Tag Archives: Paige Johnston Thomas

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

 

Recapturing Old Hostilities – and the Path to Peace

Preview:  Three Bone Theatre Production of Oslo

By Perry Tannenbaum

 

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Peace and the Middle East – they just don’t seem to belong in the same sentence, do they? Every week, we hear about a new flareup, a new conflict, a new bombing, and more death. So it’s timely that Oslo, the 2017 Tony Award winner for Best Play by J.T. Rogers, will be opening this week at Spirit Square. The Three Bone Theatre production, a Charlotte area premiere, revisits the back-channel talks that led to the historic handshake between Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO chairman Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn on September 13, 1993.

Simpler, more innocent times – before we were educated (superficially, of course) about Sunnis and Shiites, before Americans discovered we despised Iran as much as Iraq, before Al Qaeda, 9-11, ISIS, beheadings, and chemical warfare. Long ago.

Beginning with a guerilla production of The Vagina Monologues at the WineUp wine loft in NoDa six years ago, Three Bone has grown gradually to the point where artistic director Robin Tynes feels ready for the challenge. Ready or not, Oslo is a substantial stretch for Three Bone.

There are more than 20 roles in Oslo, and most of 15 players covering them are making their company debuts. Actors in both the Israeli and Palestinian delegations need to feel the distrust and animosity of each side toward the other, travel the compressed journey to understanding and agreement in Rogers’ script, and repeat that three-hour odyssey – starting all over again with the same ferocious edge – night after night in performance.

That journey gets rockier if you’re fielding a diverse cast of Jews, Muslims, and Christians who come to the table with their own settled views. Respecting diversity had to go hand-in-hand with respecting the values of each performer’s time.

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“Yes, the rehearsal schedule was quite the challenge,” says director Paige Johnston Thomas, “15 people for 65 scenes! As they say in the theatre: I was told there’d be no math!”

Thomas, a fixture on the local scene for over 20 years, is making her debut with Three Bone. Kat Martin, brought aboard as assistant director and dramaturg, hasn’t worked at any theatre company before in the QC – and she’s drawing “rock star” accolades for her work in her Charlotte debut.

“Although I am not a Middle East expert,” says Martin, “a dramaturg’s job is to become an expert quickly then create points of entry for deepened understanding for creatives as well as community members.”

A dramaturg’s outreach to the community, after briefing directors and performers, often takes the form of explanatory materials in the show’s playbill. Martin’s involvement has been more proactive, involving the Oslo cast during her search for historical contexts. She began by speaking with John Cox, associate professor of Holocaust, genocide & human rights studies at UNC-Charlotte, who encouraged her to create a dramaturgy day where actors could listen and learn from community stakeholders like Palestinian activist Rose Hamid and Rabbi Judy Schindler, director of the Stan Greenspon Center for Peace and Social Justice.

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That solid core was augmented by the participation of former Israeli soldier Stefan Pienkny, a veteran of the 1967 war, and two Palestinian refugees, Wafa Omran and Khalid Hijazi. Rounding out her gathering – and acknowledging the all-important peacemaking perspective of the Norwegians – Martin also invited facilitation expert Candice Langston, managing director of The Lee Institute.

“My biggest challenge was to keep the research real,” Martin emphasizes, “so I wanted to cultivate information for the cast while also making sure they were learning with their gut.” The three-hour crash course she organized for dramaturgy day began with Cox reviewing the historical background and Langston addressing the topic of building community dialogue.

Then there were hourlong small group meetups that paired the Israelis and Palestinians in the cast with the community stakeholders who represent those points of view. At the same time, actors cast as Norwegians lingered with Langston for more info on facilitating high-level negotiations. Climaxing the evening, the whole cast gathered together right after ingesting an hour of diverging partisan viewpoints, plunging into exercises designed to simulate the process of bridging those gaps, understanding the “other,” and finding common ground.

It was intense.

