Review: The Beautiful Dark (Redtwist Theatre)

| August 2, 2013
Jacob Bond and Jacqueline Grandt star as Charlie and Nancy in Redtwist Theatre's world premiere of "The Beautiful Dark" by Erik Gernand, directed by Josh Altman. (photo credit: Jan Ellen Graves)        
      
The Beautiful Dark

Written by Erik Gernand
Directed by Josh Altman
Redtwist Theatre, 1044 W. Bryn Mawr (map)
thru Sept 1  |  tickets: $25-$30   |  more info
       
Check for half-price tickets 
    
        
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Gripping, thoughtful new play faces our fears of mass violence

     

Nancy (Jacqueline Grandt), tries to prevent a violent confrontation between her ex-husband, Tom (Tommy Lee Johnston), and her son, Jacob (Aaron Hunt). (Photo: Jan Ellen Graves)

    
Redtwist Theatre presents
    
The Beautiful Dark

Review by John Olson

Why do people view hurricanes as something horrific rather than something beautiful? That’s the question Jacob Weller (Aaron Kirby) asks the audience as this play opens. Why don’t people see hurricanes as a force of nature, cleansing away the human spoilage of the planet, like crime and environmental damage? It’s an arresting if pessimistic premise on its own, but as The Beautiful Dark unfolds, we wonder if Jacob sees himself as a hurricane, and is intent on personally wiping out the evils of his society through mass destruction. Does he in fact understand the moral distinction between a true force of nature (whether or not it’s an act of God), and a deliberate Aaron Hunt stars as Jacob in Redtwist Theatre's world premiere of "The Beautiful Dark" by Erik Gernand, directed by Josh Altman. (photo credit: Jan Ellen Graves)destructive impulse of a human? Following this opening soliloquy, we’re soon introduced to Jacob as an 18-year-old who has just flunked out of college and who is returning to the home of his divorced mom. Before too long, we learn that Jacob didn’t flunk out, but was expelled when his school officials learned of a play he had written that outlined a plan for a mass murder on campus. As Jacob’s family learns more about the circumstances of his expulsion and gains evidence of this very private and troubled young man, the family and audience must decide if the boy is in fact a threat to himself or others. Is preventative action against him ethical when thoughts and fantasies are not illegal, only actions are?

This world premiere play, which has received several workshops and readings in Chicago and New York City and will have another full production at Premiere Stages outside NYC this fall, was penned by Erik Gernand after the 2011 shootings of Representative Gabby Giffords and bystanders in Tucson, Arizona. It asks how such mass murders might be prevented in the future – if families and associates can identify those at risk for committing such violence and how they might try to prevent it. It’s an intelligent and thoughtful piece on that topic – outlining the issues that inhibit action by families and school officials from taking action against the (mostly) young men who have been the primary perpetrators of such crimes. Privacy laws prohibit schools from sharing information with parents, legal emancipation at age 18 prohibits parents from institutionalizing their mentally children without a court order, and the very nature of the mental illnesses may keep the troubled young people from sharing their feelings and seeking help. The Beautiful Dark does this in the context of a tight, ninety-minute intermissionless play that works just as well as a gripping mystery and family drama as a discussion of a serious social concern. What can and what should be done about Jacob? Where are the boundaries between protecting the community and respecting personal privacy – between maintaining societal safety and keeping alive hopes of a reasonably normal life for a child or brother? What are the appropriate ways to respond to a person struggling with mental illness? The family comes to a conclusion by the end of the play, but it may or may not be the same one you’ll reach nor will you necessarily be able to guess how it ends.

Gernand and director Josh Altman have created a believable family to illustrate this gut-wrenching dilemma. In the intimate space and environmental staging at Redtwist, the entire storefront theater is transformed into the family’s house in Dan Stratton’s set. We sit along the four walls and can’t escape feeling we’re a member of the family. Jacob’s parents are a recently divorced couple in an unnamed part of the US. Mother Nancy (Jacqueline Grandt) is a school administrator, ex-husband Tom (Tommy Lee Johnston) is a cop, and younger son Charlie (Jacob Bond) is the sweet 14-year-old younger brother who idolizes Jacob. Grandt and Johnston’s characters, as we might expect given their occupations, are no-nonsense when it comes to dealing with kids, yet they’re shown to have heart as well as tart tongues and quick tempers. Grandt’s Nancy has the bulk of our sympathies – we learn the facts about Jacob along with her. She’s a smart, tough and sometimes caustic woman who nonetheless cares deeply about her kids at home even as she can be seen as cool to her subordinates and students at school. Grandt captures all these aspects to her character. Johnston gives a similarly nuanced performance as Tom, shorter-tempered than Nancy but a basically decent guy – as troubled as Nancy by Jacob’s behavior but quicker to come to a decision on what to do about it. There’s an especially fine performance by Bond as younger son Charlie – vulnerable and kind, but occasionally stubborn as an early teen can be, but frightened and grief stricken over Jacob’s behavior. Bond’s performance is all the more surprising given his age (he’ll be a high school junior this fall) and non-Equity status.

