Philip Barry's most successful plays in the 1920s and '30s pictures life among the wealthy and fashionable. In The Philadelphia Story, a magazine writer and a photographer have been sent to cover a wedding in one of Philadelphia's old families. To complicate matters, this is the bride's second marriage, and her first husband is a neighbor who drops in now and then. Writing during the Depression, Barry has given the magazine writer some of the working class attitudes of the period. But his moral objections to wealth don't keep him from developing a crush on the bride. And the groom is a self-made man who has risen from coal miner to CEO. Barry gives them all lines that fit, but they tend to sparkling wit whenever appropriate. 

It is this style of high comedy that the teachers at the Webster Conservatory have imparted to their students, who have learned it well, and director Tim Ocel has guided them in a polished production that is a delight to see and hear. 

As Tracy, the bride, Libby Jasper is more than crush-worthy. Lucas Reilly's reporter manages to hang on to his self-control when dazzled by wealth and Tracy, while his photographer partner played by Leah Russell slyly underplays her challenged emotions. Michael Ferguson nicely preserves physical and vocal remnants of the working-class origins of the groom. As Tracy's ex, Andrew Oppmann maintains his cool in awkward situations, though I wouldn't have minded a little more charm. Harrison Farmer efficiently arranges things as the brother of the bride. 

As college students playing middle age, Lana Dvorak is especially successful as Tracy's mother, and Kai Klose makes a proper paterfamilias as her father, working his way back into the family's good graces. Jacob Cange faces a tougher challenge as the mother's brother Uncle Willie, hanging on to his youthful exuberance. Jarris Williams appears briefly as a minister. At the other age extreme, Becca Russell gets help playing Tracy's younger sister from her own energy and from pigtails given her by wig and makeup designer Brielle Creaser and her costume from Elizabeth Swanson, who has given the others in the cast the loveliest of the period's flowing styles. Matt Billings, Justin Duhon, Delany Piggins and Lauren Sprague are impeccably correct as butler, footman, and maids. Mitchell Holsclaw is a folksy night watchman. 

Kylee Loera's lights follow the hours of the day. Marion Ayers designed the period-appropriate sound, and Jason James's set at the Conservatory is in the best of taste. 

Continuing through Sunday, February 26, The Philadelphia Story in the studio theatre at the Loretto-Hilton Center, charms and delights for a lovely couple of hours. 

 

James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim's Into the Woods had its first production in 1986, and since then has been wildly successful, even making the cross-over into Hollywood with a film starring Meryl Streep as the Witch and Johnny Depp as the Wolf. Productions happen often in St. Louis; The Muny did a recent version with Heather Headley as the Witch. "New and fresh" aren't words theatre-goers  use to describe this oft-performed classic, but that is exactly what the Fiasco Theater production at the Peabody was: a re-imagined, refreshing glimpse at old, familiar characters and songs.

Fiasco Theater's Into the Woods had an Off-Broadway run from 2013-2015 and has been on tour since November of 2016. It played at the Peabody Opera House in St. Louis in mid-February. The marketing information for the show states, "This is Into the Woods as you've never seen it before!" and they're right. Co-directors Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld have created a small, tightly-knit version of Woods with only ten players. These performers are quadruple-threats: they sing, dance, act, and play instruments, never leaving the stage for the whole of the performance.

Set designer Derek McLane strews the guts of a piano around and lighting designer Christopher Akerlind makes those guts look magical. The main set piece is a single piano in the middle of the stage, and there sits the music director and pianist Evan Rees. He is a part of this production, usually as the pianist, but sometimes as narrator. Or a cow. The other players move around him, gliding effortlessly in and out of different characters with rapid-fired lines strung with comedic timing.

This show is ow-my-face-hurts-from-laughing funny. The actors begin the show on stage; there is no curtain to separate them from the audience. They wear 19th-century underwear to start and as they move through the rigorous paces of the show, costume pieces fly on and off: a hat here, a bell there, a shawl, a jacket. Men flit from playing a prince to playing a wicked step-sister with ease and grace and hilarity. Philippe Arroyo's Jack and Milky White, played beautifully by Darick Pead, have a delicious bromance (is it a bromance if Milky White is a she?).