“An evening as an actor I won’t forget,” says Dennis Delamar, who will portray Yair Hircshfeld, one of the back-channel negotiators, and Shimon Peres, the foreign minister who would share the Nobel Peace Prize with Rabin and Arafat after the Accords were signed. “The evening focused on lived experiences, personal stories, facts, and some tears I observed which were quite integral in shaping my mindset. Stakes were definitely raised. I loved every minute of it.”

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Peres doesn’t enter until well after intermission. A political rival of Rabin, he keeps the Oslo talks secret – because he knows the Prime Minister will reject any agreement that isn’t airtight. It must be an offer that cannot be refused. Until the Israelis are close to that, no member of the government can be seen talking to the Palestinians. Needless to say, the Americans engaged in their endless fruitless talks must also be kept in the dark.

So that’s why Delamar is Hirschfeld all through the opening act – an economics professor at the U of Haifa!

“I connect with and enjoy playing Yair’s passion and intellect,” he says, “but also a certain amount of humor J.T. Rogers developed with this character. Sometimes he is out of his depths in the negotiations, but he’s never without a passion for the grave reason he’s there, fully invested in the outcome, proud of his part in the start of it all. I’ve enjoyed making him relatable in an endearing and real way.”

Yes, there are comical moments that leaven the animosities and tensions, but there are thriller elements aplenty. The possibility of ruining Peres’s political fortunes keeps the Israelis on edge, while for Mona Juul and Terje Rød-Larsen, the Norwegians pushing negotiations forward, getting their government to buy into the process – knowing they must keep the Americans in the dark – ratchets up their anxieties.

For the Palestinian delegation, PLO finance minister Ahmed Qurie and PLO liaison Hassan Asfour, secrecy is a matter of life-or-death. Only Arafat knows about these talks and how they’re progressing.

Vic Sayegh will take on the role of Qurie. Although he the mellower, less militant of the two Palestinians, he’s a radical departure for an actor whose QC credits began in 2003 with appearances in Steve Martin’s The Underpants and Charles Busch’s Psycho Beach Party. There’s no Kanaka shtick here, but there is a certain amount of savoir faire.

And the Palestinian does provide some comedy when he lets his guard down. Before encountering Hirschfeld in London for the first time, he confides to Larsen, his intermediary: “I have never met an Israeli. Face-to-face.”

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Very unique comedy, typical of the tensions Oslo whips up. But the finance minister quickly recovers in Hirschfeld’s presence, informing him that he hasn’t been to his homeland since 1967 when his whole village was forced to flee from “the advancing hordes of Zionism.” Awkwardness turns to polite hostility in a flash.

“Qurie often has an ulterior motive behind his words,” Sayegh notes. “He is very calculated. Like a poker player, he never lets his face give away his hand.”

Poker-faced or not, Sayegh sees Qurie’s motivations as deep and honorable. He’s relating them to his own experiences and heritage.

“As a young man, I remember meeting people who were Palestinian and subsequently looking for Palestine on a map,” Sayegh reminisces. “I would ask myself why they called a place that no longer existed, ‘home.’ Now I understand. Personally, my paternal grandparents were born in Aleppo, Syria. It was once a beautiful region of the world, but many years of conflict have reduced it to rubble. I hope that one day, peace in the entire region will allow me to visit the land of my ancestors.”

While Terje is the visionary who devises a successful model for conflict resolution – with a mixture dogged determination and quixotic optimism to keep it going – it’s the calm, meticulous, and brilliantly resourceful Mona who steers her husband around the political complications that threaten to scuttle his mission. Fresh on the heels of her pivotal role in the world premiere of Steven Dietz’s The Great Beyond, Tonya Bludsworth takes on the role of this unsung hero who buoyed her husband’s confidence while clearing his path.

“Prior to reading Oslo,” says Bludsworth of her journey, “I’m sure I felt like most Americans, that peace in the Middle East is not likely to ever really happen. But I was in tears when I first read the script, not because I was sad, but because I was overwhelmed by this incredible feeling of hope, and I still feel it every night in rehearsal. As Terje says, if we could just get past the politics and see the people, the personal, then there is a way.”

