An audience listens to a conversation by two people discussing a book while sitting on a park bench. Eavesdropping on their relationship propelled by their chance meeting after 34 years. Thus begins the story playwright Richard Lyons Conlon wrote in the world premiere production of one time, which is currently playing at Next Act Theatre.

This award winning and albeit emerging playwright workshopped the play for Chicago Dramatists before it was noticed by Next Act Artistic Director David Cecsarini. When the first readings were being staged for the Milwaukee run, Conlon was close enough to assist in finalizing the script with Cecsarini, also director for the production. Actors Linda Stephens who plays Sonia and Jonathan Gillard Daly, her charming companion Mason, assisted with several small revisions to fine tune the script. Their substantial experience was critical and Cecsarini explains, “This is a minimalist play where you know little about the characters. So there’s a lot to fill in.”

“You don’t find that in the theatre much anymore,” Stephens continued at an after show talk back. “Where the audience brings their imagination to the play, to fill in the blanks.” The audience’s imagination will wander through these two silver haired characters’ lives with anticipation. Sonia and Mason, now in their sixties, were friends at one time who might have been more to one another if they had been in different places in their younger lives. Although they inch closer back to each other sitting on the park bench telling stories that begin with “One time I…"

So this fragile romance becomes reborn with the audience learning bits and pieces to the characters’ relationships, details that appear inconsequential although are essential. The non-linear storytelling allows for certain stories to be mentioned in Act I and finished during Act II to focus on the intimacy between Sonia and Mason. When everyone rediscovers love through this mystery of past and then present time. 

Stephens and Daly carry their charisma with a deep affection for each other and their characters, these superb Milwaukee actors a distinct pleasure to watch on stage. Daly represents the boyish desires hidden within every man of any age. Sonia captures that winsome although doubtful longing to be desirable every woman struggles with. Even when silver hair glistens on this pair of heads similar to moonshine.

With a few twists and turns to the events Sonia and Mason revisit, the play bewitches the audience until the very end. Their likeable and delightful flawed characters only wish what every human indeed longs for, to love and be loved, a chance to be forever young like the teenager once left behind. The once again familiar emotions able to be resurrected when an unexpected opportunity appears. 

No one in the audience will be left behind when eavesdropping on the heart wrenching stories Sonia and Mason confide to each other, wondering who will remember the exact moments.  Each character's temper flares and then subsides, which when enacted within this minimal set matches the play’s structure and maximizes the storytelling. Bring one’s imagination to fill in the details for this one time. Add personal experiences and memories to the conversations that enrich this enticing conclusion to Next Act’s season. Which leaves one eagerly waiting for the fall's 2012-2013 season. 

Next Act Theatre presents the world premiere of one time through April 29. A pay as you can performance happens on Tuesday, April 24, at 7:30 pm. Subscriptions can be purchased for the 2012-2013 season or be sure to attend their fundraiser Bravo, Next Act 2012 on Thursday, May 17. For further information, reservations or tickets please call:414.278.7780 or click the link to the left.




A nephew and his aunt separated by 30 years. She is failing, close to dying, and the long lost nephew travels to a far away city to care for Grace. This usually sentimental theme was cast in a disturbing light during Next Act Theatre’s recent production Vigil. Canadian playwright Morris Panych’s abrasive monologues by his character Kemp (Mark Ulrich) disguises the dark comedy masquerading for a satirical cartoon that portrays only caricatures of real people or situations. 

The play moves like a cartoon on stage, using quick scene changes similar to a short still, vignettes, which change in a flicker of light. Some scenes need several seconds, others require a few minutes before a darkened stage changes the scene again. The audience rolls these scenes through their mind similar to photo previews on a smart phone with virtually little time to connect, used as a device instead of integral to the play. The clock continually ticked in the background to denote that Aunt Grace (Ruth Schudson) is hanging on to life for far too long, at least in her nephew’s opinion. 

