A toast to Belfry’s convent comedy

By John Lyle Belden

It seems nuns are an easy target for entertaining and eccentric characters who also have the noblest of intentions. We get another fun take on this trope in “Drinking Habits” by Tom Smith, presented by The Belfry Theatre in Noblesville.

The Sisters of Perpetual Sewing are a small but important order in the Catholic Church. If the Pope pops a button, the garment gets sent to the little convent somewhere in the U.S.A. to get fixed right up. But the sacred stitches don’t raise quite enough funds to keep the lights on, so Sisters Augusta and Philamena (Jennifer Poynter and Cathie Morgan) have let the grape juice ferment and are selling the wine in town. This is kept secret from Mother Superior (Barb Weaver), who is so anti-alcohol, she won’t even allow the words for such beverages to be said aloud.

Thus we get some interesting euphemisms: Devil’s Delight, Satan’s Mouthwash, Lucifer’s Libations, etc.

Fortunately, the secretive Sisters have always-helpful second-generation groundskeeper George (Bryan Gallet) to help.

But local newshounds Sally (Sarah Powell) and Paul (Jeff Haber) have gotten a tip about the secret vineyard and are infiltrating the convent to investigate. It happens that the Order is expecting the arrival of a new member, so Sally becomes Sister Mary Mary, while Paul becomes Father Paul, her brother. Then the actual nun, Sister Mary Catherine (Sarah Eberhardt), arrives, and things start to get confusing. Add to the mix the neighboring priest and amateur magician Father Chenille (Chris Taylor) and word that the Vatican has sent spies to ensure all its facilities are worth keeping open, and confusion, mistaken identities, multi-layered lies, and other farcical elements rule the day.

Aside from quick entrances and exits from multiple doors, the cast also mines comedy gold from the Order’s ritual of keeping silent at random points during the day. (Apparently, wild gesturing and miming is not a sin.) The goofy goings-on crescendo to a wild ending of revelations (and matrimony!) that would make Shakespeare’s head spin.

Direction is by Belfry board president Nancy Lafferty.

Poynter and Morgan are wonderful in a study of opposites – quick-thinking, fast-talking Augusta, and nervous Philamena, who literally can’t tell a lie. Gallet is handed a challenge in keeping George easy-going and kind without coming across as too simple-minded – he’s the average-sharpness knife in the drawer. Powell and Haber ably portray two people in a situation way over their heads, while also working through unresolved feelings. Weaver has Mother Superior cool and in control, but isn’t too sharply stern, and manages to be out of the loop of what’s going on without looking foolish. Taylor makes Chenille charming in a way that gives the Father “dad” vibes. Eberhardt is so much fun to watch as situations, and Mary Catherine’s growing guilt, put her continually on-edge.

This show is very funny and well worth the drive up to Noblesville, playing through Sunday, July 3, at Ivy Tech Auditorium, 300 N. 17th, St. Get information and tickets at thebelfrytheatre.com.

And, just a thought for a future season: Smith also wrote a “Drinking Habits 2.”

That old Black ‘Magic’

By John Lyle Belden

The term “Magical Negroes” was popularized by celebrated film director Spike Lee as a critique of how non-white characters were still being used in movies just as they had been in stories throughout history. The trope has its roots in racism and the historic identification of the “other” as something different than regular humanity – when not a lesser-than, such as “lazy” stereotypes, they ironically become stronger, wiser, or actually magical compared to the Whites around them, with their sole purpose in the story to help the “normal” protagonist to win the day. Mammy in “Gone With the Wind” or Bagger in “The Legend of Bagger Vance” are cited as prime examples, as well as John Coffey in “The Green Mile” and even Whoopi Goldberg’s Oda Mae in “Ghost.” Note how Hollywood has rewarded such roles with Oscar nominations and statuettes.

Black queer playwright Terry Guest can’t help but mess with old tropes, revealing the much older, darker and more powerful magic that lies beneath. Southbank Theatre Company presents Guest’s “Marie Antoinette and The Magical Negroes,” directed by Kelly Mills. Just as arguably the White majority distorts history, a “Tribe” of embodied Black stereotypes twists it back the other way. “This is not history!” the troupe declares, but between their prism and the one we were exposed to in school, maybe we’ll see the light of truth.

