Tuesday, November 10, 2015

AUM: "Helvetica"

On a rainy Saturday evening when major football rivalries were being contested in both Auburn and Tuscaloosa, and when the performance was temporarily suspended when a fire alarm prompted Theatre AUM to clear the building, a small but undeterred audience was treated to an excellent production of Helvetica by Chicago-based playwright Will Coleman.

Winner of the Southeastern Theatre Conference's prestigious 2015 "Charles M. Getchell New Play Award", Helvetica's numerous episodes recount the title character's life as tracked by the three actresses depicting her -- at age eight [Past Helvetica: Danielle Phillips] when her mother died, as a grown woman [Present Helvetica: Amber Baldwin] on the day her husband leaves her, and in old age [Future Helvetica: Tara Fenn] on the day she dies. -- And Theatre AUM has the opportunity of putting its own stamp on a play that has of yet no conventional ways of staging and interpreting it.

Mike Winkelman's simple flexible scenic design allows the frequent time shifts to segue smoothly, and is accommodated by the narrator of Helvetica's story: a stuffed bear named Myron [Kodi Robertson] whose infectious innocence and knowing manner tempers the non-dramatic narrative sections. A kind of "Pooh-bear" confidante and adventuring accomplice who was Helvetica's "friend at first sight", Mr. Robertson inhabits the role so completely and credibly, that we trust him immediately to tell the story fairly.

At an uninterrupted 90-minutes, director Neil David Seibel's talented 12-member ensemble turn in truthful depictions of an array of characters who inform Helvetica's complicated life: parents [Kerry Jackson and Blaire Casey] who love and protect her despite having problems of their own, and from whom she learns to trust her imagination and yet remain a realist; a husband [Jay Russell] who seems at first to be an ideal match, but who can't grasp Helvetica's independence as she becomes a successful author of children's stories; a fan who becomes an unlike;y colleague [Samantha Blakely] who illustrates her books; her publishing agent [Grayson Dobbs] who encourages her to write again after a long dry period; a cancer patient [Haeley DePace] who is sympathetic to Helvetica's situation; her doctor [Intisar Seraaj-Sabree] who comforts her in her anticipated surgery; and an animal shelter worker [Cathy Ranieri] whose practicality is worthy of emulation.

Throughout this engaging production, we see how events in childhood inform the adult in all of us, that people often damage those they care for in an attempt to protect one another by avoiding unpleasant topics, and that there is a powerful impact in the various expressions of love for our fellows.