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Thursday, Jan. 10, 2008

Alabama Bound

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On Jan. 18, First Stage Children’s Theater opens its production of The Watsons Go To Birmingham— 1963. Based on the acclaimed novel by Christopher Paul Curtis and adapted for the stage by Reginald A. Jackson, the story follows a family from Flint, Mich., as it travels to Birmingham, Ala., during a time of racial tensions, a time when the civil rights movement gained momentum.

Curtis’ story has been hailed for its deft handling of tragedy and comedy. Bringing this kind of delicate nuance to the stage can be a challenge, but First Stage, one of the most consistently solid theater companies in town, should have little difficulty pulling it off. The largely adult cast assembled under director Sheri Williams Pannell has heavy ties to Chicago. Half of the cast is based in Chicago, having performed individually at places like Steppenwolf and the Goodman Theatre.

The impressive Wayne T. Carr, who appeared as Booth in Renaissance Theaterworks’ production of Topdog/Underdog and is a regular with Milwaukee Shakespeare, stars as the father.

Samantha Montgomery joins him as the mother and Alma Washington portrays Grandma Sands, the relative the family is meeting in Alabama. A stage veteran with more than 30 years of experience, Allen Edge, rounds out the cast as Sands’ companion, Mr. Robert.

A big part of the journey involves the physical travel. The family goes from Point A to Point B in a 20-year-old vehicle at a time when the interstate highway is not complete. For its world-premiere production of the play, First Stage uses an actual 1948 Plymouth four-door coupe found on Craigslist. The vehicle has been modified for the stage— they’ve removed the engine and cut a large section out of the roof for visibility—but using an actual artifact from the era should add a compelling sense of authenticity to the production.

A week before First Stage opens its production, two local theater companies seem to have inadvertently scheduled different combat-theater-style shows on the same night. As Insurgent Theatre’s BERZERK!!! runs amok at the Alchemist Theatre in Bay View on Jan. 12, Bunny Gumbo wraps up its two-evening combat-theater show at the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center just north of Downtown. Bunny Gumbo’s program, which opens Jan. 11, consists of 16 plays in 48 hours. Gumbo has been performing combat theater for quite some time now, and their productions are beginning to receive more and more attention. Not to be outdone, Insurgent’s one-night-only performance consists entirely of plays that have been written in 10 minutes by a group of 13 writers and performed by a group of 11 actors.