Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: Cast gives it all up for sensitive ‘Next Fall' in De Pere

Evergreen Productions

DE PERE, Wis. -  

Over a breakfast meal at home that includes “fierce” tomatoes, two men in their underwear debate faith. One is Christian. One is agnostic. Both are gay. The Christian sets out his parameters for getting into heaven. Basically, it’s if you believe, you’re in. The agnostic challenges, testing to see where his partner’s lines are drawn. In the end, minds are not changed, though the men now know where the other stands.

This is a scene from a play, “Next Fall.”

The play is being presented with a sense of reality by Evergreen Productions of the De Pere-Green Bay area. Director Lee T. Kerwin and his cast take great care to portray the vulnerabilities that playwright Geoffrey Nauffts explores.

A whole lot of vulnerabilities are at play from the get-go.

The above scene is a flashback. One of the men, Luke, will be struck by a taxi in Manhattan. The play starts in a hospital waiting room, where the important people in Luke’s life will gather to fret and fight as he lies in a coma.

The audience is a fly on the wall. What it hears can’t all be repeated here. This is a mass-audience medium, and some of the conversations not only use flinty language but the topics are really interesting in an adult way.

Mostly, the audience is a fly to delicate matters of relationships, forthrightness, opinions/biases, mortality, sexuality, degrees of sexuality and faith. That’s quite a cart to pull, and the cast as a whole and individually is inspired to treat and portray the material as if his/her soul depends on it.

Especially all-in is Ian Wisneski in his most burnished/committed performance to date. Wisneski plays Adam, the agnostic. With Luke (Brady DeGroot) in a coma, Adam deals with Luke’s people while not revealing to some what his relationship is to Luke (though in reality this would seem clear enough):

+ Butch (Lyle Becker), the father, quick of opinion and as smart as the devil. An in-your-face guy. Butch is bothered by Luke’s choice to be an actor, though he did like Luke as the Stage Manager in “Our Town” (an important connector to this story).

+ Arlene (Deborah Oettinger), the mother, an often-shallow pool but deep in foibles (like a druggy past). Arlene and Butch have been divorced for 20 years, but there’s still a vibe between them.

+ Brandon (Jason Mencheski), whose name is the emergency contact for Luke and is somewhat a mystery player at first. His Act II reveal is one of the really interesting elements.

+ Holly (Katie Guzek), owner of a candle shop who has employed Adam and Luke. Holly is a boss, friend and person who enjoys entré into a life style other than her own – which has a specific phrase that she uses along the way.

Large chunks of the story are told in flashback, starting with the meeting of Luke and Adam five years ago. The developing relationship between Luke and Adam is visited in steps leading up to the day of the accident. Often seen in Luke and Adam’s postage-stamp, bi-level apartment (deftly built and dressed), Wisneski and DeGroot delve into all sorts of nooks and crannies in their characters so that by the time of the climax it is established that they are a couple comfortable in themselves. This takes committed performance.

Most community theaters would opt out of “Next Fall.” Too, too, too… a whole lot of things. Evergreen Productions has raised the bar in the past, though this perhaps is the highest the bar has been placed. This is quite serious theater, done well.

***

Creative: Playwright – Geoffrey Nauffts; director – Lee T. Kerwin; assistant director – Nichole Hood; stage manager – Kati Long; lighting designer – Jack Rhyner; sound designer – Katie Marquardt; set designer – Warren Elliott; set dresser – Rochelle Van Erem; hair and make-up design – Jackie Ploor; costume design – Nikki Maritch; props – Janet Ajango; production coordinator – Rochelle Van Erem

Cast: Adam – Ian Wisneski; Luke – Brady DeGroot; Holly – Katie Guzek; Brandon – Jason Mencheski; Arlene – Deborah Oettinger; Butch – Lyle Becker

Running time: Two hours, 37 minutes

Remaining performances: 7:30 p.m. Feb. 15, 16, 17

Info: evergreentheatre.org

***

NEXT: Young Actors: “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” adapted from Roald Dahl, Feb. 23-25 (five performances). Mainstage: “Silent Sky” by Laura Gunderson, May 4-6, 10-12.

THE VENUE: The 184-seat Neil and Mary Webb Memorial Theatre is the smaller of two theaters in St. Norbert College’s Abbot Pennings Hall of Fine Arts. The space has an amphitheater feel with its sloped seating area. The stage is one-of-a-kind thrust stage, meaning it “thrusts” into the audience space. A traditional proscenium stage has a flat front and usually has curtains. A trust stage rarely uses curtains. People in front rows can practically reach out and touch performers when the performers are on the stage lip. Any seat in the theater is close to the action.

THE PEOPLE: Neil and Mary Webb were husband and wife. Neil Webb was president of St. Norbert College from 1973 to 1983. He earlier headed the St. Norbert psychology department. He left academics for a while before becoming president of Dominican College in California. In December 1987, Neil and Mary Webb died in an airplane crash in California in an act of sabotage by a disgruntled employee. That was shortly before the Hall of Fine Arts was to be remodeled with a small theater in the plans. Neil Webb had a lot of friends in the community and had the reputation, so his name was used to raise funds for the theater.

Contact me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air Critic at Large editions on WFRV-TV at 6:20 a.m. Sundays.


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