Sunday, Feb. 22, 2009

Rough Impressions of "The Sum Of Us"

By Russ Bickerstaff
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There is an inherently social aspect to the theatre that is often (for good reason) obscured in the process of production in the interest of telling a story. The audience’s tenuous social connection with characters being manifest through actors onstage can, in many cases, be compromised when the audience is dirctly acknowledged. Every so often, however, a play comes along that openly embraces the social connection between actor, character and audience. This is the case with The Sum of Us, an emotionally gripping play by David Stevens. Milwaukee Chamber Theatre continues its season with a production of the comic drama now through March 15.

Chicago-based scenic designer J. Branson has developed a cozy domestic space for  the stage of the Broadway Theatre Center’s Studio Theatre. Living room and kitchen have a real lived-in feel complete with a believable amount of clutter. The brightly-colored rugby ball on the mantle might be the first indicator that the play isn’t set in the US. In fact, though the playwright is currently living in California, he isn’t American. Evidently he was born in Palestine, was brought-up in the middle-east and moved to Africa, England and New Zealand before finally arriving in Australia where the play is set.

At first I was concerned about how authentic a local production of a play set in contemporary Australia might feel. And anyway, how would I know how authentic it was? As if to allay my concerns, a few Australians sat in front of me at the matinee yesterday. Sure enough, they laughed at specific, somewhat obscure, cultural references that let the rest of us in silence. This happened on a handful of occasions overt he course of the performance. The playwright may not have been a native Australian, but the play seemed authentic enough to actual Australians that they seemed to have a pretty good time with it.

Brian Mani stars as Harry Mitchell—a widower living alone with his grown son Jeff—a plumber played by Andy Truschinski. The two more or less introduce themselves right away. Between bits of conversation over dinner, the two pause to explain things and tell bits of back story to the audience in a very friendly and conversational tone. Mani nd Truschinski are  so successful at being pleasant company that the story they are a part of seems almost irrelevant. The audience is merely getting to know the characters over a late afternoon that turns into an evening. Harry has noticed that his son Jeff is anxious about a date that he has later on that evening. The play picks-up later on as Jeff has brought his date home—a guy named Gregg played by Nicholas Harazin. Harry’s home having a few beers. He's perfectly okay with his sons sexuality—has been for years, but how will Gregg react to his date living with a father that is so completely well-adjusted to it that he takes an active interest in his son's romantic life? How will Harry’s potential fiancée Joyce (Tami Workentine) react to the situation?

The fun overall social aspect of the play is weighted down by a much larger theme about the importance of making the most out of life. The heavier dramatic elements of the plot balance out the comic elements of the story beautifully. Director Ray Jivoff has done an excellent job of keeping everything in balance in what seems to suddenly turn into a very emotionally effecting play in the final scene. The comedy is enjoyably light without seeming insubstantial. The drama is weighty and realistic without overburdening the comedy.


A more thoughtful and concise review of the play appears in this week’s Shepherd-Express.     

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