317-635-7529 or visit phoenixtheatre.org.

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.

IRT revisits the radical notion of doing what makes you happy

By John Lyle Belden

As for the appropriateness of bringing out the classic comedy, “You Can’t Take it With You,” I’m tempted to say “in times like these” – but really, there will always be distress and drama around us, thus it is always a good time to see this funny, heartfelt show.

So here we are, with the Indiana Repertory Theatre giving us its finely crafted production. While the Great Depression continues outside their beautiful house, “Grandpa” Martin Vanderhof (Robert Elliott) and his brood are feeling quite fine, thank you.

Penelope Sycamore (Millicent Wright) taps away at a typewriter that was accidentally left at their doorstep years ago, while her husband Paul (James Leaming) works on innovating large-display fireworks in the basement with Mr. DePinna (Ansley Valentine), a delivery man who never got around to leaving. Daughter Essie (Mehry Eslaminia) pursues ballet dancing, without quite catching it, under Russian ex-pat Boris Kolenkhov (Joey Collins), with her husband Ed (Carlos Medina Maldonado) accompanying on xylophone while printing whatever phrase sounds clever on his little press. Maid Rheba (Brianna Milan) happily prepares whatever meals the family’s whims dictate, from corn flakes to canned salmon, while wooed by handsome Donald (Adam Tran) who is helpful, but no too much as he’s “on relief.” Speaking of romance, the Sycamores’ other daughter, Alice (Janyce Caraballo), is about to marry her boss, Tony Kirby (Aaron Kirby, coincidentally), but she frets at the prospect of his parents (David Lively and Carmen Roman) meeting her not-quite-“normal” family. And on an evening when everyone is just being themselves, joined by friend and tipsy actress Gay Wellington (Molly Garner), they do.

In addition, we get visits from characters played by Scott Greenwell, Michael Hosp and Zachariah Stonerock, as well Jan Lucas as the Archduchess Olga.

For the unfamiliar, I can’t help but describe this play as “The Addams Family,” but without the creepy aspects – partly because the recent Addams Broadway show borrowed a lot of the same plot points. At the core of it all is the notion that there shouldn’t be something wrong or embarrassing with doing what feels right, along with the gentle lesson that one needn’t be doing what makes them miserable, either.

All performances are spot on and appropriately hilarious. It would be a crime not to have someone as talented as Wright in the lead, and her being in an interracial couple in the 1930s only underlines the exceptionally open and accepting nature of the central family. Also, Maldonado gets to show off his musical side.

Being the IRT, the whole look and feel is perfect, including scenic designer Linda Buchanan’s busy-yet-orderly set decoration. Peter Amster directs.

Do something that makes you happy – like check out this show. Performances are through May 19 on the IRT mainstage at 140 W. Washington St. in downtown Indianapolis (near Circle Centre). Call 317-635-5252 or visit irtlive.com.

Even the bitterest fruit can revive sweet memories

By Wendy Carson

The term “comfort food” exists for a reason. Some of our happiest and most vivid memories consist of the scent and taste of a dish that exudes love and safety. Therefore, even though the apples are not as sweet and fresh in the dead of winter, a home-baked pie can still transform a dank prison cell into the warm, inviting kitchen of one’s childhood.

This is the crux of Jennifer Fawcett’s new play, “Apples in Winter,” at the Phoenix Theatre.

Miriam arrives in a prison kitchen to bake the apple pie that is her condemned son’s last request, under the watchful eye of the guards. The audience bears witness to her efforts and the story of how she came to be in this situation.

Her story is all too common: A loving mother does the best she can to raise her child well. However, due to forces beyond her control (or were they?), he turns down a darker path. Was she too naïve to realize what was happening or to prevent his escalation? That you can decide on your own, you are merely here to listen to her tale. Judgement has already been made and is what has brought us all to this place and time.

