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Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2014

Chamber Theatre Sparks an Emotional Firestorm

Midwest premiere of 'October, Before I was Born'

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Photo by Mark Frohna
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“People come home when something like this happens,” says family matriarch Martha in the Midwest premiere of Wisconsin playwright Lori Matthews’ October, Before I was Born. Martha is speaking in light of a catastrophic explosion at the local factory where a number of people in their small town work, including family members.

Matthews’ words have a double meaning in this 90-minute, no intermission production at Milwaukee Chamber Theatre. The storyline is based on an actual 1960 explosion at Tennessee Eastman Company. Director C. Michael Wright deftly balances the growing tension of the factory explosion’s outcome with the emotionally charged atmosphere inside the family home.

Martha (Raeleen McMillion), her troubled son Houston (Ken T. Williams) and very pregnant daughter-in-law Anne (April Paul) wait anxiously for news. But “coming home” can wreak its own firestorm of emotional blasts as the three grapple with what lies ahead, separately as well as together.

In a beautifully nuanced performance, McMillion’s Martha provides the inner strength and support to keep her hysterical daughter-in-law from premature delivery while silently questioning the fate of her husband amidst remembrances of her own father’s death in a coal mine explosion.

But Houston is the character who commands our attention. An outcast for sins past, trying to find his place in the world, Williams is fascinating to watch as we see the conflicted emotions of this unsettled young man bubble up to the surface like crude dirty oil, at some times slow and seemingly unfocused, at others detonating with a toxic eruption of pent-up anger mixed with pleading vulnerability. He is the lit fuse waiting to go off at any time. Williams makes him likeable and dangerous at the same time. It is a triumph of a performance. However, Paul’s portrayal of Anne needs more development beyond the scripted stereotype of pregnant and overly hormonal. She becomes more a device for the other two, overshadowing her own storytelling.

What does “home” mean then in October, Before I was Born? It all depends on whether you’re coming or going—and what you find once you’re there.

October, Before I Was Born runs through March 9, in the Broadway Theater Center’s Studio Theatre, 158 N. Broadway. For tickets, call 414-291-7800 or visit chamber-theatre.com.