Saturday, Feb. 21, 2009

Windfall's "When I Give My Heart"

By Russ Bickerstaff
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It was a cold trip out to Village Church Arts for my first of four shows this weekend: the new Thomas Rosenthal drama When I Give My Heart. The cozy studio space was relatively crowded for opening night. There were complimentary coffee and cookies and such. Settling in to the theatre, I couldn’t help but notice that the set featured a space that was set-up as an interrogation room. As the play started, my suspicions were confirmed—this was to be the second locally-written play to debut in Milwaukee this season that opened on a police interrogation room. This is only significant in that When I Give My Heart  bears absolutely no other resemblance to this past December’s Rudolph the Pissed-Off Reindeer, but I digress . . .

 

The play's story is drawn halfway between police procedural and interpersonal drama. Stacey Meyer and Robert W.C. Kennedy play police detectives investigating the death of a college girl. They are questioning Jason--a high school student who claims to have seen the deceased right around the time of her disappearance. In an impressive bit of casting, Wauwatosa East High School junior Ryan Stajmiger plays Jason. It’s so very rare that actors playing high school students in non-high school productions are actual high school students. Stajmiger’s earnestness in a role very central to the story does much to lend it a captivating kind of authenticity.  

 

Jason tells the officers about running into the deceased at an abandoned cabin that he often visits. The play drifts into Jason’s account of meeting the girl—a drama student named Alana, played with sparkling emotional clarity by Libby Amato. After a fairly shaky start, Alana and Jason hit it off and begin getting to know each other. Now is as good a time as any to point out that playwright Thomas Rosenthal chose to set the play in and around northern Wisconsin.

 

(The northern Wisconsin setting was a bit of a distraction for me as I grew up there. A part of me was trying to pinpoint where the action was taking place. When Alana meets Jason, she assumes he’s in college and asks him if he goes to school at “[UW] Oshkosh” or “[St.] Norbert’s.” Here she’s identified two schools on opposite ends of the Fox River Valley, which suggests the cabin is somewhere in northeastern Wisconsin. Later on, the location is given in relation to “Highway Z,” which generally puts it somewhere West of the Fox Cities. In the course of their conversation, it becomes clear that Alana is an acting student at a college with what sounds like a pretty active theatre program, which probably wouldn’t be anywhere in the area. Most likely when she ran away from school and disappeared to an abandoned cabin off Highway Z, she was probably going north—from a school in Madison or Milwaukee. If all these sound like trivial bits of peripheral detail, they are. It was very distracting to find myself trying to work out relative geography while Alana and Jason were getting to know each other . . . thus are the burdens of familiarity with places north of here . . .)

 

The action of the play moves back and forth between the aforementioned police interrogation room and the cabin. Slowly we begin to get a somewhat simplified picture of relatively complex characters. Motive, emotion and psychological history come together in a harmless, easy to swallow package that feels like something of a betrayal of the emotional complexity of the characters. This is not to say that Rosenthal’s skill in crafting a story was anything less than accomplished here. The playwright’s apparent insistence on everything being clearly explained and  resolved by the end of the play is a bit disconerting, though. Very natural dialogue comes out of what appear to be very artificial moments of exposition. All of the story’s remaining mysteries are more or less clarified in the final scene in the cabin, when a far more satisfyingly ambiguous conclusion could’ve been attained merely by cutting the last scene. It should be pointed out that this criticism seems to be my problem with the play. Everyone in the audience opening night seemed to enjoy it a great deal. Opening night the audience seemed genuinely captivated by the story. Those sticking around for the talkback session after the show roundly congratulated everyone involved in the production, most notably Thomas Rosenthal.

 

To be fair, even with my problems with the script, I had a really good time with When I Give My Heart. There’s an interesting chemistry between Amato and Stajgmeyer that serves the center of the play quite well. Ben George’s intermittent performances as Alana’s father punctuate things quite effectively. Robert W.C. Kennedy and Stacey Meyer do an excellent job of bringing across the intensity of the police interrogation scenes, even if they aren’t anything that Christopher Meloni and Mariska Hargitay haven’t been doing in living rooms across the country on NBC every week for the past ten seasons of Law And Order: SVU. With such a long hisory of police drama, it takes a considerable amount of energy to make scenes like that look fresh and both Kennedy and Meyer do an admirable job of making them work. Even when the script isn’t as strong as it could be, the cast really makes this a show worth seeing.

 

Windfall Theatre’s When I Give My Heart runs through March 7th at Village Church Arts.

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