Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: Historical play has dash in Marinette

Theatre on the Bay

MARINETTE, Wis. - Take a pinch of local history, sprinkle on some cleverness, add a scoop of imagination, stir, and serve on stage with an eager cast. That’s the recipe for a new play, “Menominee River Mysteries: The Summer of ’27,” for and by Theatre on the Bay. The premiere production is running to Nov. 19 in Herbert L. Williams Theatre.

The project comes from the head and heart of Anthony LaMalfa, who is rooted in the Marinette-Menominee region.

Opening night Friday – world premiere night – was quite the deal in the Fine Arts Building at the University of Wisconsin-Marinette. As I parked my car in the well-filled lot, not a soul was in sight. I checked my ticket as I thought, “Am I late?” No, on time. Not a soul was in sight during the walk to the building. “Where is everybody? Am I in the right place?” How weird. Ah, there they are in the lobby, well ahead of starting time.

Some people were viewing an exhibition related to the play in the art gallery. Others were simply soaking up the atmosphere of what promised to be a notable community event. The lobby was a-live. Some people were dressed in 1920s period clothes.

Two bursts of excitement lie ahead in the theater.

One was as the play was about to start. Anthony LaMalfa walked out on stage to applause and cheers. Sight unseen, folks liked what he had done in writing a well-promoted play about places and people in their life. What happened – that electrified greeting – was a rarity among premieres I’ve seen.

The second burst of excitement was at the conclusion of the play, a hefty 2¾ hours later. This time, the cheers and applause came with a standing ovation. The community audience liked what it saw a lot.

Afterward, the lobby was choked with players and well-wishers savoring the moment – a reminder that theater is a great thing.

Now, to the play:

“Menominee River Mysteries: The Summer of ’27” is laced with originality. It’s about fictional events of July 11 to 21, 1927, that blend real-life people from the area and made-up ones.

There is a murder that the audience kind of sees at the start.

Soon, the body is found in the Menominee River that flows between Marinette and Menominee. Thunked on the body is a code. The code relates to the markings that lumber companies imprinted on their logs during the lumbering heyday. Woven through the story of the play are uses for this code and other codes and ways and means to decipher these codes to solve certain mysteries. The code making and breaking, with surprising turns, help make the play unlike others and add intrigue and ongoing fascination.

Also infused in the play are numerous time-and-event references, local and world, with Prohibition factoring large. More than name-dropping is involved. A vision of temperament is created, for some of the characters express not only impressions but opinions and philosophies. Twice quoted is this: “Show me your friends, and I’ll show you your future.” The play is loaded with true-history references, including World War I and the deadly influenza epidemic of 1918; some come with a bite, like Wounded Knee.

LaMalfa also uses lingo of the era. The printed program includes a glossary of such slang as “drugstore cowboy,” “a couple of Gs,” “gin mill” and “glad rags.”

Nineteen scenes are in the play. That means there are 19 scene changes for the audience to sit through. Set pieces are minimal – usually some chairs and a table of various types. The changes are spiced by projected photographs of the real-life place (or close facsimile for fictional ones) with the name or location of the place identified. Music is added. This is sometimes to set the mood, sometimes to flavor a 1920s aura and, once, to be a subtle joke. The joke: A key character wants to be known solely by his nickname, Bud. To be called “Buddy” drives him up the wall. As a scene is about to start with Bud, heard is the popular, sentimental song from the era, “My Buddy.” Real subtle.

Twenty-nine characters are in the play. Playwrights can do anything they wish with fictionalized stories. The biggest and best reach that LaMalfa has is to bring Al Capone to Marinette in 1927, and, not only that, present Capone in slightly unexpected ways in how Capone envisions himself. LaMalfa takes liberties (had to) in creating many characters and how they fit into the story.

The cast is a combination of some UW-Marinette students and a lot of performers from the community, some with abundant credits and some with professional experience. Key are Joshua Stuck as an un-retired private detective who carries a holstered gun (J.P. Manningham), Chris Logan as a double agent with an edge (Tommy Pinegar), James Porras II as the forceful local bootlegger (Victor Graglioni), James Porras as the good chief of police (Frank Dalton), Gary Pansch as the shady sheriff (Albert Holquist) and Marie Arnold as the sketchy newspaper columnist (Ruby Duxbury). One of LaMalfa’s most interesting creations is a one-name henchman-type fellow, Norling (played by Patrick Mines), whose schtick through much of the play is to be seen but not heard. LaMalfa’s most-most interesting creation is himself as Kenneth “Bud” Feifarek, who along with being extremely intelligent is idiosyncratic by the bundle. Bud’s handshakes come with a winch or a wipe of the hand. Bud is obsessive in his labor of code breaking. He knows minutia and how to connect tiny facts. Anthony LaMalfa enacts an extremely well-defined person of brilliance and foibles.

