Tag Archives: Charlotte’s Off-Broadway

Paige Johnston Thomas (1968-2020)

Paige Johnston Thomas – Dynamic actor, director, casting agent, board member, and fundraiser

By Perry Tannenbaum

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When Paige Johnston made her Charlotte Rep debut in 1995, she was 26 years old, exactly the same age as the character she portrayed in Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women. Can you imagine the thrill? The other two tall ladies were Lucille Patton, reprising the role I’d seen her play on Broadway the previous November, and Mary Lucy Bivins, at the start of her two-year reign as Creative Loafing Actress of the Year.

Paige held her own – and went on to carve a special place in Charlotte’s theatre scene as an actor, director, casting agent, and as a board member. CAST’s most successful fundraiser, from what I heard. After marrying ace videographer Jay Thomas 13 years ago, Paige Johnston Thomas almost made it to the same age Bivins was supposed to be, dying early last week of a rare form of cancer, compounded by liver disease, at the age 0f 51.

It wasn’t a one-sided battle. Less than a year ago, Thomas was being hailed for conquering cancer as she directed the local premiere of J.T. Rogers’ Oslo, winner of the 2017 Tony Award for Best New Play. Deploying a large cast on a key episode in the endless conflicts in the Middle East – when peace blazed as a real possibility – in Norway, of all places! – the poignancy and hope of Oslo certainly wasn’t a low-energy project. Directing it wasn’t for beginners.IMG_7076

The career highlights on the road to Oslo with Three Bone Theatre included her devastating turn as Elvira in Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit (2003) at Theatre Charlotte. As a director at CAST, Thomas is most fondly remembered for dark play (2008) and No Exit (2009). Steel Magnolias (2010), the female Odd Couple (2012), and The Miracle Worker (2016) were probably her most resounding Theatre Charlotte hits. The local premiere of Three Days of Rain (2017) with Charlotte’s Off-Broadway was a handsome calling card prior to Thomas’s Oslo gig.

Yeah, the sun was shining a year ago – seemingly on an unclouded future – as Johnston was in rehearsals for Oslo. Here is the interview we did, along with excerpts from Q&A’s that I did with a few cast members.

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Queen City Nerve: How did you become involved in directing Oslo for Three Bone Theatre? Were you familiar with the script before you were asked to come aboard?

Paige Johnston Thomas: About a year and a half ago, I received a call from Robin [Tynes-Miller] about helming this project. I had been very aware of Three Bone and the success that Robin and Becky [Schultz] had been enjoying. I also loved that they teamed up with a community partner for each show, which I found made their company really unique in the world of theatre. Also, the fact that their tag line was “To succeed in life you need three things – a wishbone, a backbone, and a funny bone” – always cracked me up, yet resonated strongly with me! I was familiar with Oslo and its successful run on Broadway, but I had not read the script or seen the play when they reached out to me.

Not ignoring the logistical problems of coordinating rehearsals for a cast of 15, what are the special challenges of directing Oslo?

Thomas: Yes, the rehearsal schedule for 15 cast members was quite the challenge. But so was planning rehearsals for 15 people for 65 scenes! As they say in the theatre, “I was told there’d be no math!” Many of the scenes are short, moving the story along briskly, but working on the rehearsal schedule was intense. Even before undertaking the schedule, one of my first challenges was the subject matter of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It seemed such an onerous undertaking, and I had two main concerns: I worried if my knowledge and comprehension of the conflict were up to the task, and was this process going to be arduous and depressing because of the subject matter.

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But both those concerns quickly dissipated once I delved in to the script. Yes, as a director I was going to need to know the details of the conflict, and by starting my research early, I felt confident I could arrive to rehearsals prepared. But the beauty of the script is that it naturally reveals the necessary history and details needed to follow the story. One doesn’t need to know much, if anything, about the dissension between the two parties. And my concern about it being arduous and depressing were quelled once I realized that this is a story of hope, a story of success, and a story of the human spirit persevering through adversity. And thankfully, playwright J.T. Rogers has weaved in humor and witty badinage to keep the audience entertained and connected.

Are you thinking that the tortuous path to conflict resolution that happened in Oslo is in any way analogous/applicable to the polarization in American politics today – can we carry away any optimism after watching Oslo, or will seeing it deepen our sense of urgency and despair?