Jan Lucas gives a poignantly heart-wrenching performance as Miriam. She deftly brings forth the loving memories of her radiant child but never pulls the punches on the troubled soul he evolved into. She perfectly turns the wretched situation into a confession of love, guilt, and sorrow, without overwhelming the audience with bitterness.

Now, a few words about that pie. During this show, Lucas actually prepares and bakes an apple pie, from scratch, in front of the audience. At the end, a lucky audience member wins it in a charity raffle to bring it home for their own consumption. Tickets are sold before the performance, which has no intermission.

John and I happened to win the pie on the night we attended (winter weather limited the audience, helping our odds, and it was truly a random drawing – yes, John paid for his ticket). So, to share our bounty, I feel that a short review of the pie is appropriate: First, it is beautifully made with a lattice-style top. The crust was lighter and crisper than I’ve had before (more like a cookie), and my favorite part. Though the apples used were not the best quality (as per the script, and it being January), they were perfectly spiced and brought forth a nice flavor. I suggest serving it with a scoop of a quality vanilla ice cream to fully enjoy the experience.

All in all, this show is a moving tribute to a mother’s love and determination to persevere throughout whatever challenges she must face. Performances continue through Jan. 27 at the Phoenix, 705 N. Illinois St.; call 317-635-7529 or visit phoenixtheatre.org.

Phoenix: A dream for better women’s lives coming true

By John Lyle Belden

OK, a feminist, a Jew and a Catholic walk into a play…

This is no joke.

In “The Pill,” a drama by Tom Horan in its world premiere run at the new Phoenix Theatre, five women play all the roles – male and female – in the story of the development of the first oral contraceptive.

In the 1950s, Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger (Constance Macy) and former suffragette Katherine McCormick (Jan Lucas) discuss the need to find an “off switch” to pregnancy, something biological that can be taken like an aspirin. Society (mostly men) tells them that such an interference with nature is not possible and not needed. Not accepting either notion, Sanger persuades Dr. Gregory Pincus (Adrianne Villareal) to work on developing a birth-control pill. Once the drug proves effective in animals, these three talk to Dr. John Rock (Jen Johansen) – over Sanger’s objections due to his Catholicism – for help in conducting human trials.

Meanwhile, Sanger receives letters from Sadie Sachs (Jenni White), a young woman who hoped for a career as a nurse, but instead goes through multiple births and miscarriages as her husband insists she continue her “wifely duties.” She is literally dying to get the “secret” that Sanger’s associates are working on.

Directed by Bill Simmons, the play is performed in the round, in the intimate space of the Phoenix’s new black-box Basile Stage (the first production performed there). There is a dreamlike aspect to the flow of the scenes and minimal furniture, with a bit of whimsy and situational humor tempered by Sanger’s hard-edged persistence and Sadie’s heartbreaking visits. It’s a factual fantasia, full of feminine energy. Each scene and vignette is accented by the ringing of a bell; it’s meaning unclear – perhaps reminiscent of an old drugstore pharmacist alerting us the prescription is ready. Still, in moment after moment, it never quite is – Ding! Ding! Ding! We need it, can we have it now?

It would be difficult to praise this cast too much – Johansen, Lucas and Macy are local legends, Villareal a savvy Phoenix veteran, and White (previously seen in Phoenix’s “Barbecue” and starring in Buck Creek Players’ “Nuts”) is incredibly talented as well. They take charge of the material, relieving Simmons of any charges of “mansplaining.” As for the male playwright, it is obvious Horan did his homework, and treats the subject and the people affected with utmost respect.

With The Pill being around and available since the 1960s, it’s too easy a half-century later to take it and its influence on society for granted. This play is important to remind us all – men and women – why this pill was needed and how difficult it was to get it even made. If progress stops, it can be rolled back, or as Sanger says, “We haven’t come this far, to only come this far.”

Performances run through June 10. The Phoenix Theatre is now located at 705 N. Illinois St., Indianapolis, just north of the Scottish Rite Cathedral downtown. Call 317-635-7529 or visit http://www.phoenixtheatre.org.