High-Grade, Homegrown and Professional

Preview:  Three Days of Rain

By Perry Tannenbaum

Maybe you’ve noticed: since the beginning of September, there has been an abundance of high-quality, homegrown and professionally crafted theatre productions around town – from new or returning companies as well as the usual suspects. Brand New Sheriff ignited the upswell with Jitney, the best drama of the year, and the drive continued with scintillating efforts by donna scott productions, OnQ Performing Arts, and The Playworks Group.

And that was just during the first three weeks!

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Within the next two weeks, Actor’s Theatre unveiled a fiery American Idiot, PaperHouse Theatre trailblazed at the Goodyear Arts Center with The Revolutionists, and Children’s Theatre outdid themselves at ImaginOn with a high-flying Mary Poppins. Three Bone Theatre has sustained the seasonal glow with Fahrenheit 451 and the Actor’s Theatre encore, Hand to God, was merely better than the Broadway production.

You have several more chances to experience professional-grade excellence in local theaters before the winter solstice, including reprises by Chickspeare, OnQ, Children’s, and Actor’s of holiday faves. But if you’re itching to get a taste of the grassroots fervor that has gripped the Queen City throughout the fall theatre season – and escape the oncoming blizzard of Christmas repeats – your only choice is to check out Charlotte’s Off-Broadway.

Gestating at the Warehouse PAC up in Cornelius for the past five years in storefront productions, Charlotte’s Off-Broadway is staging an Uptown rebirth with the Metrolina premiere of Richard Greenberg’s Three Days of Rain. For founding producer Anne Lambert and her company, it’s their first presentation at Spirit Square since 2005 – and their first Actors’ Equity production ever.

Lambert isn’t coy about what she hopes will begin sprouting from all the recent professional grassroots action around Charlotte this season – a professional company with the same regional status and prestige that Charlotte Repertory Theatre had before it folded in 2005.

“Yes,” says Lambert, “I do see Three Days of Rain as a project that represents the beginning of a concerted effort to lift Charlotte’s Off-Broadway to a new level, to impact the city’s theatre scene and, yes, to move Charlotte closer to re-establishing ourselves as a logical home for a LORT (League of Resident Theatres) company.”

It begins by consistently producing high-quality shows that the community will continue to come out and see – and continue to hit their wallets and support. Butts and bucks. Part of the push on Lambert’s side is signing Equity contracts with her actors so that they are all treated and paid according to union standards. Two of the three Equity players, Caroline Bower and Brian Lafontaine, are longtime Charlotte favorites.

Lafontaine is also co-producing. He and Lambert last collaborated in 2003 when he acted in The Hotel Project, a pair of one-acts produced by Lambert and Matt Olin while they were, respectively, director of development and managing director at Charlotte Rep during its sunset years. More recently, Lambert and Lafontaine have been attending Creative Mornings, a monthly happening for Charlotte creatives organized by Olin and Tim Miner.

The old mojo began to work again during the supercharged meet-ups. Three Days of Rain was among the scripts that Lafontaine had brought with him from New York when he moved back to Charlotte. He was at a point in his career where he was thinking about producing a show that he wanted to do – at a professional level.

“Anne had told me if I ever wanted to get a show produced, she could get it done for me after we had worked together on The Hotel Project,” Lafontaine remembers. “I know how passionate she is, and how capable she is. She loves theater. She loves actors, and she loves contributing in any way that she can to the artistic community in Charlotte. She’s an incredible partner. There’s no way this would be happening without her.”

There was a notorious Broadway run of Three Days of Rain back in 2006 starring Julia Roberts, so Lambert had heard of the script when Lafontaine brought it to her. But she hadn’t read it. Months of discussions culminated in opting for the Greenberg play.

