It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it can be quite a challenge. I am not complaining, though, because few people get to experience the embarrassment of riches that I do. I am referring to the three back-to-back shows I took in over the past weekend. The first was “Morning After Grace” on Friday’s opening night at Indiana Repertory Theatre’s OneAmerica Mainstage. On Saturday, I saw “Steppin’ Out with Ben Vereen” at The Palladium. And on Sunday, it was “Salt Pepper Ketchup” presented by Fonseca Theatre Company at the Basile Building.
“Morning After Grace”
Written by playwright Carey Crim, a resident artist of The Purple Rose Theatre Company in Chelsea, Michigan, the play premiered in 2016. Funny and endearing, it explores love, loss, and coming to terms with growing old. The play, set in a gated community in Florida, opens with Abigail, a divorcée who wakes up on the couch next to a still-sleeping Angus, whom she met the day before at a funeral, resulting in a one night stand at his house. On the coffee table are empty wine bottles and scattered all over the floor are their clothes, evidence of their passionate encounter. Later, we learn that it was Angus’s wife Grace who had suddenly died and the funeral was hers. Thickening the plot is the revelation that when Angus accesses Grace’s cell phone, he discovers evidence she has had an affair. Adding further interest is the arrival of Angus’s neighbor Ollie, who was also Grace’s friend and who knows Abigail through her work as a therapist. Eventually, all the characters’ backstories emerge and what I thought at first was just a frothy romantic comedy turns into a much more serious commentary on the effects of aging.
Astutely directed by IRT artistic director Janet Allen, the production stars Laura T. Fisher as Abigail, Henry Woronicz as Angus and Joseph Primes as Ollie.
Fisher was convincing as the vulnerable, yet quirky, Abigail, who loves glass blowing, never swears and believes in signs. Still wounded because of her former husband’s abandonment of her for a younger woman, she nevertheless considers opening the door to her heart upon meeting Angus.
Woronicz, who has acted and directed in numerous IRT plays over the years, once again showed his prowess as a character actor in his multi-dimensional portrayal of a human rights lawyer, who struggles with his alternating grief and sadness over the death of his wife, and the rage he feels about her betrayal. Still, he finds a ray of sunshine upon meeting Abigail, leaving him with hope he will find some peace of mind.
Primes embodies the role of Ollie, a former professional baseball player, who reminds us things are not always what they seem as he reveals one of the play’s biggest surprises.
Due to IRT’s extensive budget and creativity of its top-notch designers, the theatre’s productions are always impressive. No exception is Bill Clarke’s gorgeous set, which depicts the realistic-looking living area and kitchen of Angus’s high-end Florida condo. Nor is veteran designer Betsy Cooprider-Bernstein’s lighting, which captures both Florida’s sun-splashed ambiance and also effectively sets the mood for the play’s serious and dramatic moments.
Born in 1948, I certainly fit the Boomer demographic and for someone who deals on a daily basis with the reality of living out my “golden years,” “Morning After Grace” was certainly timely and unquestionably relevant. Reinforcing the downside of aging, Crim’s thought-provoking play was also uplifting. It was a reminder that even though one can get set in his or her ways, that change is always possible. Finally, it reinforced that wisdom that derives from aging is one of its greatest blessings and that happiness is a choice.
“Morning After Grace” continues through February 9 at the Indiana Repertory Theatre. For tickets, go to irtlive.org.
“Steppin’ Out with Ben Vereen”
I had the great pleasure of interviewing show-business icon Ben Vereen (see my Jan. 13 profile) in late November, so it was with great anticipation I saw him perform live in “Steppin’ Out with Ben Vereen” on Saturday in his debut at The Palladium at the Center for the Performing Arts in Carmel. And if that weren’t enough, I met him backstage following the concert.
What struck me about Vereen in all three of those encounters was his ability to be all that he appears to be. Both on and off stage, he is warm, kind and authentic. Those qualities manifested themselves in his Palladium concert, during which he performed a tribute to some of his show-business friends, sang songs from the Broadway shows that made him famous and others from the Great American Songbook.
Performing with his long-time trio in front of a partially filled house made up of mostly an older crowd, Vereen constantly wore a brilliant smile. Charming a captivated audience with stories and anecdotes about his career and his life in general, he strode about the stage. That was one of the most amazing aspects of his concert that he exerted himself the way he did, considering when he made his entrance, he was walking with a cane. He told the audience it was the result of a surgery he recently had to remove a bunion from one of his feet. A consummate showman, he never let on that he was experiencing any discomfort, even when he had to take a seat in a tall chair on stage to rest at times. He also demonstrated his showmanship when he sang. At 75 years old, his tenor voice is certainly not what it used to be, but he could still hit high notes and used all the tricks up his sleeve to gleefully sell the songs. A compelling aspect of his performance was the manner in which he dramatized each of the song he sang, showing off his consummate acting talent and story telling abilities.