Grace lives in a plain English two-story house, where she utters only a few words during the entire play and primarily in the second act, all from her bed. Kemp expounds on his dysfunctional childhood and disillusionment with life. His mother dressed him as a girl and Kemp hates affection, children and people to become a bitter lonely man, afraid of touching and love. 

If this sounds slightly depressing, Kemp’s monologues slowly move in that direction, with disparaging one-liners regarding the dying and funerals. Director Mary McDonald Kerr writes in her program notes, “The author has been brutally honest.” One might beg to differ, especially when performed before an audience that is reaching a similar age bracket and coping with these dilemmas. Much of the dialogue could be called crude and hurtful, and even on stage loses its humorous edge a majority of the evening. Why Grace allows Kemp to stay, despite her great isolation, perplexes the audience when he attempts to electrocute her.    

Panych and in part MacDonald Kerr fail to uncover a believable middle ground for such a desperate and deranged character like Kemp. Absurdity and incredibility appear in the scenes with sparse sophistication. Panych’s ugly language could suggest restraining the delivery so a real personality that audiences could relate to could meet his Aunt Grace. Ullrich can only do what the play asks of him, although a less distorted approach might have grounded the production in a veil of reality. While Schudson’s Grace acts as quiet foil for Kemp’s psychosis, there is only minor chemistry between the actors. Ulrich overplays Kemp most of the evening as Schudson underplays Grace, a role restricted to expression and gesture to communicate with the audience. 

While the production’s second act reflects a few redeeming moments, there is no pain left to feel for these characters after the final scenes when Kemp spewed it all on stage before the final scenes. The audience learned nothing of Grace, and too much to care deeply for Kemp. Diehard fans of Next Act or supposed black comedy might appreciate Kemp’s endless Vigil for Grace.  

Next Act Theater presents Vigil at their new home at 255 Water Street through February 26. For more information or tickets call 414.278.0765 or click the link to the left.        








Was this merely a dog-gone contrived evening at the theater? That’s only one question left unanswered at Next Act Theatre’s December production Sylvia, which opened last weekend. A.R. Gurney penned Sylvia in the heyday of the 1990’s, produced on Broadway before September 11, 2001. The multiple award-winning playwright has numerous achievements to his prestigious pedigree, including the poignant Love Letters. 

However, there’s something about this Gurney play that could leave dog lovers wanting. The couple portrayed in the production named Kate (Mary McDonald Kerr) and Greg (David Cecsarini) find themselves in a New York apartment, all alone, after sending the children to college. Greg discovers his successful financial job depressing while Kate is teaching Shakespeare to central city children, each person depicted as somewhat stereotypical baby boomers. Throughout the performance, an absence of genuine warmth for their careers or each other develops this couple’s conflicts. Althoug many families would be fortunate to be in this couple’s economic position with the rampant under and unemployment seen in 2011. 

Then on an afternoon away from his desk, Greg connects with the stray dog, Sylvia, a half-breed French Poodle who he immediately falls in love with. The delectable Georgina McKee presents herself as dog/woman Syvia, dressed to the nines in a sexy, feminine way pawing the besotted Greg with amorous affection. While the audience understands this connection, the device can be overplayed or used. With little substance to all that happens on stage, the dialogue detracts from the true comedy. These scenes are repeated over and over, especially one involving Sylvia and her dog mate Bowser. The two owners Greg and the off beat Tom (Ryan Schabach), who gives little relevant advice to the perplexed Greg, watch the dogs mate in an overly long scene. 

Are all these contrivances humorous? At times, certainly yes, and there’s some great characters played by Schabach as Leslie, a friend of Kate’s, and an androgynous therapist. Once again the dialgoue speaks to the audience strictly for the laughs instead of character development. Similar to Kate’s behavior at the end of act one when she literally mounts Sylvia in a jealous rage. Gurney scripts this couple as irrationally foolish, especially Kate, so the play’s final moments barely reveal any emotion, affectedly insincere.