Thomas: Oslo is ultimately an optimistic play. It is filled with moments of solidarity, connection, and understanding; all the while underscored with the backdrop of hatred and distrust. Even more than when it opened on Broadway, I feel this play is extremely relevant and crucial in today’s political climate. How did two warring factions come together to forge an understanding? The play deals specifically with the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, which is still rearing its ugly head daily, but it is also dealing with the idea of peace, with the possibility of peace, and the hope for peace. Those themes are broader and relate to our American political parties, our foreign policies, and even to our smaller, but not less important, personal interactions. I hope our audience members leave the theatre with a sense of action and insight and see, like the characters in the play, that there is the possibility of peace and understanding even in the face of formidable obstacles.

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QC Nerve: How do you see Mona as a person? She seems both exciting and enigmatic on the page to me, frustratingly cautious one minute, brilliantly resourceful the next, with no obvious partialities either way in the Middle East conflict. Did you need to research her to see what made her tick, or did you simply rely on the script and/or Kat Martin’s dramaturgy instead?

Tonya Bludsworth (Mona Juul in Oslo): Mona is certainly all those things and she has been so much fun to figure out as a character. I did some research about her on my own, but Kat Martin was definitely an invaluable resource. Kat is a rock star in my book. Her dramaturgy packet was so detailed and chock full of information on the history of the conflict and the people involved. That information gave all of us a solid foundation on which to build our characters and the show. That said, I also wanted to make sure I wasn’t just imitating Mona and our director, Paige Thomas, has been so great to work with in that regard. We wanted to make sure that Mona was not just a narrator or stern politician. She carries a lot of emotional weight and even though she is adamant about neutrality she also feels the importance of the situation and the opportunity, and she genuinely hopes that this “process” will make a difference for all sides.

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QC Nerve: What impacts have the J.T. Rogers script, Paige Johnston Thomas’ directing, and Kat Martin’s dramaturgy had in developing your performance?

Victor Sayegh (Ahmed Qurie in Oslo): Rogers’ script is a beautiful tapestry of conflict, personal relationships, mistrust and humor. It is important to remember that, although the people portrayed in this play are real people, the words they speak are entirely the playwright’s. And he has done a beautiful job of portraying their roles in the story and their humanity without watering down their resolve. Qurie in particular is almost poetic in his language and there are lines he/I speak that touch my heart as the words leave my lips. Working under Paige’s direction also played into my interest in this project, and it has been a wonderful experience. She provides the perfect balance of direction and the freedom to make our own choices for our characters. Like the peace process itself, it has been an intense collaboration. Kat’s dramaturgy has allowed all of us to be immersed in the history of this conflict. She consistently reminds us all of the historical background that shaped each of our characters.

Going through the rehearsal process and Ahmed’s character arc night after night, does it get increasingly difficult each night to start out with the same degree of hatred and distrust every night towards characters/actors you’ve become accustomed to? What’s the secret to keeping your edge fresh?

Sayegh: This has been a challenge for me. Not only because of the many emotional ups and downs of the script, but also because Qurie often has an ulterior motive behind his words. He is very calculated. Like a poker player, he never lets his face give away his hand. Paige’s rehearsal process is very specific and organized. She has broken down the entire play into 67 scenes. Each night we know what scene or scenes we will be rehearsing. Therefore, I prepare myself each night by reliving what happened prior to that scene (the cards in my hand) as well as what I want to portray (my poker face).

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QC Nerve: Are you tackling the singular Israeli accent in your portrayals, or is the cast steering clear of such minefields?

Dennis Delamar (Shimon Peres and Yair Hirschfield in Oslo): I enjoy trying to fine-tune an accent, and I was up for the Peres/Hirschfeld challenge, but Paige made the directorial decision for us not to use accents, to “steer clear of such minefields,” which I understand and respect. There are a few times accents are used because they are necessary for the humor in a scene (usually Norwegian), but for the most part, we are all using straightforward standard English dialect. However, there are places in the script where the playwright has us actually speaking a line or two in Arabic, Hebrew or Norwegian for a desired effect, which I find enjoyable. I am very proud of my one line of Hebrew I hopefully mastered, which I speak to Anne Lambert as Toril, the Norwegian chef who serves all us men her specialty, waffles from her mother’s recipe. Paige was able to get dialectician Fiona Jones to provide us with translations and pronunciations of names and cities, quite a help.

In a diverse cast working on a taut, dramatic script, were there any outbreaks of arguments or hostilities between members of the cast during the heat of rehearsals – or were these subsumed by politeness and professionalism?

