Review: Night and Her Stars (The Gift Theatre Company)

  
  

Thornton and his cast earn their ‘applause light’

  
  

Ray Shoemaker and Joe Mack in Gift Theatre's 'Night and Her Stars' by Richard Greenberg.

   
The Gift Theatre presents
  
Night and Her Stars
  
Written by Richard Greenberg
Directed by
Michael Patrick Thornton
at
Gift Theatre, 4802 N. Milwaukee (map)
through April 24  | 
tickets: $25-$30  |  more info

Reviewed by Jason Rost

The effect of television on human civilization has been up for debate since the first flickering blue light emitted into people’s homes. “What was life like before television?” is a question that is repeated in Richard Greenberg’s 1995 play, Night and Her Stars, revolving around the 1950’s quiz show scandal involving academic Charles Van Doren and the Q&A show, “21”, now running at The Gift Theatre, directed with mastery by artistic director, Michael Patrick Thornton.

The vast majority of the American population can hardly fathom an existence without television. As this number increases, the debate on the social implications of television withers, being replaced by greater evils of technology. Nevertheless, this tale of America’s tested faith in television, and The Gift’s production, succeeds in reveling in nostalgia whilst finding immediacy, resonance and heart in its characters and their flaws.

Lindsey Barlag (foreground) and Erika Schmidt in Gift Theatre's 'Night and Her Stars' by Richard Greenberg.As Greenberg himself notes, this play “must not be mistaken for history.” It is in this vain that the Gift takes us back to a skewed cold war era consumer driven television world of the 1950’s. Set designer Adam Veness does a remarkable job of transforming the tinderbox storefront space into a gaudy haunting replica of the notorious game show, “Twenty One”, complete with an “Applause” lighted sign and a four-sided blue glowing orb of a television set.

The first act primarily follows the rise and fall of the knowledgeable Jewish contestant Herb Stempel (played by Raymond Shoemaker with pitch perfect desperation, optimism and hamartia). Stempel is discovered by game show producer Dan Enright (Danny Ahlfeld) after being pressured by sponsors and execs to bring brighter contestants onto the show to avoid dead silence and stammering. Ed Flynn gives an entertaining supporting performance as the Geritol sponsor pleading with Enright, “I have to appeal to geriatrics.” These demands lead to Enright feeding answers to an initially hesitant Stempel resulting in his reigning championship run.

Stempel’s ethnicity and lack of on-camera charisma aren’t quite what the show’s audience is looking for, as Keith Neagle delivers the powerfully cringing line, “I hate him like rabies!” In one of the highlights of the play, Shoemaker is brilliant as Stempel pleading for any other question than the one he is given to go down on during his fall. As Stempel begins to reveal the truth to the press, Enright plays it off as “Jewish self-hatred.”

Along comes the more “all-American” contestant Charles Van Doren (Jay Worthington) who descends from a long line of famed academics. Van Doren is fed answers to replace Stempel on the show. Worthington gives a complex and exciting performance. As Charlie, he conveys a man who is given everything at once, yet happiness eludes him.

Charlie Van Doren’ can be considered a symbol of television stardom, be it quiz shows or reality shows. He embodies short lived fame and a lack of touch with the real world. Contrasting another Charlie amidst a modern day TV scandal, Van Doren finally exclaims, “I don’t want to win anymore.” Van Doren’s confession is staged effectively by Thornton with a chorus of the Christian congress instantly forgiving his sins.

Branimira Ivanova’s costumes are scrumptious, with many raided directly from the “Mad Men” wardrobe department, giving us glimpses into a range of rising movements in the late 50’s during the American Chorus’ interludes. The pinstriped suit and polka-dotted tie Enright gives to Stempel for his television debut is a sure laugh each night. Lighting designer Scott Pillsbury creates impressive effects and moods with the small space including an emotional lighting storm and perfectly placed moments in which the audience becomes lit. Miles Polaski’s sound design balances nicely between the atmospheric and the expressive spectrums.

     
Keith Neagle, Aemilia Scott and Jay Worthington in Gift Theatre's 'Night and Her Stars' by Richard Greenberg. Aemilia Scott and Ray Shoemaker in Gift Theatre's 'Night and Her Stars', wirtten by Richard Greenberg.

While Shoemaker and Worthington carry the show, it is ultimately an ensemble production. Joe Mack may be the most perfect casting in his turn as the oblivious game show host Jack Berry. Thornton utilizes Greenberg’s American Chorus expertly, as these fine actors come into the light to play pivotal roles only to disappear into an ever watching amoeba. Katie Genualdi is charming and smart in her various appearances, especially at the top of the second act in an ad for cornflakes infused with caffeine. Erika Schmidt has a calm intensity as a reporter who finally brings Van Doren to the truth. Established Chicago actor Paul D’Addario, as the exec Al Freedman, is as powerful of a presence silent as he is during dialogue. Aemilia Scott, as Stempel’s wife, is fascinating in struggling with her doubts for her husband. Ahlfeld’s Enright occasionally has some pacing and timing issues that may get tighter during the run.

