Play: The Playing Ground
Group: First Run Theatre
Venue: Hunter Theatre, DeSmet High School, 233 N. New Ballas Road
Dates: May 29, 30, 31
Tickets: $10-$12; contact 314-352-5114 or http://www.firstruntheatre.com">www.firstruntheatre.com
Story: Jimmy is a quiet, introspective 10-year-old who spends his recess time at school reading on the top of a jungle gym in an older and seldom-used part of the school playground. He’s annoyed one day by the presence of Lindsey, a loud, foul-mouthed girl who decides to engage him in conversation. At first annoyed, Jimmy gradually warms to Lindsey’s company. Shortly thereafter they’re joined by another 10-year-old, a self-important type named Reagan, who informs the other two that she’s decided that she’ll play with them the next day rather than the cool clique to which she belongs. Over several days friendship between the trio grows even as they grapple with problems with their parents and siblings.
Highlights: Fresh from a triumph as co-author of Magic Smoking Monkey Theatre’s fast-paced, irreverent and very funny take on J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, local playwright and actor John Wolbers is seeing his original drama produced by First Run Theatre, which specializes in presentations of works by local playwrights. Wolbers’ two-act drama is directed by his comrade in Tolkien arms, Suki Peters, a gifted performer in her own right.
Three performers each take on a trio of roles in this earnest but uninspired work. Most successful is Amy Kelly, who humorously and sometimes poignantly captures the essence of the tween mindset and philosophy. Between her gesticulations and the varied inflections of her voice, Kelly convincingly embodies the world of Reagan.
Other Info: Laura Singleton and John Foughty also do some good work as Lindsey and Jimmy. Singleton conveys the anger brimming inside Lindsey, whose single mother drinks too much and resorts to beating her daughter and son as her way of communication. Foughty focuses on Jimmy’s sensitivity and shyness as an only child being raised by his mother and her lesbian lover, doing what he can with that portrayal.
Kelly also portrays Jimmy’s stepmother, a free spirit named Zoe who bickers with Jimmy’s mother, Judith, about Jimmy’s sexual inclinations in front of him. She also plays Lindsey’s well-meaning but unhappy mom, desperate for another man to provide for her and her kids.
Singleton is the loving but carefully guarded Judith and also Reagan’s shallow and self-absorbed mother, while Foughty plays Lindsey’s affectionate 6-year-old brother as well as Reagan’s emotionally distant dad. The portrayals are OK, but there isn’t a lot to work with in Wolbers’ script, which is heavy on stereotypes and too often laced with preachy, cloying dialogue.
Peters’ direction is earnest but uninspired, matching the leaden pace of the story as it moves predictably back and forth between scenes in the schoolyard and visits to each child’s home, all of which have obviously shaped their personalities. The set design by Brad Slavik and George Wagner is pleasant enough, with the jungle gym bracketed by a seesaw and a swing set for the playground scenes and a bunkbed, sofa and coffee table for the domestic portions.
Russell Bettlach’s costumes suitably reflect not only the children but also their parents, highlighted by Zoe’s flamboyant ‘Mother Earth’ garb, and Erich Suellentrop is lighting designer. Jerry Rabuska’s original music and lyrics add a nice touch to the goings-on.
The Playing Ground is set in an all-inclusive, 21st century world sympathetic to all three of its youthful protagonists. Unfortunately, there’s little here that hasn’t been said before, and better, in other works.
Rating: A 2 on a scale of 1-to-5.