Tiffany Williams and Jacqueline Grandt star as Sydney and Nancy in Redtwist Theatre's world premiere of "The Beautiful Dark" by Erik Gernand, directed by Josh Altman. (photo credit: Jan Ellen Graves) Scott Olson and Jacqueline Grandt star as Mr. Marsh and Nancy in Redtwist Theatre's world premiere of "The Beautiful Dark" by Erik Gernand, directed by Josh Altman. (photo credit: Jan Ellen Graves)
Scott Olson and Jacqueline Grandt star as Mr. Marsh and Nancy in Redtwist Theatre's world premiere of "The Beautiful Dark" by Erik Gernand, directed by Josh Altman. (photo credit: Jan Ellen Graves) Jacqueline Grandt and Tommy Lee Johnston star as Nancy and Tom in Redtwist Theatre's world premiere of "The Beautiful Dark" by Erik Gernand, directed by Josh Altman. (photo credit: Jan Ellen Graves)

These strong performances (which also include Scott Olson and Tiffany Williams in supporting roles) would be for naught if not for the stunning portrayal by Aaron Kirby as Jacob. We see Jacob’s pain and see his dark view of the world even as he remains – as his character must – as enigmatic to us as he is to his family. Thanks to Kirby’s performance, we care about Jacob even as we fear (and fear for) him. This experienced young actor, who reads believably as 18 or 19 though Kirby’s resume suggests he’s much older than that, gives a performance equal to any of those seen on the best local stages.

As a new work, The Beautiful Dark will certainly undergo more changes, and it could benefit from some tweaks, its rhythm (though not its plot) gets a little predictable in a few places. After a while, we’re able to anticipate when a character is going to make an unexpected entrance and another scene of confrontation is going to begin, though for the most part the play balances well between its quieter moments and its earned big emotional ones. And, making Nancy a recovering alcoholic seems to be unnecessary given the abundance of subtext that includes Jacob’s suicide attempt at age 14, Tom’s infidelity to Nancy and their subsequent divorce. With regard to this production specifically, I hope Grandt will settle into her role more fully during the run. At several points, when her character Nancy is being presented with new and disturbing information about Jacob, her Nancy seems to react insufficiently. The script demands even more nuance and calibration to show Nancy’s journey.

None of these criticisms are meant to discourage anyone from seeing this gripping, thoughtful and well-acted play. With its upcoming production within shouting distance of the Big Apple, this could be the next Chicago-born play to get attention on the national stage, and the intimate Redtwist space is a great place to see it before this happens.

  
Rating: ★★★
  
   

The Beautiful Dark continues through September 1st at Redtwist Theatre, 1044 W. Bryn Mawr (map), with performances Thursdays-Saturdays at 7:30pm, Sundays 3pm.  Tickets are $25-$30, and are available by phone (773-728-7529) or online through BuzzOnStage.com (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at Redtwist.org(Running time: 90 minutes, NO intermission)

Aaron Hunt and Jacob Bond star as Jacob and Charlie in Redtwist Theatre's world premiere of "The Beautiful Dark" by Erik Gernand, directed by Josh Altman. (photo credit: Jan Ellen Graves)

Photos by Jan Ellen Graves


     

artists

cast

Aaron Kirby (Jacob), Jacqueline Grandt (Nancy), Jacob Bond (Charlie), Tommy Lee Johnston (Tom), Scott Olson (Mr. Marsh), Tiffany Williams (Sydney)

behind the scenes

Josh Altman (director), Reed Motz (assistant director), Dan Stratton (set design, set construction), Garvin Jellison (lighting design), Kelsey Ettman (costumes), Christopher Kriz (original music, sound design), Jeff Shields (props design), Jeff Glass (production manager), Lauren Yarbrough (stage manager), Alan Weusthoff (technical director), Olivia Leah Baker (assistant stage manager), Chris Rickett (violence designer), Kelsey Melvin (set assistant), McTavish McArdle (set construction), Kevin McDonald (dramaturg), Mark Addison Smith (logo designer), Jan Ellen Graves (co-producer, photos, graphic design, marketing, programs), Charles Bonilla (box office manager), E. Malcolm Martinez (box office assistant), Michael Colucci (co-producer)

13-0725

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Category: 2013 Reviews, John Olson, New Work, Redtwist Theatre, World Premier

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