Man at Work

First Run Theatre offers plays that are under construction

First Run Theatre is a fledgling group devoted to producing new plays by local writers. Its advertisements tout supportive blurbs from the likes of St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay and alderwoman Phyllis Young. Neither the mayor nor the alderwoman was in attendance at the performance I attended -- perhaps it's easier to endorse a new play than to actually sit through one.

The current offering, John Williams' Capacity, is on view in the theater at DeSmet High School in Creve Coeur. The auditorium is attractive, but a distracting series of obtrusive knocking noises throughout the evening led one to wonder if the space might not be more suited to a tale of the occult.

Although Capacitystrives for moments of tension, we're not in Stephen King territory here. If anything, this story's emphasis on the ills of a deteriorating family bears certain facile comparisons to Judith Guest's novel Ordinary People. The plot plays out at Christmastime in a contemporary suburban household still in mourning over the recent death of a loved one. The late Roy Hansen is the axis around which this melodrama turns, for he sustained a distinct and slightly different relationship to everyone else onstage. He was a husband, a father, a son, a friend. No one remembers him in quite the same way.

When the play begins, a widow (Pamela Geppert) and her feisty mother-in-law (Teresa Wenzel) are engaged in mindless kitchen chatter. In time the viewer comes to appreciate that this banter is not mindless, for it allows each woman to get through the burdensome day. Their mutual focus is on David (Darek Russell, forceful and persuasive), who has withdrawn into a moody isolation. Late in the first scene, after David has left the stage, the grandmother turns to her daughter-in-law and says, "He knows."

Knows what? What's happening here? What do these two women know that the audience does not? Suddenly the viewer's interest is piqued.

From this point forward, to delineate the plot specifics would be to strip the play of any freshness and surprise it contains, because as currently written, the plot is all. For now, these six characters are merely the means through which a story unfolds. At this still-early stage in the writing process, the characters remain devices through which to move the action forward; they're not yet rooted in life. They don't yet know subtext or ambivalence; they're mouthpieces rather than living organisms.

A viewer has no way of knowing how much progress already has been made during rehearsals. It may be that the play has been improved by leaps and bounds just to get to where it is today, and that director Tyler Duenow deserves a congressional (or at least an aldermanic) medal for reshaping the script to its current condition. Constant rewrites during rehearsals might even excuse the halting deliveries of certain unsure actors.

But at the risk of contradicting advice the playwright already has received, here are a few observations he might consider when he returns to the necessary and brute work of rewrites: 1) Never end sentences with the prepositional phrase, "of them" or "for them." Most prepositional phrases -- and those two in particular -- are actor-antagonistic. 2) Once you've made a point, move on. To keep saying the same thing over and over minimizes its impact. As the great director Elia Kazan put it, "One plus one equals a half." 3) Plays are about words, but they're not about talk (unless your name happens to be George Bernard Shaw). If Williams were to pull up his script on the computer screen and then delete the word "talk," he might be astonished to realize his crippling dependence on this one noun. He would also realize that in Capacity, talk is the archenemy of action.

Although the play's structure is solid, Williams needs to edit and tighten Capacityinto cohesiveness. But that's why this production is being offered. One hopes the playwright is learning as much, if not more, from the performances as he did from the rehearsals. Thus, the process continues.

 
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