“It’s a well-written, Pulitzer Prize-nominated script,” Lambert stresses. “It’s sophisticated, it’s funny, it’s compelling, and it’s mysterious, full of Easter Eggs that reward the attentive audience member. It has six completely beguiling characters. I’m excited by the device of the dual roles, where the actors we see portraying Walker, Nan and Pip in Act 1 turn around in Act 2 and play their parents. These three talented actors in our show are so adept, so good at what they’re doing, they really are two different characters for me.”

Notwithstanding all that Roberts hoopla, Walker and Ned, the son and father Lafontaine will play, have always been the core characters at the heart of Three Days. Both are startlingly eccentric – and brilliant. After his dad’s funeral, Walker had vanished so completely that his sister Nan, the sensible branch of the Janeway family, had given him up for dead while he was holed up in Italy for a year. The siblings now meet at an unoccupied loft where, 35 years earlier, Walker’s dad had designed his masterwork, Janeway House.

But wait a second. When they finally read Daddy’s will, the sibs discover that, instead of going to them, the Janeway House has been inherited by their longtime friend Pip, the son of Theo Wexler, who was Ned’s partner at their architectural firm. It’s a mystery. To get to the bottom of it, Walker obsessively pores through his dad’s terse diary, which he discovered soon after he returned to the loft.

Friction, mystery, and brilliant minds are all in the mix.

“The dialogue is fantastic,” Lafontaine enthuses. “It has an almost Aaron Sorkin feel to it. Sure, I think it’s funny in a lot of places. Thank God. Otherwise, I think we’d be driving audience members to therapy after. And the mystery adds another interesting element to the play. But for me, it really is more of [a dramatic] study about the relationship between children and parents.”

Bower, who plays Nan and her mom Lina, burst onto the Charlotte scene in 2007 with starring roles in Thoroughly Modern Millie and The Wizard of Oz. By the time she dropped out in 2014, Bower had drawn acting paychecks from every company in town that cuts them – Actor’s, Children’s, and CPCC Summer Theatre. She became the most persuasive poster child we had for the notion that stage acting could be a viable profession in Charlotte.

Then she took a position as teacher and director at Providence Day School to expand the theatre program there and carry herself from car payment to car payment. She came out of “hiding” this past summer, choreographing Cry Baby at Theatre Charlotte, and now she is acting under her second Actor’s Equity Association contract within the space of two months.

“I am so lucky to have been a part of The Revolutionists and Three Days of Rain. Being a part of two projects that care enough about their actors to jump through the AEA hoops is humbling. Not only do the production teams care about their actors, but both of these scripts are the best of the best.”

Paige Johnston Thomas, who directs, brings an additional chunk of Charlotte Rep DNA to the Lambert-Lafontaine production team. Her first acting gig in the Queen City was in another three-person cast, playing C in Rep’s 1995 production of Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women. Thomas’s most recent paying gigs in theatre have been directing at Theatre Charlotte and Davidson Community Players.

But her most important role on the local scene is as an “anti-relocation advocate,” having founded C&J Casting with Mitzi Corrigan to help local theatre pros get steady work in commercials and film.

Thomas saw Bower’s outing at Goodyear Arts, where she portrayed a vain, charismatic, and bubble-headed Marie Antoinette.

“I texted her this after the show: ‘I couldn’t keep my eyes off you,’” Thomas relates. “Which in real life sounds kinda creepy, but in the acting world, it’s a huge compliment. She has an innocence that is constantly being belied by her quick intellect and emotional depth. It makes for great conflict, which makes great drama.”

Head for Duke Energy Theatre if you want to see it. Then consider hitting your hip if you like what you’ve seen.

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.