The character most likeable in the audience’s eyes will be Sylvia, at the mercy of both Kate and Greg, except when she’s spewing foul language at cats (Is this really that funny?). McKee inhabits the lovely French Poodle, pert in pink bows and tulle skirts, or slinky black sheaths. As a French Poodle type, she’s only another woman seductively playing to her man. Is this really how a dedicated dog lover wants to think about his beloved pet? 

Without any genuine dogged affection appearing in the play, Cecsarini and Kerr can only act what the script allows, and Kate has little room to develop as her own seductive woman. The play scarcely offers any real solutions on a wealthy couple’s minor mid-life problems, solved without any struggle except for living with the instincts of a lovely, innocent dog. While it might have appeared extremely Saturday Night Live funny in another decade, this couple and Sylvia have few real concerns that they can blame on Man's Best Friend. An amusing evening, although the true canine connection left one wanting substantially more from the best of Next Act Theatre's professionals. 

Next Act Theatre presents Sylvia on their great new stage at 255 North Water Street through December 18. For information or tickets call: 414.278.0765    by Peggy Sue Dunigan









Next Act Theatre christened its new home located at 255 South Water Street with the 2002 award winning play The Exonerated. The company’s Artistic Director David Cecsarini appeared for the first time on the barely completed stage accompanied by rousing applause. Doubling as the scenic and sound designer for the production in a collaboration with Director Edward Morgan, Cecsarini profusely thanked contributors for supporting the organization’s future dreams to tell stories in Milwaukee that would inspire the city’s entire theater community.

The inaugural evening lived up to Next Act’s expectations when this surprising lyrical play written by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen interweaves several true stories from inmates on death row that were wrongfully accused of crimes. Individuals’ actual words were skillfully transposed from hundreds of transcripts collected by Blank and Jensen for the play’s dialogue. The evocative opening begins with a poetic narration by Delbert (Alfred H. Wilson) asking, “How do we get out of this hole?”

This question could pertain to several subjects the play centers on: capital punishment, injustice and racism, all themes developed through the overlapping stories. While each of the eight main characters retells the incidents leading to their or their companion’s arrest and imprisonment, a white man Kerry (Jonathan Wainwright) explains how he was accidentally convicted of murdering a woman he dated only one night three months before her death. A victim of misidentification, he warns the audience, “That no one should take anything for granted. It could be you next.” 

Kerry speaks these few words that chill to the bone while Delbert continues to pose his spiritual wisdom between the scenes. The powerful stories pierce the very soul. Pivotal moments occur in these incidents that confound the audience as to why this injustice occurs and the tragedy that follows in these once very ordinary lives. While tension and emotion pulse through the 90-minute performance without an intermission, a heart wrenching highlight unfolds when Sunny (Tami Workentin) represents the first woman in Texas to be on death row. Separated from her husband, also on death row for the same crime, they were torn from their two children as innocent victims when the man they were with lied about the two murders he committed. 

A pair of actors named the male ensemble conjure the auxiliary judges, lawyers and policemen so necessary to enhance the stories. Here the experienced performances of Milwaukee's James Pickering and the Next Act debut of Rick Richter add dimension to the script, also accompanied by rearranging a few institutional tables and chairs on the stage for a minimal set. Morgan directs an exceptional performance from every cast member.  

Yet, the play’s title hints at the possibility for redemptive endings. The Exonerated demonstrates that any truth may be elusive, especially when contemplating a death sentence. What does conviction without a doubt actually mean? When DNA evidence can be determined, then these innocents may be released. Although the play touches on the subsequent damage in the aftermath. No apologies were ever given to these lives that were destroyed with years spent in prison. The audience leaves with haunting memories and musings when walking out the door in the dark of the evening after Next Act’s superb season opening production.

Next Act Theater presents The Exonerated through October 30 at their newly constructed home at 255 South Water Street where there is plenty of free parking in the adjacent lot. For tickets call 414.278.0765 or click the theatre's link on the left.



Page 1 2