Marie (Haley Glickman) and her husband King Louis XVI (Josh Cornell) of France were actual historical figures. Remembered unkindly, they weren’t necessarily evil, just very spoiled and inept. If anyone could use a dark-skinned savior, it’s these two – but magic doesn’t necessarily work that way.

The Tribe are: carefree Jim Crow (Ron Perkins), crafty Sambo (Bra’Jae’ Allen), nurturing Mammy (Kellli Thomas), ambitious Sapphire (Anila Akua), and aggressive Savage (Tommy Gray III). Being timeless, they hop around the time stream a bit, so we see the Crow in President Kennedy or the Mammy in Ida B. Wells. In the Court of Versailles, Mammy is Marie’s faithful lady-in-waiting and fellow noble Anna de Noailles; Sambo is Anna’s lady-in-waiting Charlotte, a put-upon servant aching to join the protests outside; Sapphire is Catherine, the idealist who believes she can rise thought the palace ranks and effect change from the inside; and Crow is Swedish nobleman Axel von Fersen, in love with the Queen and seeking to aid her escape.

The magic here is subtle, though the cast did get some tips and a couple of props from local magician Taylor Martin. More important than a couple of visual tricks, there is the spirit of Mother Africa, and when the Tribe dances and turns – well, don’t be surprised if someone loses their head.

Glickman is exceptional in giving the many sides of a figure misunderstood even in her own day, from the child bride to the woman in a gilded cage. Marie didn’t actually say, “let them eat cake,” but she very well could have – a sentiment more borne of cluelessness than disdain. In an ironic reversal of the Black characters lacking depth or backstory, poor Louis is the most two-dimensional character in the piece, but Cornell does a good job of expressing the monarch’s constant frustration with his job and the lack of respect his hard work (in his view) gets.

The Tribe members each work outward from their archetypes to give us persons rather than caricatures – an antidote to the overdone stereotypes where they’re usually found. Thomas as Mammy/Anne isn’t just being motherly and wise for its own sake, or Marie’s; she wants to save her own life as well. Perkins as Crow/Axel isn’t self-sacrificing, either, showing genuine concern as he presents a way out, but with a price. Allen exudes the only-taking-so-much-of-this attitude, and when the dust is finally settled, trickster Sambo has the last surprise. In other eras, Akua brings the Haitian Revolution to life, and Gray reminds us, for any who still haven’t gotten the message, that Black Lives Matter.

This is one of those theatrical experiences that’s supposed to make you feel a bit uncomfortable – those involved would be concerned if you weren’t. Right up until the end, I wasn’t sure how this unconventional history lesson was going to come together to an appropriate conclusion. But when the lights finally came up, I reflected on it all and thought, OK, I see it now.

You should see it, too. “Marie Antoinette and The Magical Negroes” runs through Sunday at the Fonseca Theatre, 2508 W. Michigan St., Indianapolis. Get information and tickets at southbanktheatre.org.

Rising Stars ‘slay’ in CCP production

By John Lyle Belden

Wendy and I have been at this for some time now, and we can point to several stage veterans who we first saw as shining stars as far back as sixth grade. So, consider the Carmel Community Players Rising Star Production of “A Medley of Murders” an opportunity to see kids on a path towards a lifetime of great roles – on stage, or elsewhere as they take confidence into their careers.

Murder seems a dire subject for middle- and high-schoolers, but this set of three one-acts are all comedy, and while death and destruction are at hand, we’ll leave it a surprise as to how many felonious slayings occur.

The hilarity gets under way in “Death of a Dead Guy” as Charlie Haas plays a cheesy noir-inspired Private Eye bumbling the case and dealing with a daring dame (Ava Button), a droll butler (Owen Yeater), the posh lady of the house (Isabella Bardos), the maid dropping all the china (Camren Davis) and a subtly brilliant turn by Mason Yeater as a surprisingly lively “victim.”

In “Cheating Death,” the Reaper (Lilliana Rondinella) comes to collect a soul during a group session in a mental hospital. Needless to say, things get a bit dysfunctional, as Death finds she, too, could benefit from some therapy. The patients, neurotic but clever and good-hearted, are nicely portrayed by Quinn Yeater, Kaavya Jethava, Veronica Rondinella, Camren Davis, Mason Yeater, and especially Kathryn Kirschner.

