Belfry sets a place for you

By John Lyle Belden

What’s the most important room in the house?

You might answer the kitchen, as that’s where the food is; or the living room, as that’s where the TV is; or, of course, the bathroom for obvious reasons. But the play “The Dining Room,” a comedy by A. R. Gurney, makes a case for this often-overlooked (if you even have it) space that was a stoic witness to change for middle-class America through the 20th century.

In the Belfry Theatre production, occupying the Switch Theatre in Fishers through Jan. 30, seven actors show us 18 scenes through 40 years (1939-79) with one nice but not quite antique table and set of chairs. Though it finally goes on the market in the era of Disco, this house is mostly home to members of a single family. They wouldn’t consider themselves wealthy but are well-off enough to have at least a cook and maid, at least in the early decades.

The fourth wall (French doors, we are told) becomes our window into their lives, as even in the stuffy past, there are youngsters looking towards the new while elders cling to the best of what has been. As the scenes bounce back and forth through the years, parents become grandparents, children become parents, and there’s always something we really shouldn’t talk about at the table.

The ensemble of Mia Gordon, Jennifer J. Kaufmann, Tim Long, Jeff Maess, Tom Riddle, Addie Taylor, and Debbie Underwood splendidly take on what must be a fun acting exercise, inhabiting the various ages and characters – only one is an actual youth, so “child” roles take on extra charm as the older hands truly commit. Under the direction of Diane W. Wilson, the scenes flow easily into each other, sometimes having a person or two from one era sharing the space with oncoming folks from another, making the room, in a way, timeless.

Though real tensions and drama sometimes pop up, this play is mainly a gentle comedy, the kind of feel-good family portrait that we can use about now. Even if we aren’t mid-century WASPs, we can feel a sting of familiarity in dealing with relatives in changing times. And it’s good to find something to laugh about, or at least knowingly smile, in it all.

Find the venue at Ji-Eun Lee Music Academy, 10029 E. 126th St., Suite D (note there is street construction in the area). Find info and tickets at www.thebelfrytheatre.com.

Switch delivers deep drama of ‘Diviners’ 

By John Lyle Belden

The drama “The Diviners,” by Jim Leonard Jr., is a thoroughly Hoosier story, with Indiana setting and characters, and it premiered at Hanover College in 1980. But it plumbs deep into all of us, and it makes an excellent start for The Switch Theatre in Fishers.

In the last days of the Hoover presidency, with the nation sunk into the Great Depression, we meet a rather extraordinary boy. Buddy (Colin McCabe) is 14 but hasn’t had a bath in at least a decade, ever since nearly drowning in the river, losing his mother to the current as well as a degree of his mental capacity. His fear of water gives him such sensitivity to its presence that he became a natural “diviner,” capable of finding underground streams for wells, and feeling approaching rain even while the sky is clear. 

His father Ferris Layman (Larry Adams) and 16-year-old sister Jennie Mae (Lauren Hall) take care of him, dealing with his impulsive behavior and understanding his odd speech pattern that constantly has him talking in third person. Fellow citizens of the small town of Zion, Indiana, largely accept him as he is, including Goldie (Jean Adams) who runs the local diner and keeps plenty of root beer on hand for Buddy, and Norma Henshaw (Debbie Underwood), who runs the local dry-goods store with her daughter, Darlene (Gloria Merrell).

The neighbors, farmer Basil Bennett and his wife Luella (Dan Flahive and Ginger Home) see Buddy’s abilities as a blessing, Daniel Shock and Mason Tudor play their farmhands, Melvin and Dewey (who is sweet on Darlene). 

Into this world comes C.C. Showers (Earl Campbell), a former preacher from Kentucky who gave up his vocation to be a common laborer. He takes a job at Ferris’s mechanic shop, and takes an interest in helping Buddy. In town, Norma, being deeply religious, sees the man’s arrival as a sign that the local church will be rebuilt, and true to her steel-trap mind, will accept no other explanation.

Directed by Lori Raffel, the performances flesh out the characters well, but the focus is mainly on Buddy. McCabe embodies the role with the skill of someone much older — he is an eighth-grader, but his parents said he has been performing for years. Hall, Merrell, and Tudor also acquit themselves well. The veteran performers wear their roles like comfortable clothes. Campbell does well in spite of a script that leaves many questions about Showers unanswered — this is not his story, but it feels like there is one to be told. 

This play has gentle humor and a Waltons-like folksiness, but its still waters run deep in what is ultimately a tragic story. Performances run through Oct. 6 at The Switch, located inside the Ji-Eun Lee Music Academy, 10029 E. 126th St., Suite D, in Fishers. Get information and tickets at theswitchtheatre.com.

 

Catalyst’s ‘Class’ in session

By John Lyle Belden

Nan Macy is a master of portraying strong mature women, and shows this to brilliant effect in the current production of Terrance McNally’s “Master Class,” presented by Catalyst Repertory in association with the Indianapolis Opera Company and The Switch Theatre.

Macy portrays legendary opera soprano Maria Callas, who, late in her career, is giving the titular class for young vocal students. Callas’s career was notable not only for her exceptional voice, but also tabloid-style scandals including rivalries with other singers and her affair with shipping magnate Aristotle Onasis. Here we see this brash, blunt diva with a well-established chip on her shoulder from having been looked down upon for her Greek heritage and her weight (she underwent drastic weight loss at the peak of her career, a boon to her casting but possibly hurting her voice). She is far too proud to acknowledge her declining vocal ability, living the adage of “those who can’t do, teach.” Regardless, she gives her charges a lot to learn about presentation and passion.  

With such serious subject matter, and her lapses into troubled memory, it’s easy to forget until you see this how incredibly funny this show is. For instance, Macy’s timing is perfect in saying “let me stop you there,” the moment a poor student opens her mouth.

As for her “victims,” we get some nice vocals from Abigail Johnson, Shederick Whipple, and Rachelle Woolston. And we see, as they do with Callas, that there is more to great opera than just knowing the words. Sean Manterfield is Manny, the piano accompanist. Thomas Smith is a stagehand badgered by Callas, but also turns the tables portraying Onasis in her recollections. Director Tony Johnson also has other cast members drift in and out of her memory as figures from her past.

This is a “class” you won’t want to skip, as hilarity and tragic depth occupy the stage in equal measure, wielded by a master, portraying a master. Brava!

“Master Class” performances are Friday through Sunday at 10029 E. 126th St., Fishers. Get tickets at theswitch.yapsody.com.