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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: ‘To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday’ engaging in Green Bay

Critic At Large

Green Bay Community Theater

Program covers, etc. (Warren Gerds image)

GREEN BAY, Wis. (WFRV)

“To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday” is an unusual play.

The characters deal with a death, and for three people that is a struggle. Also, the dead person is around, sometimes speaking to one person but otherwise is not visible.

The players in Green Bay Community Theater’s production approach their characters in personal ways. Performances have a sense of digging for kernels of what makes the characters tick. That makes the story, once it gets going, interesting to watch. And that is what veteran director Craig Berken and his consistent cast aim for.

This is what happens: You are at a beach. It’s in America, on an ocean. A small town is nearby. On the beach is a house.

The set plays a large role. The scenic backdrop – very sky blue and beachy – is original to this production. All around are knots of tall grasses found on ocean beaches. Sand is represented by ground cork. To the left is a knotty pine cabinet for meteorological and astronomical items. To the rear is a summer house that has become a year-round place for the central character. The set creates the atmosphere of outdoors… clear for easy viewing of stars and planets (done in detail in the story)… with waves (sometimes heard) appreciated for their power and mystique.

We hear how Gillian has died. While out sailing, she climbed the mast and fell to the deck in front of her husband and daughter, 14 at the time, two years ago. For playwright Michael Brady, this is dropping more than a large pebble into the consciousness of David and Rachel… and essentially the audience.

What has happened to David (Kristofer Holly) is quite theatrical. You know his behavior is created for effect, so there can be a play about a husband who drops out of the world because of how important his wife was to him – to the point that he his mean to his child.

Rachel (Sanibel “Belle” Harper) has been living with her aunt, Gillian’s younger sister, Esther (Ali Weaver) and her husband, Paul (Dave Harper).

The women in this play are strong, with two key ones being Type A. Gillian (Lynn Lunney) was an anthropologist. Esther is a psychologist. Their relationships with their husbands are not traditional dynamics. Paul is given to be a jokester – which is comic relief in the play. David has essentially gone around the bend with his dependency. Instead of turning to drink, he has turned inward except for daily jogs with his neighbor girl, Cindy, 16, (Amara Delaruelle), with whom he expresses his joy for astronomy.

Arriving for a visit, Esther and Paul think it is a good idea to bring along Kevin, a woman with a man’s name (Sydney Ogilvie), to help David break out of his heavy, heavy doldrums with her own type of strength. Kevin is handed more than a slight case of baggage: Not only is the next day Gillian’s 37th birthday, it is two years to the day since Gillian died. How is that for timing for a “date”?

How this all proceeds is involving. Much turns on choices – how to handle/treat children, whether to have a child (some interesting yes’s/no’s), how to deal with differences, how to get by.

When challenged, David often explodes – and Kristofer Holly lights up the stage with violent volume.

All the living characters/players search – the discombobulated husband, the brushed-aside daughter, the sturdy yet wounded sister, the comical yet concerned brother-in-law, the yearning girl next door, the soulful “date.” You feel for them – or at least I did.

Gillian is an intriguing presence. She is first seen as David wants to see her, charming and caring. Gillian also appears with (not to) Rachel in a scene that will bring a lump to the throat, if not a tear. But then there is the climax, and truth be known.

Nine more performances continue to Sept. 29 in the troupe’s Robert Lee Brault Playhouse.

On opening night Thursday, tasty birthday cake (for Gillian’s birthday) was served in the theater’s community room. Word is, there will be cake to partake for every performance – a different, warming touch for this different play.

***

Creative: Playwright – Michael Brady; director – Craig Berken; assistant director – Kathy Keeney; stage manager – Rebekah Witte; production coordinator and set dressing designer – Patricia Grimm; master carpenter – Noah Villarreal; light and sound designer – Kaitlin Honkanen; costume and hair designer – Baylee Ziebert; props designer and floor manager – Karen Konshak; scenic painter – Aaron Renier

Cast:

David – Kristofer Holly

Rachel – Sanibel “Belle” Harper

Cindy – Amara Delaruelle

Paul – Dave Harper

Esther – Ali Weaver

Kevin – Sydney Ogilvie

Gillian – Lynn Lunney

Running time: Two hours, 15 minutes

Remaining performances: 7:30 p.m. Sept. 20, 4 and 7:30 p.m. Sept. 21, 7:30 p.m. Sept. 25-27, 4 and 7:30 p.m. Sept. 28 and 4 p.m. Sept. 29

Info: gbcommunitytheater.com

***

NEXT: “Ghost in the Meadow” by Joseph Simonelli, Nov. 14-17, 20-24.

THE VENUE: Green Bay Community Theater is one of the few community theaters that owns its performance space – and rehearsal space under the same roof. Stability is a big benefit. A landmark on Green Bay’s west side, the 193-seat Robert Lee Brault Playhouse features elements of an earlier time as a church, built in 1854 (the current backstage dressing room), 1895 (auditorium) and 1911 (today’s Community Room). The most obvious remnants are the church’s peaked side-wall windows with stained glass that is covered. High-up triangular windows still contain stained glass, and their patterns can be seen playing on sunny days when the troupe has matinees. The auditorium includes a 30 by 23-foot open-end stage with no stage curtain. The troupe has remodeled some portions of the building with medieval touches, but the seating area retains elements of a church. The theater includes wooden arches with decorative geometric designs on the ends and exposed beams in the sharply angled ceiling. The stage front consists of woodwork of repeated arches that looks to be repurposed wainscoting from other parts of the building. The troupe owns the building, which became its home in 1966. The Community Room serves as a gathering space for audiences prior to a performance and at intermission and for board and other internal meetings.

THE PERSON: Larger-than-life personality Robert Lee Brault was a longtime Green Bay Community Theater actor, director, scenic designer and managing director. He and his wife, Rita Brault, were mainstays from the time the troupe performed at various locations through the purchase of the present playhouse. Bob Brault died Nov. 1, 2015, in Florida at age 88. The troupe has established a special programming and education fund in his name.

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