Yet, through all the merriment, the actors let the audience feel their characters' longing and pain, and deliver the powerful message Woods is meant to deliver: appreciate what you have and be careful what you wish for. They do this best through song. Lisa Helmi Johanson's "I Know Things Now," Stephanie Umoh's "Witch's Lament" and Arroyo's "Giants in the Sky" are captivating, haunting renditions of songs the audience knew well, sung as if being heard for the first time.

There is no weak link in this small band of actors; each dazzled in their roles. When they weren't center stage, they were playing an instrument to supplement the piano. Bonne Kramer's bassoon and the other instruments added such depth to the score, it sometimes sounded like there was a whole band in the pit. Many of these instruments were non-traditional, like a child's piano and a waterphone. Combining these contemporary sounds with classic melodies furthered the concept of the whole show: a perfect balance of fun and philosophy. Fiasco Theater's Into the Woods is an extraordinary interpretation of a classic.

 

When I hear mention of a new work from playwright Neil LaBute a number of thoughts cross my mind: dramatic tension, provocation, psychological twists, bristling dialogue. Romantic comedy would not, however, be part of this list. This fact alone may entice some theatergoers to check out his new play The Way We Get By. After all, I can't be the only one who enjoys LaBute's work even when he ruffles my feathers. As is usual with the prolific playwright and director, we soon discover he's given us much more to chew on than meets the eye. 

St. Louis Actors' Studio's surprisingly charming production introduces us to Doug and Beth, two adults in their mid to late twenties who hooked up last night. At the open, Doug stumbles into the living area from the bedroom, unsure of his surroundings and, frankly, what he should do next. Beth soon joins him and we learn that the two have known each other for some time. In fact, Beth recalls most of Doug's numerous ex-girlfriends. But, for what we learn are very good reasons, they've never dated or hooked up before.

The story, which at first seems just another "morning after" romantic comedy, takes a few somewhat surprising but plausible twists as Doug and Beth work to express their long-held feelings. More importantly, they have to decide how and whether they want to move forward as a couple. The extended discussion is by turns comic, sexy, awkward, uncomfortable, and ultimately, hopeful. 

Sophia Brown, as Beth, and Andrew Rea, as Doug, are well matched as the young couple, and the tension between the two is believable and compelling. Brown is flirtatious and empowered, both confident and conflicted by her ability to attract a sexual partner. Rea is clearly a bit of a playboy, but shows his insecurity by revealing that he is interested in much more than a one-night stand with Beth. What makes the show so enjoyable, in fact, is the common desire to consider a relationship that they share but are equally frightened to state.

Beth and Doug are genuinely likeable characters: good looking, intelligent, interesting, and well adjusted. They're not too clichéd, relatable, and recognizable; plus they're caught in a very clever and mostly unexplored conundrum that's rife with comedic possibility. As importantly, the situation they are working through shares the hallmarks of all romances that start under an auspicious star yet refuse to hide in the shadows. 

The actors roam through their conflicting feelings with logically illogical precision, allowing their movements, posture, and emotions to react in the moment. LaBute has scripted the show in a way that allows flexibility in interpretation, and director Nancy Bell finds focus points in the sub-context and intention behind each line. She and the actors cleverly mete out each new piece of information: a pillow fight turns nearly romantic until history and possibility cross paths; a kiss leads to foreplay and then social conventions prompt questions of their own. LaBute's ability to construct situations and explore them through dialogue is deftly countered by Brown and Rea's commitment to following the path.  

All that enjoyable exploration aside, the script is, frankly, about twenty minutes too long, most of that filled with half-stated thoughts, stuttered hesitations, and the repetition of ideas. Though the dialogue is witty and well crafted and the story arc completed with a hopeful touch, it's not LaBute's best effort. Luckily, star-making performances by Brown and Rea ensure that even those extra twenty minutes are thoroughly entertaining. The two have strong chemistry on-stage and imbue their characters with believable motivation and emotion. They manage to find meaning and intent in awkward reactions, half-spoken phrases, and uncertain pauses, a credit to director Bell and the two actors.

St. Louis Actors' Studio has a close, collaborative relationship with Neil LaBute and the venture consistently produces worthwhile results. Both the playwright and the company are comfortable broaching uncomfortable subjects and possibilities with a shared commitment to "seeing where this goes." The results are always entertaining and sometimes spectacular and the company's current production adds to the successful pairing.