While Greenberg’s telling of this cautionary tale may not land quite as powerfully as a decade or two ago, it still stands the test of time as an historical account that has grown into legend. The heart and humanity of this play lies with a character I’ve yet to mention played with wonder and honesty by veteran actor Richard Henzel. Perhaps, do yourself a favor and save the reading of the program until after the show and be surprised by the final scene in which we finally see Van Doren in his natural setting.

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

Jay Worthington and Richard Henzel in Gift Theatre's 'Night and Her Stars' by Richard Greenberg.

Night and Her Stars continues at The Gift Theatre through April 24th, with performances Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 7:30pm with Sunday matinees at 2:30. (no shows April 16 and 17). Running time is 2 hours, 25 minutes with one intermission. Tickets are $25 (Sundays) and $30 (Thursday, Friday and Saturday). Industry and senior prices: $20 (Sundays only). For more info visit  thegifttheatre.org.

     
     

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Review: Gift Theatre’s “Summer People”

Keen performances elevate ‘Summer People’s’ tenuous script

 summer_people_Rob_Belushi_Justin_James_Farley

The Gift Theatre Company presents:

Summer People

by Jenny Connell
directed by Paul D’Addario
runs through Dec. 13 (ticket info)

reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

The Gift Theatre Company ensemble members Lynda Newton and Danny Ahlfeld open Summer People with a dramatic storm scene. We don’t yet know who this anguished couple is, but we understand that a daughter is missing, possibly dead; her father unreachable; and the relationship between the two on stage troubled.

summer_peopleIt’s a powerful scene, and these two dominate the production with keen performances throughout. Yet it creates a heavy foreshadowing over the rest of the play, which unfolds in a flashback to the preceding weeks.

Five damaged people have come together near Mount Desert, Maine, a place nicely sketched by Brendan Donaldson‘s set. Ahlfeld, we learn, is Scotty, manager of a campgrounds and general store there, a Vietnam veteran whose war experiences left him too emotionally scarred for any more ambitious life. Newton plays Kate, a Maine native who returns from New York City every summer with her family.

This summer, however, is different. Kate and her two daughters, Laura and Sam, arrive at their cottage as usual, but Kate’s husband has deserted them, upsetting all three. Kate struggles with single parenthood, loneliness and feelings of inadequacy.

Kate’s daughter Laura, also troubled by her emerging sexual awareness and the typical angst and rebelliousness of teenaged girls, fights with her mother – particularly as Kate and Scotty draw closer. Imaginative young Sam copes by videotaping everything that happens to show Dad what he’s missing and spends her time snooping around the campgrounds, especially at Site 54, where a clearly disturbed, newly discharged Marine grapples with the ghosts of his time in Iraq.

Ahlfield puts just enough Maine drawl into his voice without overdoing it, perfectly conveying Scotty’s laidback yet neurotic character in a fine counterpoint to Newton’s expressiveness as the often frenzied Kate. They create characters one immediately warms to. Ray Gray, a senior at the Latin School, and 9-year-old Grace Goble put in very natural performances as Laura and Sam.

summer_people_Danny Ahlfeld_Grace Goble As the young Marine, Rob Belushi (yes, his dad is Jim Belushi), often seems stiff -perhaps more so than the awkwardness his role demands. He loosens up only momentarily in a couple of scenes with Justin James Farley and Minita Gandhi, who play characters out of the Marine’s time in Iraq. Or perhaps it’s just that this character isn’t very well developed, but a sort of cardboard case of shell shock. Outside of his war experience, we learn nothing about him – not even his name.

While the first scene let us know something bad is going to happen, when it comes it’s a brief and abrupt anticlimax. The tragic final scene quickly becomes predictable, with far less drama than the opening, and the build up lacks tension. Director Paul D’Addario‘s generally good staging comes apart a bit, too. The restraint that serves most of the play quite well doesn’t fit here.

At 70 minutes, without intermission, Summer People feels like two-thirds of a play – short and somewhat tenuous. What there is, is worth seeing, but I’d have liked to have seen the rest. A longer, two-act script might have overcome the heavy-handed forewarning of the first scene, and conveyed something more than the obvious message that war makes people crazy.

 

Rating: ★★★

 

Notes: Free parking is available in the gravel lot at 5237 W. Lawrence Ave. No late seating permitted.