“Murder at the Art Show” involves nearly the whole company in a fairly complex plot, as Charlie Haas plays an art-hating jerk taking over the gallery from its curator (Jayda Glynn) and resident artist (Joey Brandenburg), so he can tear it down. The make-or-break exhibition features artists of varying renown (Emerson Bobenmoyer, Mason Yeater, Ava Button, Isabella Bardos), a bitter critic (Owen Yeater) and a “discovered” Monet painting. After a chaotic opening that seems to shock Rising Star director Tanya Haas as she tries to stage-manage the mess, an investigator (Quinn Yeater) declares there is evidence of foul play. This story brings out lots of promising performances, including by Morgan Rusbasan, a seventh-grader in her first major role as the keeper of the alleged masterpiece; and Kaavya Jethava, showing great stage presence for a sixth-grader as a competent but mysterious personal assistant.

Remaining performances are Friday through Sunday, June 17-19, at Carmel Friends Church, 651 W. Main St. You don’t have to be a relative or friend of these youths to enjoy this bit of silly fun. They’ll appreciate your support, and we wouldn’t be surprised if, before long, you see some of them on stage again.

Info and tickets at carmelplayers.org.

BCP goes big with ‘Little Women’

By John Lyle Belden

Most of us, either by choice or school assignment, have read Louisa May Alcott’s 19th century novel “Little Women,” based on the lives of Alcott and her sisters. The book has also had several film adaptations, television airings, and – for our purposes here – inspired a 2005 Broadway musical with book by Allan Knee, music by Jason Howland, and lyrics by Mindi Dickstein. Thus adapted, the story is both familiar and new, and on stage at Buck Creek Players, directed by Cathy Cutshall, through this weekend.

The author is reimagined as Jo March, aspiring world-famous writer. Miranda Nehrig, who offstage is the answer to “what if Jo had become a lawyer,” boldly takes on the role with great presence, acting, and vocals. The show gives this central role a lot, and Nehrig shoulders it like a pro.

Alcott gave her literary siblings distinct, diverse personalities, to which our cast give full dimension: Jennifer Kaufmann smartly gives us Meg, the nurturing natural governess with sufficient charm to catch the eye of Mr. Brooks (Matthew Blandford), tutor to the boy next door, Laurie (Austin Stodghill). Jacoba White is sweet as shy Beth, happiest when alone at the piano, and capable of softening the heart of stern neighbor Mr. Lawrence (Brian Noffke). Hannah Partridge successfully accepts the challenge of making beautiful but bratty sister Amy likable, even as she matures into a social butterfly under ultra-prim-and-proper Aunt March (Jessica Bartley).

The ”little women” thrive under the care of mother Marmee March, with Heather Catlow ably portraying the bond that holds this family together with unending affection.

As for the men: Stodghill shines as the boy who becomes an honorary “brother,” yet finds himself yearning to be more. Blandford keeps Brooks appropriately upbeat. Veteran actor Noffke makes his turn look effortless. And Ben Jones is rock solid as Jo’s mentor, Professor Bhaer, even when the edges crumble as he considers his true feelings.

A fan of adventure tales and melodrama, Jo works on a story of derring-do that she hopes to sell. Its action comes alive with the help of Nathaniel Bouman as dashing Rodrigo. Other ensemble players are Kirsten Cutshall, Brandon Ping and Connie Salvini Thompson.

The plot hits the high points of the novel – comic and tragic, romantic and triumphant – so this show is a treat both for those familiar with it, or who only now discover this American classic.

Performances run through June 19 at the Buck Creek Playhouse, 11150 Southeastern Ave. (Acton Road exit off I-74). Get information and tickets at buckcreekplayers.com.

Wild ‘Rumors’ in Westfield

By John Lyle Belden

There’s a reason why Neil Simon’s classic farce, “Rumors,” is a community theatre staple. It’s an intricate yet easy to follow comedy that allows local actors used to one others’ rhythm to pull out all the stops and set an appreciative audience practically rolling in the aisles with laughter.

Main Street Productions in Westfield stepped up to the challenge, and under the direction of Jen Otterman, succeeded wildly. Otterman notes that the theme undergirding the wacky plot is friendship – especially the kind that freaks out at the thought of a BFF getting a soiled reputation. We get this sense immediately when dear friends Ken and Chris Gorman (Robert Webster Jr. and Laura Givens) arrive at the home of their best friend Charlie (who happens to be Deputy Mayor of New York) for his anniversary party to find him upstairs, injured, and his wife Myra missing. And did they hear a gunshot?