The Way We Get By, running through February 26, 2017 at St. Louis Actors' Studio, is not without its cringe-worthy moments and there are a few scenes where you may feel like prodding the actors to get on with it already. But it's a compelling contemporary romantic comedy with enough twists and turns to mark it as a LaBute show and captivating performances to keep you entertained. 

 

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis' production of To Kill A Mockingbird is vibrant and engrossing, serving both the story and the times, past and current. Packed with an eloquent but forceful message on equality, dignity, and respect, the show is a memory play that feels at home in contemporary America. Harper Lee's seminal story on race and justice, adapted for the stage by Christopher Sergel, has not lost any relevance or impact since its original publication. 

Now a grown woman and long since moved away from her hometown of Maycomb, Alabama, Jean Louise Finch, known as Scout in her younger days, revisits her upbringing in a mostly segregated but intertwined southern town. Her father Atticus, the local barrister, has taken on the defense of Tom Robinson, a young black man accused of the rape of a young white woman. 

The year is 1935, and the small town is struggling to survive the Great Depression. Before we get to the heart of the trial, however, we meet Scout, her brother Jem, their new friend Dill, and Calpurnia, the tireless black woman who works for the Finch family and takes care of the children when their father is working. The times are tough and money is short, no doubt adding to the tension in the racially charged trial. The decision is a nearly foregone conclusion, but Atticus gives the case his all. 

The Rep's production of To Kill A Mockingbird captures all the tension and social commentary of the story and adds down-to-earth authenticity that enhances the overall impact. Lenne Klingaman narrates with a wistful, loving tone as the adult Jean Louise Finch. Jonathan Gillard Daly is genuine as Atticus. Calm but resolute, with a slight drawl and a habit of extending his words just long enough to ensure everyone is paying attention. 

Kaylee Ryan sparkles as the vivacious and curious Scout, filling the stage with a confidant, buoyant presence and infectious energy. She's aptly countered by Ronan Ryan as her protective brother Jem, Charlie Mathis as the impishly mischievous Dill, and Tanesha Gary as the thoughtful, observant, and loving Calpurnia. The young actors carry the bulk of the visual storytelling as well as much of the dialogue, particularly in the first act. Their performances are emotionally connected, filled with genuine expression and reaction, and properly nuanced, enabling them to deliver their lines with just the right tone.

The strong supporting cast contributes much of the texture and turmoil of the show. Amy Loui, Jerry Vogel, and Christopher Harris are memorable for their kindness and lack of guile. Alan Knoll and Rachel Fenton are convincing as Bob and Mayella Ewell. Their prejudice and distrust is nurtured by ignorance and poverty, and Fenton is sympathetically conflicted in her portrayal. Kimmie Kidd and Terrell Donnell Sledge may break your heart with their painfully nuanced and restrained interpretations of Helen and Tom Robinson. The two bring gravitas and clarity to the clearly innocent man and his appropriately distraught young wife. The ensemble and community add considerably to the production, evoking a visceral response to the story and artfully guiding the show's transitions with stirring gospel songs.

Director Risa Brainin keeps the focus on the storytelling and the emphasis on authentic, relatable characters. Scenic designer Narelle Sissons complements the approach, wisely constructing a minimal set that emphasizes the memory play's characters and lessons. Having the actors move and group flowers on the stage is another smart choice, suggesting the passing of time and season as well as shifting the emotional tone from scene to scene. Devon Painter's costumes are period appropriate, neither hiding nor exaggerating the social customs and tough times of the period. Composer and music director Michael Keck and lighting designer Michael Klaers provide the finishing touches to a show that moves with energy and purpose.

As an audience, we experience the town's deep-seeded attitudes and outspoken prejudice through the eyes of Scout and her companions, helping to soften the deeply troubling story and its emotional impact. The community provides comfort and hope through its resilience and quiet acknowledgement of even the smallest steps forward. The message of the show, and the history of prejudice that has often resulted in miscarriage of justice, cannot be understated -- these themes are still urgent and deserving of our attention. The production doesn't grandstand or beat a drum loudly to make its point, however, and the result is powerful and memorable.