DCP’s Energetic “Fox in the Fairway” Is Nearly as Funny as a Sitcom

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By Perry Tannenbaum

Foxhunting and golf are both centuries old, so as a fancier of farces with keen sporting interests, I was intrigued when Ken Ludwig’s The Fox on the Fairway arrived in North Carolina during the summer of 2012. Ludwig is probably the most reliable farceur our nation has produced in the past 50 years, his Moon Over Buffalo arguably an even finer example than his more renowned Lend Me a Tenor. But after its NC premiere at Flat Rock Playhouse, followed shortly afterwards with another production at Old Courthouse Theatre in Concord, the presumably inevitable Charlotte premiere still hasn’t happened. So, in spite of my recent disappointment with Davidson Community PlayersSingin’ in the Rain, I yielded to the prospect of finally tracking down The Fox at Duke Family Performance Hall, the same place where DCP had remounted their Gene Kelly musical without either a rain shower or a sturdy lamppost.

Assuming that it wasn’t going to be subjected to undue stress, I was greatly encouraged when I first saw Clay James’ sturdy set design for the clubhouse at the Quail Valley Country Club, where all the action takes place. My optimism was immediately punctured when the fun was intended to begin. Each of the six characters we were about to see made a quick entrance, delivered a one-liner, and scooted back to the wings. Even if it were executed well, that’s a pretty cheesy way to open a show. While director Paige Johnston Thomas had apparently communicated the needs for energy and speed to her cast, the lesson of strength was either omitted or lost. I couldn’t really hear most of the words these players were blurting out, and the problem didn’t entirely disappear as the plot unfolded, though I detected improvement after intermission.

Justin is the newly hired assistant at Quail Valley, eager to please his new boss, Bingham, and even more eager to become engaged to Louise, who already works there. We soon find that Bingham has even more pressing concerns. He has been consistently losing to his condescending and underhanded rival, Dickie, in the annual tournament between his club and the Crouching Squirrel, Dickie’s club. Dickie gives Bingham 2-to-1 odds on the outcome, betting $200,000 against Bingham’s $100,000, but Bingham must also surrender his wife’s antique shop if Quail Valley loses. Before agreeing to this wager – which seems less lopsided the more you think about it – Dickie has already stolen Quail Valley’s best golfer away to the Crouching Squirrel team. And it seems that Dickie has also stolen the affections of Bingham’s nagging wife, Muriel. If that weren’t enough, Bingham’s future as president of Quail Valley hinges on the outcome of the tournament.

As it turns out, Bingham’s situation isn’t altogether hopeless. When Justin told him that he shot a 136 the last time he was out on a golf course, he neglected to mention that he had played two rounds. Then there’s his VP, Pamela, who knows her way around the technicalities of club rules well enough to quickly enroll Justin as a member, qualified to compete in the tournament. She also amply reciprocates the affection that Bingham was too shy to act upon back in the days when he was a pimply kid. Quail Valley thus has a representative who can conquer on the course if Justin can maintain his delicate equipoise. An eight-stroke lead could vanish in a heartbeat if some bad news rattles him. Now we know that is sure to happen, right? The reason, in this instance, is Louise’s inability to withhold the truth from her fiancé, even if the upshot is horrendous.

indexConsistency and logic prove wobbly throughout the evening. Bingham undergoes rigorous questioning when he adds Justin to his team without the customary waiting period, yet Dickie earns a free pass on taking away Quail Valley’s best golfer overnight. The whole idea of the clubs having competing teams is discarded in the blink of an eye – it’s Justin versus the traitorous Tramplemain, one-on-one. Dickie takes pains to wager on Muriel’s shop when he already has Muriel, and Louise manages to call off the engagement because Justin is justly mistrustful of her. About the only artful part of Ludwig’s plotting comes at the end, after he has detonated all his ludicrous catastrophes. Only then do we get the first inkling of what foxes have to do with anything that we’ve seen.