Before getting any answers, more friends arrive: Accountant Lenny Ganz and his wife Claire (Josh Elicker and Monya Wolf); then Ernie the analyst and Cookie the TV cooking-show host (Jason Vernier and Kelsey VanVoorst); and finally, Glenn and Cassie Cooper (Jan Hauer and Sara Castillo Dandurand), he’s running for State Senate and she’s running him ragged with her crystal obsession and constant suspicions of his infidelity.

Before it’s all done, there will be numerous well-meaning falsehoods, a literally deafening second gunshot, DIY meal and cocktails, and further damage to Lenny’s BMW. So, when Officers Welch and Pudney (Nathaniel Taff and Nicole Amsler) come around asking questions, what do these paranoid partygoers say?

Again, this is all very, very funny. Comic goddess VanVoorst is in her element, as well as Webster, a versatile talent who has become a familiar face on the Westfield stage. The rest of the cast stay right on the pace, delivering one zinger or sight-gag after another. Givens and Wolf have Lucy-and-Ethyl chemistry and timing. Elicker puts the “suffer” in longsuffering but keeps it all light. Vernier is a hoot as the expert on human behavior who barely has a clue. Hauer displays the desperation to come out of this with his dignity and campaign intact. Dandurand brings flaky fun without going over the top. Even Taff gets to shine, as the cop with little tolerance for foolishness finding himself in Fool Central.

Rumor has it you will have a great time at performances Thursday through Sunday, June 9-12, at the Basile Westfield Playhouse, 220 N. Union St. Get info and tickets at WestfieldPlayhouse.org.

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.

‘Fade’ reflects insider view of ethnic struggle in showbiz

By John Lyle Belden

The play “Fade,” presented by Fonseca Theatre Company, is not a true story, but contains an immense amount of truth.

It is based on the experiences of playwright Tanya Saracho, who, like her character Lucia, is a Mexican-born writer who worked in Chicago and got an opportunity to write for television in Los Angeles. Saracho went from being a “diversity hire” in the room that wrote cable series “Devious Maids” all the way to Shondaland, a writer and co-producer on “How to Get Away with Murder.”

We meet Lucia (Lara Romero) at the beginning of that journey, where the all-white-male writing team call her “Loosha” (not “lew-see-ah”) and think of her as little more than the coffee-fetcher and a translator for show-runner John to talk to his maid. We don’t see the co-workers but know them through Lucia’s conversations with janitor Abel (Ian Cruz; by the way, the Latinx character is pronounced “Ah-beel”).

People are people, so rather than have an instant “you and me against the world” bond, Lucia and Abel initially clash, each making class and ethnic assumptions about the other. She grew up with wealth, which he immediately senses, but she doesn’t consider herself “rich,” especially now in starving-writer mode. And Abel has a far more complex backstory than she could have suspected. In fact, Lucia realizes, it’s the kind of story that would look great on TV.

The play is a sly commentary on class, stereotype, tone-deaf Hollywood, and its ambitious culture. Lucia wants to change this place, but how much will it change her?

Romero ably portrays the likable go-getter feeling out of her element from the get-go. She comes across as smart yet needing to absorb some hard lessons. Cruz channels his paternal side (he’s the Dad of his “zoo” offstage) to bring an earnest gravatas to a surprisingly complex character. He knows what life can do to a person, now he’s witnessing the dark side of showbiz.

Assistant stage manager Chris Creech appears briefly, and as a Maintenance worker executes smooth scene changes.

Note the play is in “Spanglish,” reflecting natural conversations between two bilinguals in a mixed culture. However, Spanish phrases are translated or understandable in context. Direction is by Fonseca Producing Director Jordan Flores Schwartz.

Performances of “Fade” run through June 12 at the FTC Basile stage, 2508 W. Michigan St., Indianapolis. Get information and tickets at fonsecatheatre.org.

IRT stages solid ‘Steel Magnolias’

By John Lyle Belden

When the Indiana Repertory Theatre takes on familiar material, there is always an effort to make it fresh. This is especially important when the play has also been a beloved film.

For “Steel Magnolias,” the essence of the story has not changed, but the IRT has brought in the sets and cast from their co-production at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park. With unfamiliar faces, it is easier to see them as their characters, and for their part they have had a lot of practice inhabiting them.

