Theatre Review: “Ordinary People” at Spotlight

Last Saturday night (4/19/08) I drove over to Beech Grove to see the Spotlight Players’ production of “Ordinary People.”  The script was written by Nancy Gilsenan, based on the novel by Judith Guest.  Brent Wooldridge directed, with Debby Lovell as producer.

I have been meaning to read the novel for years now, ever since I saw the Academy Award-winning movie.  That movie was very difficult to watch, and yet so powerful that I had to watch it several times.  I would like to watch it again.

Spotlight’s stage version is also powerful, but in a different way.  I thought I might spend the whole time comparing the Spotlight actors with the ones in the movie – Mary Tyler Moore as the mother, Donald Sutherland as the father, Judd Hirsch as the therapist, and Timothy Hutton as the son – but I did not.  In fact, I quickly forgot all about the movie stars and got caught up with the family that was on stage. 

Nate Walden plays Conrad, a tightly-wound high school student who tried to kill himself last year but who is now back home, trying to get back into the swing of school and the swim team.   Walden exercises enormous control over his character, but is also willing to take risks with expressing Con’s full range of emotions.  More about this in a moment.

Tom Robertson plays Cal, an affable and successful lawyer who is sometimes ineffectual as a husband and father.   I wanted to hug him, though, for wanting so badly for everyone, including himself, to heal.  And for being brave enough to ask for help.  I believed that he loves his surviving son, Conrad, as much as he loved his dead son, Buck.

Buck died in a sailing accident a little while before Con tried to kill himself.  The boys’ mother, Beth (Sarah Latimer), does not love Con the way she loved Buck, although she would never admit it.  She is even more tightly self-controlled than Conrad is.  If I were an actor, Beth would be a dream role.  There is so much to her cold character, so much for an actor to unpack and then re-hide.  Latimer does a good job with it.  I believed that she was completely dead inside, completely at a loss as to what to do about it, and determined to not risk any further pain or embarrassment by even admitting that anything was wrong.

Conrad’s father insists that Con follow up with the therapist that his doctor at the hospital recommended, a Dr. Berger.  Bill Becker plays this role with just-right humor, compassion, and deceptively casual therapeutic skill.  Con is resistant, at first, but very gradually he becomes more comfortable with talking things out.  The break-through scenes between Con and the doctor are fully and appropriately charged, emotionally honest and real.  I felt as much catharsis, watching them, as the characters did.

Con’s friends and classmates include Karen (Jesika St. Claire), a waif who was at the hospital at the same time, and for the same reasons, as Con.  St. Claire’s portrayal of Karen is heart-breakingly fragile, for all that Karen thinks she is so “up” and strong. 

Jeneta St. Clair plays Jeannine, a cute girl Con gets to know through choir at school.  Their budding romance is very sweet, very believable in its mix of awkwardness and delight.

Patrick Mullen plays Lazenby, a boy from the swim team who used to be over at Con’s house all the time when Buck was still alive, and now wants to continue to be a friend to Con but is also trying to cope with his own grief.  My heart went out to him.  Con tells him to just leave him alone and Lazenby says, “I loved him, too, and I’m here.  What am I supposed to do?” 

I didn’t like the insensitive swim coach, Coach Salan (Steven Cole Johnson), but I wasn’t supposed to.  Same with swim team member Stillman:  Colton Irwin succeeds in portraying him as a real jerk.

There is no fight choreographer listed in the program, but the explosive fight between Stillman and Conrad is startlingly convincing.

Steven Cole Johnson designed, and Roger Dutcher constructed, the bifurcated set, which simultaneously holds the family’s elegant living room (including a charming marble fireplace and a HUGE portable phone – hilarious, but authentic to the 1980s time period in which this play takes place) and Dr. Berger’s paper-strewn office.   There is also a small set of two steps with a black-and-white border around them in front of the stage.  This is where Con and Jeannine get to know each other.  For the swim team scenes, a crew member (stage manager Michael Maloney?) rolls a set of gym lockers to the middle of the stage.  Molly Bellner’s lighting design helps the audience members to focus their attention appropriately and often is quite lovely in and of itself.

Jim LaMonte’s sound design contributes pleasingly to the emotional pull of the story, too.  The pre-show music sounded Celtic to me: beautiful and full of yearning, which was a perfect mood-setter.  There are also just-right, quiet musical bits underlying some of the scenes.  Kevin Dennis ran both lights and sound during the show.

Unfortunately, sometimes when there was no music, and even when there was, I could hear people laughing and talking backstage, which made it harder to concentrate on what was going on in the play.

I also got distracted wondering why Cal wasn’t wearing a wedding ring, but I guess some married men just don’t.  Or was that a very subtle form of foreshadowing?

Speaking of foreshadowing, there were photos in the lobby showing the renovation in progress at Spotlight’s new location at 524 Main Street.  Spotlight Board member Julie Dutcher was working the box office table.  She told me that they are hoping to offer storytelling classes, open mike events, and more at the new venue, as well as a full, annual season of theatre productions.  This is very exciting!

At intermission, I met Linda Benge, an actor whose work I enjoyed more than once last year at the Red Barn Summer Theatre in Frankfort.  She is currently rehearsing “The Girls of the Garden Club” at the Clinton County Civic Theatre.  It goes up April 24 (tomorrow!)  Break a leg, Linda and girls!

Also at Spotlight the night I was there were Encore judge Jan McGill and reviewer Doug Davis.  Davis is directing “Those Crazy Ladies in the House on the Corner” at Center Stage Community Theatre in Lebanon, Indiana.  It opens June 6.  (Hey!  That’s easy to remember: it’s my birthday!)  Break a leg, Doug and ladies!

After the show, I got to chat a bit with Nate Walden about what it is like to play Conrad (exhausting and wonderful) and about acting in general.  This unexpected “talk back” was a special treat for me.

“Ordinary People” continues at Spotlight through April 27.  To make a reservation, please call 317-767-2774.

Hope Baugh –

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