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.

IRT blesses us, every one

By John Lyle Belden

Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” – you know it; everyone knows it.

The Scrooge-bahhumbug-Crachits-Tiny-Tim-Marley-three-ghosts-Godblessuseveryone story is nearly as familiar as the Nativity. In fact, some of our favorite tellings take great liberties with the story, like the Muppet version or the movie “Scrooged.”

But it is also promoted as a proper holiday tradition, faithfully executed, every year at Indiana Repertory Theatre. So, how do they keep it reliable, yet unique?

Start with the Tom Haas script, which hews fairly closely to the source material. Under director Janet Allen, have the cast tell the story as they portray the events, in a pudding-smooth blend of narration and action.

Keep the set simple, as scenic designer Russell Metheny has done. The dominant feature is the drifts of snow absolutely everywhere – pure white like holiday magic, yet also a constant desolate reminder of the dangerous cold of a Victorian English winter. Setpieces drift in and out, and a simple large frame sees duty in many ways – a doorway, a mirror, a passage to what comes next.

Cast some of the best talent in Indy, including a number of IRT regulars, starting with the brilliant Ryan Artzberger as Scrooge. Other familiar faces include Charles Goad, Mark Goetzinger and the luminous Millicent Wright. You may also recognize Emily Ristine, Scot Greenwell and Jennifer Johansen. Then there are Jeremy Fisher, Charles Pasternak, Ashley Dillard and Joey Collins. And mix in some great young talent as well, such as Tobin Seiple and Maddie Medley, who take turns as Tiny Tim.

Present it all in a single movie-length performance, submersing the audience into the story until we can’t help but get caught up in it. Of course, we know what’s going to happen next, but with the spirit of live theatre taking us along, we don’t just watch the play, we experience it.

I feel like a bit of a Scrooge sometimes, thinking of things like the Dickens story as stale and overdone; but having seen what IRT does with it, I now see why all those who go back every year enjoy it so much. You, also, might want to consider adding this show to your list of cherished holiday traditions.

Performances continue through Christmas Eve at the IRT, 140 W. Washington St. (near Circle Centre) in downtown Indy. Get information and tickets at www.irtlive.com.