Last weekend, the Summer Theater Lab presented two short one-act plays, Courtesy for Beginners and A Brief History of America at the CenterStage Theater in the ’62 Center for Theatre and Dance. The plays were a culmination of seven weeks of classes taken during the summer. The actors learned to participate and produce theatrical productions and worked with both students and alumni. Both shows displayed a complex range of emotions that left the audience members laughing at one moment and wiping away tears the next.
Courtesy for Beginners appears at first to be a hilarious reflection of a young boy’s misadventures at summer camp. The counselors were “the kind of guys who seem like nice boys to moms,” but the story becomes far darker. The story is told from the dual point of view of grown man Siegler, played by Connor Lawhorn ’16, and his moody 12-year-old self, played by Gideon Hess ’16. The two worked well together to play out Siegler’s flashback, unexpectedly interacting with each other at times through the barrier of years and memory to tell the story from different perspectives. Injected with humor from the beginning, Lawhorn could not help breaking character to laugh along with the audience as he narrated the scene of a camper sadly throwing his shoe at an imaginary archery target that was acted out by the “Fat Kid,” played by Jonny Gonzalez ’15.
But departing from the average camp story, older Siegler makes it clear that his relative misery was the least of his family’s worries. The story is that of his and his parents’ frustrated relationship with his younger brother Georgie (Tallis Moore ’14). Georgie suffers from an unnamed mental disability and anger issues: “I caught him hitting himself one night because I could hear the wet sound of blood from his mouth,” Siegler says. Siegler uses his older persona to reflect upon all of the ways his younger self could have and should have tried harder to connect with his brother, creating a poignant mood throughout the show. It was the smaller moments during the scenes with young Siegler and his brother together that made the most impact. A simple “Are you there?” and “Yeah, I’m here” between young Siegler and Georgie over the phone conveyed all that Siegler wished he could do to help his brother but was simply unable to articulate. This brief interaction produced empathetic reactions from the viewers.
A Brief History of America takes place across multiple time periods, taking snippets from critical points in one woman’s life. Rather than a flashback, the scenes in this show occurred chronologically. The play is segmented into three scenes, the first being one of unrequited young love between a young Sarah (the main character played by Kimmy Golding ’16) and her best friend Roberto (Gonzalez), which is not returned in full until 20 years later. While not as overtly humorous as its counterpart, the second scene of this show was, if not the most emotionally gripping, certainly the most thought-provoking. Adult-age Sarah sits at a kitchen table filing papers while chatting with her dying stepmother Sadie, played magnificently by Sarah Sanders ’14. What begins as a casual discussion of Sadie’s current health escalates to an argument between the two over the value of her aging life. “The human body gets more expensive the less good it is,” Saide says. “Its value goes down and suddenly it can cost you your house.”
The sets for each show were simple, yet effective; they were assembled and dismantled by the actors themselves, in full view of the audience. Most props were used in both shows, including three sets of clotheslines off which flags and laundry were hung. One clothesline went across the back of the stage and two diagonally framed the first on either side, adding depth to the intimate space and helping to centralize the viewer’s focus directly on the scene being played out in front of them. Rather than simply being necessary pauses that interrupted the flow of the storyline, the set changes in the shows served as transitions between dramatic scenes, allowing the audience to reflect on the actors’ performances. It was fascinating to watch the movement and use of the multilayered platforms placed strategically throughout the stage. They were used as bunk beds in Courtesy for Beginners, becoming the site of young Siegler’s classic adolescent angst and awkward sexual tension. They were also stepping stones across a creek as Roberto tentatively made steps toward Sarah while caught in the throes of young love, and later the platforms were transformed into the walls and floor of Sarah’s home, where she faced her stepmother for the last time and finally reunited with the divorced Jose by the loss of their families and stable lives.
The shows were well presented and definitely worth watching. They were a testament to the College’s brilliant theater program. Every single detail, from the actors’ period clothing to Sadie’s patchwork quilt to the quaint background track of a gurgling frog in A Brief History of America, helped to create vivid images and allowed the viewers to step inside the real and imperfect lives of the characters.