Delamar: I have not observed any outbreaks of hostility between members of the cast during rehearsals. Professional, polite, committed to finding the truth in the scene and the point of view of the character we were each playing have seemed to be our standards and primary goals. I’ve really appreciated the way Paige approached each scene from the outset with reinforcement from Kat the dramaturg at the table with the facts and the reminder to us, only speak for yourself, not anyone else’s character. We were encouraged to respect and try to understand other characters’ differences, as we analyzed how our characters were feeling and why. The honesty we have developed in our dramatic scenes have been informed intelligently by dialogue at the table before we have put each scene on its feet. There was a delicate and respectful dance preceding the often-explosive interchanges, helping with the ease and success of these scenes.

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How much work was it to see how incredible the Oslo process was from an Israeli point of view? How did the J.T. Rogers script, Paige’s direction, and Kat Martin’s dramaturgy contribute to properly shaping your mindset?

Delamar: I knew I was in for something special when this large cast of talent, many new faces to the Charlotte scene, showed up for the first read-through. My task, to find and appreciate the Israeli point of view was helped considerably by Paige’s guidance and the in-depth research provided by Kat Martin, our dramaturg. First, she provided articles and history on each of our characters, also the history of this part of the world, the Palestinians, the Israelis and the sequence of events before and after the Peace Accord. All helpful in understanding the Israeli point of view.

Links to documentaries and footage of interviews were also beneficial, although I got to a point I couldn’t watch them all. As I mentioned earlier, the playwright’s text also took me to that “point of view” awareness with some thoughtful analysis and good table discussion with the team. I found myself reading everything I could on Hirschfeld and Peres, of course, the two Israeli officials I am entrusted with playing. Such respect developed for their lifetime commitment to their cause and the State of Israel. When you play real human beings, there is a responsibility to bring life to their portrayals. Not a “spot on” impersonation, but achieving some sort of essence and dignity in their words and actions have been my goals.

Photos by Jay Thomas and courtesy of Theatre Charlotte

 

Charlotte’s Off-Broadway Poignantly Pieces “Three Days of Rain” Together

Review:  Three Days of Rain

By Perry Tannenbaum

At a pivotal moment in the opening act of Richard Greenberg’s Three Days of Rain, Walker Janeway pounces on a sentence in his dead father’s journal that only becomes visible in a certain slant of light – a stain that turns out to be words. Written by celebrated architect Ned Janeway shortly after the untimely death of his business partner, Theo Wexler, the phrase leads Walker to believe he has found the answer to why his father’s will divided his estate so shockingly.

There’s a bit of a cosmic joke that Walker is playing on himself here, but we don’t get to see it until deep into Act 2, which takes us back 35 years to 1960. In the same loft where Walker pored over Dad’s journal, we encounter Ned, Theo, and Lina, the woman who is torn between them. These are the parents of the people we’ve met at the start – Walker, his best friend Pip, and his sister Nan. And they’re the same actors, so you’ll catch the resemblance.

What Walker gets wrong is the true object of that wee stain of a sentence. He presumes it refers to all the world-famous buildings and homes conceived by the Wexler-Janeway architectural firm with their genius designs. Turns out that Lina, Nan, and Walker himself were more likely at the heart of what Ned was getting at.

“Everything,” you see, can mean a lot of different things.

Probably because all eyes were on Julia Roberts when Three Days of Rain made its Broadway debut in 2006 (nine years after its original run at Manhattan Theatre Club), more than a couple of critics were as off-target as Walker in their suppositions when they sleuthed out the point of it all. Restoring the original balance of the script, which centers its concern on the relationship between Walker and Ned, the current Charlotte’s Off-Broadway production at Spirit Square enables us to see more clearly.

Sure, it might be tempting conclude that Three Days of Rain demonstrates how narrowly children know their parents, flipping the plot of King Lear. Yet this production at Duke Energy Theater, so meticulously directed by Paige Johnston Thomas, reveals all of the pains Greenberg went to in making sure that Walker and Nan are exceptionally ignorant of their parents’ relationship and inner lives. So is Pip, vis-à-vis his dad.

We hear early on from Walker that his dad was nearly mute throughout his childhood, though we don’t learn why until we meet Ned after intermission. As for Lina, she has been strung out on drugs and/or insane since Walker was eight years old. Perhaps Walker could have gained some additional insights if he had attended Dad’s big A-list funeral and listened to the eulogies, but he skipped that, preferring to brood artistically in Italy for a year. Add to those deprivations the usual distance between fabulously wealthy parents and their kids – both of whom are free to globetrot when the impulse hits – and you can see why the journal that Walker discovers at the fateful loft is like a precious canteen filled with water that surfaces in the vast Sahara.

