Review: Profiles Theatre’s Sweet and Sad (Understudy Performance)

Earlier this month (Monday, October 1) I went to the soon to be closed production of Sweet and Sad at the Profiles Theatre in Chicago. With this particular production there was a performance on a Monday Night where all the roles were played by the understudies as opposed to the original cast members.

First the cast (original and understudy):

Richard Apple Darrell W. Cox Jeff Gamlin
Uncle Benjamin Apple Robert Breuler Scott Stockwell
Marian Apple Kristin Ford Jaimelyn Gray
Barbara Apple Kate Harris Michelle McKenzie-Voigt
Jane Apple Harmony France Angela DeMarco
Tim Andrews Eric Burgher Anthony Venturini

Typically when you have an understudy in the role you can kind of tell where they can improve their performance, particularly when they are with the original cast members and sometimes with other understudies… however with this particular understudy performance, in general, the understudy cast knocked it out of the ballpark.

So why see the understudy performance? Simple… my friends and I came to support a friend of mine for a professional gig that meant a lot to him and his wife. How could you not want to support a friend that spent his lifetime to this point trying to balance building his own theatre company as well as trying to pursue his own professional acting career?

But before I go more into the performances let’s talk about the show itself. First the synopsis from the Profiles Theatre Website:

Profiles Theatre’s Midwest premiere of Sweet and Sad by Richard Nelson opens the company’s 2012-2013 season. Sweet and Sad, directed by Joe Jahraus and featuring Co-Artistic Director Darrell W. Cox, is now playing through October 7, 2012. Performances are held at Profiles newest venue, The Main Stage, 4139 N. Broadway.

With Sweet and Sad, Tony Award-winning playwright Richard Nelson continues his series of plays exploring the immediate present as well as the ever-changing state of the nation. Over Sunday brunch on the tenth anniversary of 9/11, the members of the Apple Family finds themselves talking about loss, remembrance and the family struggle to maintain its moral equilibrium in a world that no longer reflects its values.

Wait? “Series of Plays”? Indeed… it would appear that Sweet and Sad is the second of a series of plays by playwright: Richard Nelson (the first being That Hopey Changey Thing). This series of plays surrounds the Apple Family as they get together first for Election Night in the first play and in the current play the anniversary of 9/11.

The one thing I really liked about this production is that it felt like the audience was watching a family gathering and the conversations that are bound to happen in such scenarios. There are people blowing up at one another, secrets being revealed, people talking on top of one another, concurrent conversations… everything that you would expect in a family gathering happened and was brought to the stage for an audience to see.

However, because this particular production was played more in the round (or that could just be the stage set up) there are times when the family was sitting down and talking over dinner and dessert (and they were eating like crazy while talking… impressive) that it was difficult to fully understand or see the various facial expressions. But again this is more due to the fact that this was played much like a family get-together just sitting down and conversing like all families do and we – as the audience – were invited one evening to just sit and watch.

For the average theatre goer, it might be a bit overwhelming with so much of the dialogue being on top of one another, but on the other hand if a show like this were to be done in most community theatres, a lot of the dialogue would one right after another with very little overlap and in the process a lot less engaging. Not to mention a lot longer than the ninety minutes that is expected length of this production.

Even though Sweet and Sad is second in a series of plays, there is just enough backstory that is revealed throughout the progression of the script to understand what is going on in the lives of the primary characters. In fact the play does work as a standalone where knowing anything about the first place isn’t necessarily but it does enhance the experience.

Set on the anniversary of 9/11 we have Richard (the only boy… that we know of from the four siblings) who is a lawyer and very politically minded… portrayed by Jeff Gamlin. Richard decided to surprise his sisters making a trip out to visit them after so long. Of all the understudy actors… only a couple of them were totally believable in their characters for me and kept me totally engaged and Jeff Gamlin is one of them.

It isn’t just in his vocals and presentation, it is also in the details. He embodies the character so well to the point that you forget that this is an actor and you can’t help but believe him to be who his character is. When one of his sisters is having financial difficulty with her home and her husband (or ex-husband) whom she is separated from… he makes a point of emphasizing the need of her helping family out… except he doesn’t know the whole story…

Another male in the cast that was completely believable in his role is the amnesiac Uncle Benjamin of the four siblings as portrayed by: Scott Stockwell. The difficulty of playing someone that is an amnesiac is the transition between not remembering and over a few moments in time get so caught up in the moment to the point that it triggers the memories. The transitions are so seamless and poignant that you forget that he is an amnesiac until he stops talking and gives the blank look of “what just happened?”.

