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Stage

Lit Class Redux

Mobtown Playwrights Group breaks down the fourth wall

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Stage IV

Written by Madeline Leong

Directed by Brent Englar

Through Oct. 13 at the Mobtown Theater

When a play’s story line traces a cancer patient’s decline, it’s hard not to think of Margaret Edson’s Wit. Stage IV covers some of the same ground—a patient grappling with the prospect of death, a somewhat stiff oncologist, flashbacks to significant moments in the past—but Stage IV is not Wit. Its plot follows more characters, its examination of the disease is less intense, a romance even develops toward the end.

What may remind you of Wit, a perennial lit-class read, is the English major-style discussion that follows each of the Mobtown Playwrights Group’s public readings. The group solicits scripts from playwrights nationwide each season, winnows the submissions down to three for public readings, and finally selects one of the plays to act out with a full production. At the readings, after the actors reach the script’s end, the lights go up; the playwright joins them onstage; and the director moderates a Q&A session where the the audience fields most of the questions. (Brent Englar, Stage IV’s director asked the audience to “focus on your response to the play more than ‘I want you to change this.’”) Without a set, costumes, or props to aid them, the players rely on the story and their own abilities to engage the audience.

Owen Murdoch (played Ty Ford) has been diagnosed with stage IV cancer. Despite being an obviously affectionate father to his grown daughter, Emily (Jessica Ruth Baker), Owen refuses treatment. Owen’s oncologist, Sam (Shawn Naar), is also sick—he’s seeing a psychiatrist, Dr. Anna Rivera (Kathryn Falcone), but he too refuses medication. As the play progresses, the threads connecting these four characters are revealed piecemeal. The story flashes to a younger Owen and Anna in one scene, fast-forwards past Owen’s death in the second act, then flashes back to Emily’s childhood, where we meet her mother, Carolyn (Katharine Vary).

Stage IV examines Emily’s character the closest, following her as she is changed by her father’s illness and eventual death, and as her path becomes intertwined with Sam’s. But in the first public reading, the play was stolen by Ford’s and Falcone’s characters and performances.

In the first scene, in the doctor’s office, Emily pleads with her father, angrily. Why has he been skipping treatments, she demands. Owen raises his arms in an elongated shrug and replies in a nonchalant tone: Fishing, he says, casting an imaginary line and reeling it in. Ford wells over with charisma. As Owen, he deflects when Emily focuses on his illness, asking instead about her. He manages to be self-sacrificing in a non-irksome way.

Falcone as Anna bubbles with humor and warmth. When Sam is with Owen and Emily in the opening scene, he is muted and to-the-point; when he is with Anna, he loosens up, cracks joke, and reveals his temper. Anna releases the other side of Sam with her personality—sincere, thoughtful, tough. As her character is developed, she grows more and more in likeability, which presents a problem, perhaps, as she is contrasted with Emily’s mother, a more difficult character.

The Mobtown Playwright Group’s process offers its playwrights and the actors the chance to revise their scripts and performances after each of the four public readings. Seeing Stage IV, then, is to see a work in progress. The experience is intimate. The actors are in plain dress, standing behind podiums. They do not exit the stage, rather, they sit down when their characters are out of a scene. They take notes or read along with the script or watch their fellow actors as they read. After the performance, you discuss the evolving play with its author and the actors—allowing you to offer your own small influence on the production. If you ever miss your English major days, the Mobtown Playwrights Group offers you an avenue back.

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