Moving and effective, To Kill A Mockingbird, running through March 5, 2017 at The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, is still, and unfortunately, all too relevant a story nearly 85 years after the period in which it is set. Strong, grounded performances, with well-articulated sub-context and moving transitions directed by Brainin, create an artful and compelling production. 

 

West End Players' Guild affirms their commitment to producing character-driven theater in a small place with a heart-warming production of Kevin Kling's The Ice Fishing Play. Warm and affectionate, the show is likely to invoke tears from the more sentimental members of the audience. And that's ok, because the story has a simple charm and sincerity as deep as a Minnesota lake. 

The good natured, reflective show introduces audiences to Ron Huber, a Minnesota native with a penchant for life out of doors. He's particularly fond of winter days spent ice fishing near a dam adjacent to the resort property he and his wife Irene own and manage. Business has been down for a while, the fish stopped biting years ago, and the property has only stayed afloat because Irene rebranded the place as an artist getaway. 

Ron is convinced that there's a monster fish hanging out at the bottom of the lake, however, and apparently he's decided not to leave his shack until he catches it. After Ron discovers his truck has sunk through the thin, ice he taciturnly opens another beer and returns to fishing with renewed determination. Settling in to the drone of the local radio station's frequent snowstorm updates and school closings, his reverie is interrupted by knocks on the shack's door. A couple of door-to-door members of a local religious group, his brother Duff, and Junior Swansen, proprietor of the town's bait shop stop in for a visit, even his wife Irene checks in on him from time to time.

The show moves quickly, though at a languid pace, and Colin Nichols, as Ron, has a good instinct for the character's rhythm and personality. Quick to laugh and slow to take offense, he fondly recalls bygone days and significant events in his life, a clue that this fishing trip is different than any other he has taken. Nichols is welcoming and gracious, inviting the audience into his story with a jovial skepticism that captures the script's spirit.

Colleen Backer is completely Minnesotan and adorably devoted as Ron's wife Irene. She maintains the strongest accent among the cast and, more importantly, develops Irene into a complex and interesting character. Backer captures the posture and mannerisms of a solid midwestern girl, but emphasizes Irene's vivid imagination and lively spirit.

Scott De Broux nicely complements Nichols as his older brother Duff. Their conversations have an authentic back-and-forth with a genuine sense of brotherly affection. Moses Weathers is amiable and engaging as Junior, while Shannon Lampkin and Michael Pierce nearly steal their scenes with self-absorbed devotion and a touch of sexual tension. Under the sure direction of Adam Grun, the actors are thoroughly comfortable with each other, contributing humorous moments with nicely defined characters. 

The Ice Fishing Play, a story of a man stranded in his shack on a frozen lake and thinking about his lifelong friends and wife, is sweet and rather straightforward. Still, the conclusion sneaks up on you. I think it's because this is a story of affirmation, not loss. A celebration of the relationships, romantic and otherwise, that make a person's life full. Kling's purposefully rambling script is filled with homespun eloquence and colloquialism that transcend the region, and Grun and the cast succeed in creating an authentic connection with the material.

There are a few issues with the production, including problems capturing and sustaining the Minnesota accent, actors speaking upstage, and minor mistakes with cues, but the production values are by and large well done. The fishing shack, designed by Zachary Cary with props by Scott De Broux, looks great and fills the space nicely. Every element, even the decorative ones, has a purpose. 

Tracey Newcomb-Margrave does a nice job with the costume, particularly Irene's aprons. The sound design by J.D. Wade, including humorous radio voice over work by Mark Abels and Michael Monsey, sets a relaxed, upbeat tone for the show, which while funny isn't exactly a full-on comedy. Finally Nathan Schroeder's light design finishes off the technical touches and, though I don't understand why, the spotlights in the fishing holes really add something.

In the interest of full disclosure, I would like to state that I was a member of the committee reviewing scripts for West End Players Guild, but had no part in the casting, direction, or production of the show. I am a fan of the script and found the company's production succeeded in interpreting the heartwarming story. The Ice Fishing Play, running through Sunday, February 19, 2017 at West End Players Guild, is a lovely, tender reflection on life, loss, and enduring love. 

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