Entries in MIlwaukee Theatre (3)



The word “grace” conjures many definitions and scenarios taken from the legal system, the lovelorn and then religious jargon and law. Playwright Craig Wright holds a Masters of Divinity degree from United Theological Seminary, which definitively influences his award nominated play recently produced on Broadway he titled Grace. To close the subscription season, Next Act Theatre stages the production for what Artistic and Sound Director, and then Director, David Cecsarini names, “Theater with a bite.”

Cecsarini carefully directs a compelling and talented cast of four---Libby Amato, John Kishline, Rick Pendzich and Jonathan Wainwright---in a complex drama that converges in one space an exterminator, a genius IT professional with a devastating injury, an attractive and lonely wife and her over expectant husband trying to make a living in hotel management. The husband bases his business plans on advice from Christian financial advisors instead of perhaps God’s actual spiritual principles, all in the name of grace. And the play's questions infer in certain characters’ experiences if there is or why there is any God at all.

In Wright’s story, Steve (Pendzich) and Sara (Amato) move to Florida and pursue their dream of hotel development after “planting seeds of a financial harvest” and then scoring 14 million from an unseen and unspoken to business partner. Steve prefers the name Crossroads Hotels, a chain of hotels perfectly attuned to the “Christian”, in Wright's interesting nod to some of the business plans that commercial religion proposes.

Next door in the couple’s apartment complex lives Sam (Wainwright), a depressed NASA scientist who streams data between time and space, from the heavens, and recently lost his fiancé in a tragic accident that leaves his face disfigured. Enter the philosophical holocaust survivor, Karl (Kishline), an older man who now exterminates the hundreds of bugs, even terminates, that infest Florida buildings and houses. Steve in his enthusiasm for his new-found investment riches often “witnesses” to Karl and Sam, trying to convince them to believe in God.

How actual grace and the word’s meaning unfolds for each character throughout the performance will fascinate the audience. Hotel plans may come and go, hope grasped for a moment and then pulled from reach numerous times in the performance as Amato creates a believing, innocent wife who eventually determines her own spiritual direction in the course of the play. Pendzich and Wainwright provide the compelling counterpoints as Kishline’s cameo appearances rivet the audience’s attention when he steps on the sparse stage. Rick Rasmussen’s white wicker furniture cools off the Florida heat on this ghostly pale living room set.

While the ending may resolve these various issues perhaps too easily and expectedly, the audience may think otherwise. What anyone with any religious beliefs may be capable of when faced with difficult circumstances underscores this definition of what true grace requires from a person.  And asks the audience to construct their own meaning to grace and what they believe about God.

Tragically and unfortunately, Next Act’s Grace uncovers timely contemporary context as famed Christian pastor Rick Warren’s 27-year old son recently committed suicide that causes heartbreak, similar to circumstances in the  play and imparts even deeper meaning, importance to the production. Discover this powerful play and then vow to determine genuine grace in one’s own life.

Next Act Theatre presents Grace through April 28 in their new theater at 255 South Water Street. For information or tickets, please call414.278.0765 or click the Next Act link to the left.       by Peggy Sue Dunigan




In a welcome twist on a holiday classic, It’s a Wonderful Life Live Radio Show brings a touch of old time Milwaukee to the stage this season. Next Act Theatre produces Mary MacDonald Kerr’s adaptation with warm life at WNAT Radio in 1957. An era when on the air radio shows were changing to playing music 24 hours, full time.

At the station this particular Christmas Eve, Judy stops in on leave from her current acting tour to wish her former co-workers Merry Christmas. They all prepare for the retelling of A Christmas Carol and at the last minute the station owner decides to run It’s A Wonderful Life for their grand finale.

With snow falling softly in the studio and stage background, a romantic touch for the audience, Judy substitutes for two “stuck in the storm” co-workers and agrees to play the part of Mary Hatch. The crew patiently waits for a tipsy James to change into that famous everyday hero George Bailey at a last minute entrance. And the guiding force Clarence arrives to show the couple the way accompanied by old time Foley sound mechanics through which Next Act delivers a mesmerizing version of the beloved holiday story.

Kerr’s play adaptation sings on stage, complementing the 50’s costumes (in which Kerr looks charming) and the tension she creates between Judy and the disillusioned James, a perennial 'Scrooge" that Norman Moses captures with boyish antics. As former lovers, James and Judy still secretly cherish each other, which becomes apparent in a scene between Mary and George that reignite their latent passion.

Jack Forbes Wilson’s piano gives its own life to the story's music while he recreates Clarence Odbody, the guardian angel waiting for his wings after 200 years. Director David Cecsarini coordinates the inspirational tale with all these radio antics while he acts miscellaneous parts, including Mr. Gower, and adds realistic sound effects to present a magical evening.

These well known Milwaukee actors do multiple duty playing several characters, while the production adds city specific commercials (note Usinger Sausage)  to tug at the audience’s heartstrings. As if these story’s characters rounded out by versatile actors Debra Babich and Bo Johnson are completely adept at doing this entirely by themselves.

Applaud Kerr, perhaps a new woman playwright in the making, for the imagination to bring these warm, wonderful “Lives” to Next Act. The world could appreciate remembering more George Bailey’s in the public eye. Then be sure to appreciate both Kerr and the marvelous Milwaukee cast in this “Live Radio Show” for the short holiday season, a winning combination to melt the city’s winter’s cold.

Next Act Theatre presents Mary MacDonald Kerr’s adaptation of It’s A Wonderful Life Live Radio Show” at the 225 South Water Street through December 9. For further information or tickets, please call:414.278.0765 or click the link to the left.      by Peggy Sue Dunigan





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