In this mating of unlikely disabilities, Tim Hager as the ultra-neurotic Justin was by far the more satisfying performer. With the onset of the bad news, Hager turned the club’s sofa into a hilarious prop as he unraveled all over it. Rachel Bammel was more than sufficiently juvenile as Louise, but her superabundant energy undid her whenever she spoke frantically. Hager wasn’t always entirely intelligible either, particularly in the climactic argument before intermission. Brian Rassler as Bingham and Abigail Pagán as Pamela had the right kind of hesitantly magnetic chemistry between them. I can readily forgive Pagán for being slightly younger than ideal for Pamela because she gave us a portrayal that was as vivid as Hager’s, and she was the one person on stage who consistently cared about reaching up to the mezzanine with her voice. By contrast, Rassler was always agreeably confused throughout Bingham’s many trials, his constant stress filled in the blanks when I missed the actual words.

Stuart and Leslie Jonap, as Dickie and Muriel, were equally gifted in portraying the villains, bestowing one dimension apiece to the swindling club prez and the nagging wife. Both Jonaps could also stretch to two dimensions – and turn up the heat – when the nasties invaded each other’s space. They were perfect examples of why blithe farces and community theatre companies are such a perfect fit. If only Ludwig had provided a better script, they might have been able to shine. Instead, they could only enhance the feeling that, six years after Ludwig’s play was originally staged in Washington, DC, we’re still watching a chaotic first draft of a farce. Everyone was trying so hard, but despite the heroics of Hager and Pagán, this brew never rose to the level of a TV sitcom – though I’m sure it’s as good as many that have perished as a pilot. As for the cheesy shtick that goes with the curtain calls, don’t blame Thomas. The director is only staging what’s on the page, where silliness occasionally devolves into stupidity.

Keller Keeps Tugging at Our Emotions

Theatre Reviews: The Miracle Worker and I’ll Eat You LastMiracle Worker

By Perry Tannenbaum

With most dramas, I find that successive productions I review tend to exert less of a powerful tug on my emotions each time I see the same drama again. Yet I’ve found quite the opposite to be true of The Miracle Worker, William Gibson’s 1960 Tony Award winner for Best Play, the chronicle of young Annie Sullivan’s diligent efforts – on her first paying job and her first plunge into the Deep South – to reach the deaf-and-blind Helen Keller and teach her the concept of language.

Last time I covered The Miracle Worker at CPCC in 2008, I found myself choking back sobs when I merely saw the furshlugginer water pump at the start of Act 2. So I was grateful, in a way, to see the pump already in place downstage when I ambled toward my seat for the current production at Theatre Charlotte. Gillian Albinski’s set design, a rather bland thing compared to some of the artistry I’ve seen at the Queens Road barn, seemed to be building up my immunity.

I was mistaken, for it isn’t until intermission that they set up the little guesthouse where Annie is allowed to have exclusive care of Helen for two weeks, during which time she must repair their relationship, tame the child’s wildness, and give her the keys to communication. Just seeing the contours of that secluded place brought on a surge of emotions that I fought to hold in check.

When you think of it, The Miracle Worker is rather unique in establishing powerful associations with each of its different locales at the Kellers’. There’s the upstairs bedroom where Annie must be rescued by ladder because she allows Helen to outsmart her and lock her in during their first encounter. Nor do we forget the dining room, scene of two epic battles between Helen and Annie – and the place where James finally stands up to his imperious father, Captain Keller.

Okay, so the production levels don’t rival the notorious 2003 Charlotte Rep production that was envisioned as a launching pad for Hilary Swank’s Broadway debut. (Never happened, the producers’ verdict on what we saw.) But the gulf between those Broadway-bound costumes and those by Luci Wilson isn’t ridiculously wide at all, and while Theatre Charlotte’s Helen wasn’t victorious in any nationwide search, I think you’ll find Emily Bowers quite extraordinary.

There is never a sense that director Paige Johnston Thomas is trying to replicate the iconic 1962 film, which brought fresh awards to Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke, the original Broadway stars. Quite the contrary: Thomas makes it easier for Sarah Woldum in her Charlotte debut as Annie Sullivan by allowing her to drop the Irish accent that plagued Swank, and Alex Duckworth – notwithstanding his syrupy drawl – may be the least youthful James that I’ve seen.

