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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: ‘Two Henrys’ pushes hot buttons for Sturgeon Bay theater

Critic At Large

Third Avenue Playhouse

Playwright Kenneth Jones, clockwise from upper left, and actors Bernard Dotson, Susan Sweeney and Beverly Ward of “Two Henrys” for Third Avenue Playhouse.

STURGEON BAY, Wis. (WFRV) – Third Avenue Playhouse’s remarkable series of online play readings ended Friday night with the sentient “Two Henrys,” which explores a family’s conundrums with a son’s death due AIDS 15 years past.

What happens is akin to the game of Pick-up sticks in which individual sticks (situations) are problematic. Nothing happens easily. Possible wrong moves are everywhere – “wrong” being a matter of mindset.

For example, facing one stick is a mother who wonders whether her teenage son is gay. If the son is gay, she has a plan of action: “I would do everything I could to change him.”

Kenneth Jones’ play is particularly complex. It is an exploration devised for a theatrical dynamic with three characters – the mother of the dead son, her daughter and the son’s lover who has come to the funeral of the son’s father. The dead son and his lover are both named Henry – thus the play’s title.

Scene with cast. (Warren Gerds screenshot)

The deceased father, Mike, is present through individual conversations between the living Henry and the mother and daughter. So much about Mike is a hot button – his ramrod sureness of his rightness about everything. As master of a perfect family, Mike saw everything in black and white, and he let people know he was right. His right is marriage is between a man and a woman. One phrase Mike used was “homosinuals.” He told his son how to live. That his son had a male lover was not apparent in the family photo album; Mike cut out the other Henry.

This was rich material for terrific acting by professionals, a trademark of the livestreamed “PlayWorks 2021” series created by Third Avenue Playhouse’s co-artistic directors Robert Boles and James Valcq.

For “Two Henrys,” James Valcq directed. He connects with the playwright and the players. Twenty years ago in a previous life as a theater critic, Kenneth Jones reviewed Fred Alley/James Valcq’s “The Spitfire Grill” – “championed” it, Valcq said. “The Spitfire Grill” has seen more than 700 productions (so far) worldwide. From James Valcq’s previous life as a musician on Broadway and in national tours, he chose the highly adept actors.

Bernard Dotson starts Henry as low key and unflappable. A phrase here, a comment there, and Henry builds to be a force of resolute meaning amid a maze of feelings. The setup: The time is 2012, with references to AIDS at a medical breakthrough time 15 years earlier and now with marital equity arriving. The living Henry is the bridge.

Beverly Ward has the opportunity to put the play into overdrive. The daughter, Amy, is fueled by too much to drink, and her initial one-on-one with Henry exposes oh-so-much about the family’s attitudes and picadilloes.

Susan Sweeney takes the mother, Constance, to two edges – the acquiescent wife and believer in all things Mike and, after much doing, a compassionate soul. Constance also is loosened by being tipsy, noting that “We’re not alcoholics in this family, we’re drinkers.” All the while, fine points of acting abound.

“Two Henrys” had bonuses for the Third Avenue Playhouse viewers in Wisconsin. While action takes place in Florida, many references are to Wisconsin. Door County factors in, specifically Chambers Island. The famous kringles of Racine factor in to the point of being a colorful adult joke. The Green Bay Packers spice more humor. “Who’s Bart Starr?” Henry asks of Amy. She tries to explain his icon-ness by mentioning Brett Favre. Henry, a non-sporty chef in New York City, again is clueless. When Amy’s clue becomes the Packers, the lightbulb for Henry is this: “Oh, Guy Lombardo.” Amy corrects him: Vince Lombardi.

Kenneth Jones also manages to come up with an amazing coincidence for me. The family in the play is from Milwaukee, where I grew up. Mike worked at Miller Brewing Company. Mike was “high up” there. My father was high up at Miller as one of the four division heads. My father was very much unlike Mike. In the play, Amy comments on beer and its role in too much beer. In real life, one of my father’s colleagues was bothered by his job of making something some people abuse, so the colleague quit.

Moment in talkback. (Warren Gerds screenshot)

In a talkback Friday night, Kenneth Jones noted the play continues to be a work in progress. Robert Boles of the theater asked to be sent any revisions, perhaps with the thought of a live, in-person production sometime after the theater reopens following its renovation.

One of Beverly Ward’s additions was to quote James Valcq from a previous experience: “Say it like a person.” That was a layered compliment on Kenneth Jones’ dialogue and how James Valcq distills directing.

On the whole, the COVID-19 pandemic led Third Avenue Playhouse to expand its play reading series from two weekends to months of bringing sometimes-explosive material performed and presented by skilled theatrical artists into the wide world of the Internet. The theater made something good out of something bad.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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