If you are unfamiliar with this story, this is an excellent opportunity to discover what millions have enjoyed since it premiered on stage in 1987, and on film in 1989. Robert Harling wrote the play based on events in his own family. “All the characters were based on real people, Mama’s friends,” he said in a 2017 interview. The scenes all take place in the women’s sanctum of Truvy’s Beauty Shop, the main plot centering on young Shelby and her mother, M’Lynn.

Directed by Laura Gordon (who previously worked with IRT on “Boeing Boeing”), the cast are Susan Lynskey as Truvy, the benevolent queen of this domain; Kate Abbruzzese as Shelby, whose fierce spirit strives to compensate for physical frailty; Annie Fitzpatrick as M’Lynn, a loving Mom dealing with the fact her girl inherited her stubbornness; Gina Daniels as Clairee, as close to high society as one gets in small-town Louisiana; Brittany Anikka Liu as Annelle, a young woman with a bad past hoping to build a better future with her faith; and Naomi Jacobson as feisty cantankerous Ouiser, whose rough edges guard a kind heart.  Their polished performances feel genuine, with a relaxed air like we’re all invited guests, or just fellow customers waiting our turn at the beauty chairs.

This show has what recent lingo would call, “all the feels.” There are scenes of rollicking hilarity, with dozens of quotable lines, as well as wells of wet-eyed emotion – sometimes within moments of each other. It is wondrous, charming, cathartic, and uplifting.

One doesn’t have to be from the South to understand the spirit of the play – that women are delicate flowers made of the sturdiest stuff, because they have to be. See it for yourself through June 5 at the IRT, 140 W. Washington St., downtown Indianapolis. For information and tickets, visit irtlive.com.

Footlite makes ‘Rotten’ a sweet show

By John Lyle Belden

Once upon a time, and what a time it was! It was the Renaissance, and in England there were many people you know well – if you are a scholar of the Renaissance in England. But for the rest of us there was one superstar, who was actually quite famous in his own day.

William Shakespeare!

But the hit Broadway musical “Something Rotten!” is not about him (though, being himself, he butts in). It concerns one of his many theatrical rivals, who is so unknown he’s downright fictional (this is a musical, not a documentary), Nick Bottom! And we see the lengths Bottom went to be on top.

Written by Kary Kirkpatrick, Wayne Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell – with some lines by the Bard which are public domain anyway – this show is brought to the stage by Footlite Musicals, directed by Ed Trout, through this weekend.

Nick hates Shakespeare – a feeling borne of jealousy because he kicked Will out of his acting troupe, telling him to try something else, like writing, and he did. Now Nick (Kayvon Emtiaz) and his brother, genius poet Nigel (Roy Bridges) are struggling to get a play produced. It was going to be about Richard II, but you-know-who is getting one on stage first, and the patron Lord Clapham (Joshua Cox) is going to pull funding unless the Bottoms come up with a sure-fire original show.

And what is worse, now Nick’s wife Beatrice (Jessica Hawkins) is disguising herself as a man to find work to feed them.

Desperate, Nick seeks out a soothsayer (Darrin Gowan), calling himself Nostradamus (the famous one’s nephew), to find out what the future of theatre will be. Surprisingly, the mage is not a fraud, and he forsees – musicals!

Meanwhile, Nigel encounters Portia (Ellen Vander Missen), daughter of strict Puritan pastor Brother Jeremiah (Dennis Jones). Nigel discovers Portia secretly enjoys poetry and plays, beginning their secret though chaste affair. She inspires him so much, he even shows some verses to Shakespeare (Rick Barber), but Nick warns his brother off dealing with the Bard, as they have their own show to create.

With past monarchs off the table, what well-known aspect of history could our playwrights use for their first musical? “The Black Death” is dying in rehearsals, so Nick gets more desperate, and paying his last farthing, asks Nostradamus what Shakespeare’s greatest work will be, so that he may copy it in musical form.

The visions are cloudy, but the answer seems to be “Omelette.”

So, songs about eggs it is.

Yes, this comedy with singing is just as silly as it sounds, and even more funny. While an homage to everything Shakespeare — as well as parodying his superstar status (both then and now) — practically every modern musical hit gets skewered in the process. We even get the Jewish producer, Shylock (Dan Miller). Ervin Gainer is the Minstrel who gets the whole thing started off.