Throughout the evening, beginning when Kate Keller discovers her daughter’s disabilities upstairs in the nursery, lighting designer Chris Timmons and music composer Grover Smith make telling contributions. Caylyn Temple as Kate and Philip Robertson as Captain Keller do a beautiful job of setting up the dignified family tone. While it’s customary for the Captain to show a lack of love for his daughter – he’s taken aback when Annie calls him on it – Robertson seems to want to love Helen more than any father I’ve seen. Besides the crippling excess of motherly indulgence, Temple partners well with Duckworth in the somewhat awkward relationship between Kate and her stepson.

Woldum is certainly a more youthful Annie than Swank was, more youthful than Joanna Gerdy was when Theatre Charlotte last presented Miracle Worker in 1997. That is the dimension I most love about this production. Sullivan’s age – she’s merely 20 – is arguably what makes her most unfit for the challenge she’s undertaking. Not only can we see Annie’s youth peeping through here, we can perceive how it becomes a double asset when the challenge is engaged.

It’s a matter of sheer physical vitality when Annie confronts Helen’s unruliness in the dinner table scenes and at the guesthouse, but it’s also a matter of empathy. I’m not a big fan of the flashback interludes, when Annie recalls her younger brother’s death, but I’m more reconciled to them in this production, and Timmons delineates them well with his lighting.

Charles Holmes gets credit for the fine fight choreography when the action heats up and the spoons begin to fly, but it’s Bowers’ lack of inhibition that makes it all work. There’s always enough luminosity in her blankest expressions for us to believe in her openness, and when she’s finally sitting quietly and eating at the guesthouse, I found a tinge of pride amid Helen’s exhausted submission.

Maybe the reason I find The Miracle Worker so compelling after all these years is the fact that it becomes less dated with the passage of time. The more I’ve learned about child development and the acquisition of language, the more spot-on Annie’s observations on these subjects have become. One time, the water pump gets to me; the next time, the guest cottage floors me. I wouldn’t be surprised if I’m fighting back tears the next time I see Sullivan lifting the stupid egg. I can only envy those of you who may be just beginning your journeys with this rich drama. It has surprising, rewarding depths.

Anne Lambert as Sue Mengers 3 Feb 2016

An elaborate sofa and its many pillows becomes a luxuriant throne when the star of I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers appears to graciously grant us an audience at UpStage in NoDa. Born into a Jewish family in Hamburg, Mengers tells us how her family fled Nazi Germany in 1938 and wound up in Utica, New York – not the most likely beginnings for a woman who would become a Hollywood superagent, whose clientele included Faye Dunaway, Candice Bergen, Michael Caine, Burt Reynolds, Cybill Shepherd, and – preeminently – Barbra Streisand.

John Logan’s one-woman script memorialized Mengers on Broadway, in a production starring Bette Midler, less than two years after her death in 2011. Anne Lambert is the leading lady here in a performance that was shaped in a three-weekend run up in Cornelius before settling into NoDa last weekend and continuing through Sunday. It’s obvious that Mengers considers herself royalty, for she favors us with her rules on throwing a party and succeeding as an agent.

There’s a phone by her right arm that she hopes will ring so that she might heal a troublesome rift with La Barbra. Meanwhile, before we arrive at those circumstances, Mengers dishes on her struggles with Sissy Spacek, Ali McGraw, and Steve McQueen. Landing the Oscar-winning role of Popeye Doyle for Gene Hackman in The French Connection is clearly her ultimate triumph, and Lambert can tell it in spellbinding detail.

Problems only creep into this performance with the chronic buzzing of the electronics – the lights, I’m guessing – compounded by Lambert’s tendency to swallow the ends of punch lines she’s tossing off. Otherwise, she bridges the moments of tension and relaxation well, calling upon an audience member to fetch her a jewelry box stocked with joints and a refill from the bar. There are moments when she could stand to be meaner and more arrogant while she’s getting high, but that’s showbiz.