Ryan Maloney’s set design has a loosely precise look, like a blueprint drawn free-hand. Even in its abstractness, the design doesn’t destroy the workshop vibe of the loft. From the moment he appears on these hand-drawn quadrangles, Brian Lafontaine delivers a beautifully calibrated performance as Walker. You might look back, when it becomes obvious that he’s a snooty, shiftless, and irresponsible underachiever – with sprinklings of self-pity and hypochondria– and think that Lafontaine was a little too genial and yielding at the start.

Yet he’s not only speaking to us for the first time, he’s also meeting up with Nan for the first time since he disappeared without telling anyone where he was going. During his yearlong absence, Nan had come to terms with the probability, after hired detectives came up empty, that her brother was dead. So a bit a caution and contrition must be stirred into Walker’s Bohemian mix. Especially since he has forgotten that he was supposed to rendezvous with Nan at the airport. Ooops.

The meanness and arrogance of the man, peppered with resentment and delivered with some nasty sarcasm, come out after the disposition of the estate, when Walker comes back to the loft. Now the brunt of his attention is directed at Pip, who has drawn the one property that Walker cherished most. Pip actually offers a more plausible reason why this has happened: he had actually established a normal speaking relationship with Ned. But watch the seething, stony way that Lafontaine absorbs this and other revelations from his friend. He’s not much of a listener.

As for Lafontaine’s work on Ned, it may stand as the best he has given us in over 25 years on Charlotte stages, surprisingly effortless and touching at the end. Who saw this all winding up like a bittersweet romantic comedy after the fire that brought us to intermission? Restoring Lina to lifesize, Caroline Bower is a huge reason why the Act 2 denouement is so poignant and satisfying. In the opening act as Nan, Bower is far more subtly nuanced, demonstrating how the role can bloom with a real stage actress.

Nan is the offended normal sib who has the right to be absolutely disgusted with her brother’s inconsiderate flights, but if you closely watch her reaction to his blather, you’ll see that she momentarily drops her front of stern reproach, charmed and loving in spite of herself. There’s a parallel ambivalence in her attitude toward Pip, hints thrown our way when he appears in the second scene, fireworks ready to explode when the reason is disclosed in the Act 1 climax.

If Lafontaine and Bower embody one of the chief satisfactions of a vibrant local theatre scene, watching familiar professional performers radically transforming themselves into new roles, Chris Speed personifies the excitement a newcomer brings. After his richly textured accounts of both Pip and Theo, I can hardly wait to see what he does next. Pip realizes that, making his living as a soap opera stud, he is little more than a thin shadow of what his great father was. But he’s cool with that, though he seethes at Walker’s perpetual hypochondria and condescension, helping to bring the 1995 action so nicely to a boil.

Less open to the charge of superficiality – because he has loftier ambitions – Theo is like his son in his charismatic ability to navigate his career path. Yet he’s as undervalued when we see him in 1960 by Ned and Lina as Pip will be by their children 35 years later. We need to piece it together, connecting Theo’s final exit with the story Pip has told about him in Act 1, to realize that he’s really the best person we see, more than worthy of the barely legible tribute that Ned has written to him in his journal.

While Ned was reticent as a father after his disloyalty to his best friend, Theo was devoutly secretive with his wife and son, keeping hurts hidden that only Ned and Lina could have suspected. Speed does an excellent job of making the virtues of both Wexlers mesh together as a family trait. I found that Theo’s last walk into the wings, huddled in a trench coat on the last of Greenberg’s three days of rain, lingered long in my memory.

One other little signpost to catch in Act 2 – one that Greenberg himself pointed to in a 1998 interview with American Theatre magazine – when measuring Ned’s actual attitude toward his son against Walker’s perception. Ned expatiates at length on his desire to abandon architecture and become a flaneur, a loafer who strolls idly around town. “I find it moving,” said Greenberg, “that the father would name him after what he loved.”

And I find it ironic that, in the upshot of Walker’s life until we get our last glimpse of him, a father’s blessing has become a curse.

No, the point isn’t just that we narrowly know our parents. That’s taking Greenberg’s drama rather obtusely, for Pip lost his father at the age of three! Time after time, these young people who are so familiar with each other prove to utterly misjudge one another. They know each other narrowly and, on top of that, know themselves narrowly in different ways. So eventually, Three Days of Rain and old King Lear actually intersect.