There are moments when each of the four siblings are trying to dictate what is the best care for Uncle Benjamin in any moment in time and even though you know they care… you can’t help but shake your head because you could envision the same thing happening in your family. Uncle Benjamin was an actor in his heyday, but amnesia has sidelined him to being cared for by his family. His internal suffering with amnesia is palpable as he watches the interactions and claims on occasion how he finds it rather strange that people are always saying how he likes one thing or another or dislike one thing or another… it is almost heartbreaking.

Scott’s moment comes towards the end of the production when he is reading a poem in preparation for a reading later that evening in church. At first he is just reading the poem because at that point the amnesia was taking hold… but over time he starts to remember the poem until finally closing the book and feeling through the poem via memory. At the end of the poem he stops and looks to his family and asks with a slight childlike innocence “am I done?” (I don’t remember the exact words). It’s heart breaking and very well done.

The sisters are portrayed by Jaimelyn Gray (Marian), Michelle McKenzie-Voigt (Barbara) and Angela DeMarco (Jane)… and there is a dynamic between the three of them that you know they are all loving, caring sisters, but that they also have their own secrets to hide and is quick to share unsolicited advice. In a lot of ways for me this kind of got annoying, but isn’t that what siblings are for?

Barbara Apple appears to be the primary caretaker for their amnesiac uncle, a teacher who wants her students to truly understand what happened during 9/11… you can tell that a lot of her teaching tendencies trickles into the family stead. Show and tell, reading aloud, presentations, etc… I felt like I was in an elementary classroom whenever she gets into one of those moments… and I hated it – in a good way.

However, between the three sisters… for some reason it is Barbara that I just could not wait to stop talking. There were times where I wanted to stand up and say, “Just stop… you are going too far!” Then I had to remind myself that this is a play and this is their moment within their “family”. If Michelle portrayal of Barbara is any indication… getting myself to want to pull her back as if we were family, yeah… that’s a good thing.

Marian Apple is having trouble in her family with her husband, especially since the accident that drove her to live with Barbara and separated the family. What exactly happened takes most of the length of the play to figure out and understand because the appearance is that it is a taboo topic. Not only that but not everyone knows exactly what is going on. All other members of the family are unsure how to approach the taboo subject and talking to Marian is also a difficult task… especially since Marian shuts down almost completely or lashes out should someone try.

Jaimelyn Gray’s interpretation of this young lady who is going through a very difficult moment in her life is palpable. You could feel the pain and anger and sorrow. The desire to reach out, but the shame of what her secrets could reveal. As more and more of the family attempt to get involved in Marian’s life and suffering she shuts down even more and it is behind closed doors that some of the secrets were revealed… as heartbreaking as the story as we know it at the moment. Jaimelyn did a fantastic job of being on edge and finding a kind of balance between being stressed out and breaking down until necessary. If there is anything that I felt rubbed me the wrong way, it would be the beginning of the show… she felt almost too manic for me… I know she was stressed but it was to the point where it almost got annoying for me… but in the end she warmed up to me as more and more of her pain was revealed to the audience.

Jane Apple is recently divorced and have hooked back up with a previous beau (Tim Andrews as portrayed by Anthony Venturini) who also has a child of his own from over the years. She loves to express how proud she is of everyone to the point of being overly effusive. With Jane wanting to show off her boyfriends’ talents and projects… and Tim feeling more than just embarrassed it is an interesting dynamic, this couple.

In fact I would go so far as to they could either balance or out balance one another and it would be fascinating to see how their relationship progresses over the course of the next play or two (depending on how long this series of plays last).

Although I really like Angela DeMarco and Anthony Venturini separately in their portrayals… I love them when they are together. The chemistry and dynamic is easily felt between the two… especially with two very different personalities. When they bring their individual interpretations of the characters together it is easier to understand what makes their relationship work and where there could be a disconnect.

Despite the strength of the cast… the story is very current and in the moment, which can be a good or bad thing. Even though seeing this production now works in the overall storyline’s favor… the question becomes just how much legs is left? After all, with it being an anniversary of 9/11 and a lot of references to real time events there is a distinct possibility of being outdated in time.

If anything, seeing this production sooner as opposed to later is in the theatre goer’s best interest. If one is able to see the first in the series it is even better, but not necessary. However, if one were to watch this production several years down the road it may not have the same emotional impact… and that can be an issue.

However, for the moment… I was more than moved by this production, I was impressed. This is something that I am very glad I came out to see… and if this production is any indication I cannot wait to see what the third play in the series would be about.