Mostly, scenes in the play drive the plot along. There are side trips in which LaMalfa pops in a character or a reference because they have personal/family meaning. A scene with Dr. Luella Axtell helps flesh out the character of Bud (already established as “different”) but doesn’t take the plot anyplace of consequence. The climax is LaMalfa’s imagination gone wild, with gunshots galore.

So there you have “Menominee River Mysteries: The Summer of ’27” – Prohibition, murder, local history, local fictionalize folks and palpable community interest. It’s part of the 51st season of the respected Theatre on the Bay and something of a shot in the dark for artistic director Rebecca Stone Thornberry, who also directed the play by the first-time playwright. The large-scale production is a feather in the cap for many, many people.

***

Creative: Playwright – Anthony LaMalfa; director – Rebecca Stone Thornberry; assistant director – Anthony LaMalfa; scenic and sound design – John Thornberry; lighting design – Chris Weber; costume design – Annalisa Mines; properties – Rebecca Stone Thornberry; fight choreography – John Thornberry; stage manager – Karah Nelson; Theatre on the Bay artistic director – Rebecca Stone Thornberry

Cast (in order of appearance): Walter Pinegar – Gary L. Scholtz, Sr.; J.P. “Manny” Manningham – Joshua Stuck; Ingrid Manningham – Betsy Stuck; Evelyn Manningham – Ashley Burley; Frank Dalton – James Porras; Kenneth “Bud” Feifarek – Anthony LaMalfa; Gertrude Voeltzer (“Tante”) – Jackie Baxter; Ruby Duxbury – Marie Arnold; Sheriff Albert Holquist – Gary Pansch; Sheriff’s Deputy Hayward – Aidan Neziri; Victor Graglioni – James Porras II; Lola Palooza – Lori Payne; Tommy Pinegar – Chris Logan; Simon Kellner – Joe Gustin; Norling – Patrick Mines; Waitress – Sammi Batterson; Charley Goldberg – Nathan Plym; Richard “Jab” Murray – Steven Renner; Howard Emich – Connor Whisler; Arold Murphy – Travis Meyer; Harvey Higley – Scott Nowakowski; Dooley – Andrew Peterson; Marinette Police Officers – Tyrus Cretens, Bryan Lynn, Gary L. Scholtz, Sr.; Dr. Luella Axtell – Natashia Rousseau; Al Capone – Kenan Pulver; Capone’s Thugs – Ben Everson, Robert Heritisch

Running time: Two hours, 45 minutes

Remaining performances: 7:30 p.m. Nov. 11; 2 p.m. Nov. 12; 7:30 p.m. Nov. 17, 18; 2 p.m. Nov. 19

Info: marinette.uwc.edu/campus/arts/theatre

***

Related: A display of vintage photos along with biographical and historical information on people, places and events of the 1920s in the Marinette-Menominee area is on display in the art gallery across from the theater during the run of the play.

Background on the project: http://www.wearegreenbay.com/critic-at-large-wearegreenbay/warren-gerdscritic-at-large-a-play-with-sagas-is-premiering-in-marinette/843081679.

NEXT: “The 39 Steps,” April 13-15, 20-22.

THE VENUE: The 362-seat Herbert L. Williams Theatre is located in the Fine Arts Building of the University of Wisconsin-Marinette. The facility was built in 1968. Central in the theater is a thrust stage, a half octagon that the audience surrounds. The theater includes brick walls on both sides of the stage and a white ceiling of half circles radiating from the stage, with the area above the stage exposed for the guts of the lighting grid. Three steps lead to the stage, which today bears the name The Nancy A. Gehrke Stage. The design of the stage was one of the first of its kind in the region. The theater feels spacious.

THE PEOPLE: Herbert L. Williams was professor of communication arts and artistic director of Theatre on the Bay with a lively and engaging personality. He loved to act, but mostly he loved to direct. He retired after 30 years in May 1996 and continued to direct and perform in Green Bay and the Fox Cities. He may have directed more plays than anyone in the region. Herb Williams died in 2014 in Green Bay at age 79. A memorial service was held in the theater that bears his name. Nancy A. Gehrke acted for 40 years on the stage named for her. Today, painting is a primary passion.

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. My books, “Three Miles Past Lost and in the Pickers” and “Nickolaus and Olive – a naïve opera (in words)” and the award-winning “Real, Honest Sailing with a Great Lakes Captain,” are available online and in Green Bay at Neville Public Museum, Bosse’s and The Reader’s Loft.


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