Could we all use a good laugh now? This is a great laugh. All performances are spot-on and hilarious, especially Emtiaz as our frustrated hero, Barber as the jaded icon (secretly stuck for a new idea as well), Hawkins as the take-it-in-stride spouse, and especially Gowan as the seer who barely believes the bits that are in focus – “a bunch of cats, on stage, singing… no, wait… no, it’s actually a bunch of cats on stage singing.”

If you like Shakespeare or musicals at all, you must see this almost-Shakespeare musical. Performances are Thursday through Sunday at the Hedback Theatre, 1847 N. Alabama St., Indianapolis. Info and tickets at footlite.org.

Traumatic issues taken seriously in new drama

By John Lyle Belden

Over time, I have gotten to know persons who shared their struggles with Dissociative Identity Disorder, which pop culture gave the misleading label of “multiple personalities.” This mental health condition is complex and usually borne of deep personal trauma. 

Therefore, the Trigger Warnings for “Coping with Autumn,” the new drama written and directed by Megan Ann Jacobs for Theatre Unchained, presented by Arts for Lawrence, should be taken seriously.

Autumn (Kyrsten Lyster) is under observation after her arrest for killing her boyfriend. She decides that if you are going to watch, she will give you a show, telling you the story of how she arrived in this unfurnished cell.

During her narration, we meet the occupants of her mind: Dee (Maresa Eileen Kelly), the eternal child who won’t tell her what happened when alone with her father, appears shortly before her mother (Rachel A. Snyder) divorces and moves them from Wisconsin to Indiana. Joy (Ethany Reeder Michaud), the impulsive, takes over when potential new high school friends invite her to a party, then ensures Autumn has a “good time.” When regrets set in, Vera (Roci Contreras), the confrontational, appears to make sure those classmates never bother her again.

Like many misfits, Autumn feels more at home at a distant college. There, she is befriended by Kasey (Brittany Magee). They bond over poetry and spend a lot of time together, until Kasey invites Autumn to a “small” get-together. Naturally, it’s another wild crowd, and then the bag of drugs comes out.

Before her “friends” emerge, Autumn exits, and meets Steven (Thomas Sebald). He seems so nice, and perfect. He pampers her, gives her fancy meals and nice gifts. Then he starts making demands. Is this what love is like? Must be, she thinks, and does everything she can to please him – until she can’t. Kasey has been shut out, and Steven has charmed Mom. Who can help her? I’ll give you three guesses.

The second act features Autumn’s trial and aftermath. New allies include therapist Dr. Weber (Kelly Keller) and pro bono attorney Alex (Joe Wagner), who feels a personal connection to the case. But Sebald returns to the stage as a prosecuting attorney, the resemblance not lost on Autumn. 

Lyster, who has shown so much range in past roles, is amazing here. Magee, who joined the cast late into the production, is incredible in support. Snyder is superb, and by happy accident has a physical resemblance to her “daughter.” Their portrayals of well-meaning but damaged women never slip into cliche and evoke appropriate emotional responses from the audience and each other.

This ain’t “Inside Out.” The two adolescents and child that represent portions of
Autumn’s psyche are neither cartoonish nor comic relief. The dissociation is handled respectfully in smooth transitions with Lyster so that we easily see the four actors as aspects of the same woman. 

Sebald plays Steven so disarmingly kind (when the monster is hidden away), it’s easy to see how men like this character can charm and trap women who find no one believes them when relationships turn abusive. And when he’s a beast, “evil” is an understatement.

Cast and crew took this sensitive topic seriously. During a post-show talk-back, dramaturg Max Andrew McCreary said he shared his mental health research with them, including that according to one source, it is estimated that nearly half of adults have at one time had a sort of dissociative incident, from a moment feeling outside one’s body, all along the spectrum to rare cases of true DID (fictional Autumn’s condition is on the spectrum). All involved took consent into account throughout the entire process, from the first rehearsal. Sebald, who said he had helped workshop Steven/Prosecutor, said this was especially essential for him to feel comfortable in his role. This atmosphere of trust helped make the action in this drama more raw and natural, which some in the audience noted in their comments.

If you have experience with abuse and/or psychological trauma, be careful about seeing this. But for any who can manage, this is highly recommended. Remaining performances are 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, May 19-21 (post-show talkbacks on Thursday and Saturday) at Theater at the Fort, 8920 Otis Ave., Lawrence (off the north end of Indy’s Post Road). Get info and tickets at TheatreUnchained.org or ArtsForLawrence.org.