In Act 1, Vereen sang songs from scores of his most well-known Broadway shows, such as “Corner of the Sky” and “Magic To Do,” from “Pippin,” “I Know How to Love Him,” from “Jesus Christ Superstar,” and “Hair” from the musical of the same title. A highlight of the concert was a medley of songs by Frank Sinatra, with whom Vereen shared a deep friendship. They included songs such as “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” “Come Fly with Me,” “My Way” and others.
Act 2 consisted of a variety of pop songs and standards arranged in a way that enabled him to put his own stamp on them. Some of my favorites included “Once in a Lifetime,” “That Old Black Magic,” a very touching rendition of “What a Wonderful World,” and “Love Train.” Throughout the concert, Vereen shared his passion for the arts and the importance of arts education, which culminated in his singing “Stand by Me,” changing the lyrics to “Stand Up for the Arts,” as he encouraged the audience to stand up in support. Closing the concert with “For Good,” from “Wicked,” he thanked the audience for making it possible for him to enjoy the stellar career he’s had.
Following the concert, I was admitted backstage, along with a large group of fans and admirers to meet Vereen and secure a photo with him. Though he was obviously exhausted after performing the 2+-hour concert, he nevertheless greeted each guest, including yours truly with warmth and sincerity. Though I have met my share of celebrities during my career, it’s the ones with longevity in the entertainment world and especially those with as much humanity and rare talent as Vereen possesses that make me feel as though I have touched not only show business history, but also its royalty.
“Salt Pepper Ketchup”
Effectively living up to its mission to give voice to people of color, Fonseca Theatre Company is presenting “Salt Pepper Kitchen,” playwright Josh Wilder’s provocative indictment of gentrification.
Making the production truly special is the fact that FTC is smack-dab in the middle of the Haughville area, where neighbors are resisting attempts by developers to rebrand it “River West” and turn it into Indy’s next great urban neighborhood.
Adding to the uniqueness of “Salt Pepper Ketchup” is none other than its renowned director Tom Evans, who taught theatre at Hanover College for 32 years. Following his retirement, the well-respected Evans has directed at various professional venues all over the country.
Lastly, making this a very appealing experience is the production’s multiracial cast. I cannot adequately express how rewarding it is to see plays written by people of color, about people of color, featuring actors who truly mirror the face of our country in all its diversity, in a theatre that exists for just this kind of storytelling.
Set in Point Breeze, a working-class, ethnically-diverse neighborhood in Philadelphia, the action takes place in Linda Wu’s Superstar Diner, a scroungy Chinese restaurant with grease on the walls, which caters to a nearly all-black clientele. The interaction between the owners, Linda (Tracy Herring) & John Wu (Ian Cruz), and their regular customers is frequently combative, but at least there is grudging respect between the two parties. That’s because the low-end takeout joint is important to the community because the fast food is good, cheap and the restaurant is a gathering place.
An attempt to rebrand the neighborhood “Newbold” threatens to turn South Philly’s Point Breeze into a whiter, younger and more affluent neighborhood. Evidence of that vision is a food co-op that seeks to make the residents healthier and happier. Leading the charge is its chief representative Paul (Robert Negron), a sunny, yet disingenuous and sometimes condescending figure with an agenda.
It is almost predictable that this mix of characters and conflicting interests would result in a turf war that closely resembles much of what we are experiencing in today’s political climate, rife with anger, resentment and polarizing division.
Although Wilder’s dialogue, much of it profane to certain ears, is true to the ear and mostly hilarious, some of his writing has a situation-comedy quality that relies on one-liners and insults to get laughs, but when you think about it, that is the reality of our social interaction these days.
As far as performances, FTC company member Ian Cruz turned in yet another solid performance as the volatile, closed-minded restaurant owner who constantly dismisses his wife until she finally has had enough of his dominance and rebels.
Negron, whose acting I have only witnessed a few times and has impressed me greatly, gave a very fine performance as the well-meaning, classic do-gooder, who eventually cops to his white male privilege. Ironically, Negron who is artistic director of FTC’s neighbor and partner Indy Convergence, an interdisciplinary arts organization, knows a thing or two about gentrification.
Also turning in a strong performance was Chinyelu Mwaafrika as Tommy, a brash, outspoken regular customer of the diner who has no difficulties speaking his mind.
“Salt Pepper Ketchup” presents multiple ideas as it examines both the positive and negative ramifications of gentrification and how it affects those residents displaced because they can no longer afford to live in their own neighborhoods. Like many cities in the U.S., Indianapolis residents have experienced similar dynamics like those found in “Salt Pepper Ketchup” in many of our historic neighborhoods such as Lockerbie Square, Chatham Arch, Fountain Square and others. Fonseca, who has been exposed to this issue during much of his tenure in Indianapolis, once again, through this timely drama, holds up a mirror to contemporary issues that affect us all. Perhaps the Near Westside will become a textbook example of how everyone can co-exist in a way that ensures everyone’s interests and investments are protected and the original character of the neighborhood is maintained.
“Salt Pepper Ketchup” runs through February 2. For tickets and information, visit fonsecatheatre.org.