Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.

Midwestern Gothic
Signature Theatre
Review by Susan Berlin | Season Schedule

Also see Susan's review of Pike St.


Timothy J. Alex and Morgan Keene
Photo by Margot Schulman
Midwestern Gothic, in a world premiere production at Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia, is dark, fascinating, and ultimately impossible to describe. It offers an unflinching look at the underside of rural America and the ways in which people break out when they have nothing to lose; as a mood piece, it isn't for everyone, but it's extremely well done.

Signature has brought out many of its top talents for this compact 90-minute musical, including director-choreographer Matthew Gardiner and a cast including Helen Hayes Award recipients Sherri L. Edelen and Bobby Smith. Book writer Royce Vavrek and composer Josh Schmidt, who also collaborated on the lyrics, have created a work with unexpected but radiant tunes and harmonies, played by a five-piece ensemble (piano, accordion, guitar, drums and tuba) conducted by Timothy Splain. The audience sits on three sides in the intimate ARK Theatre, adding to the sense of claustrophobia and secrets that may have been better kept secret.

The plot is elemental, packed with sexual acting-out (no subtext here) and emotional manipulation, and it's no spoiler to mention that not all the characters are alive at the end of the show. Based on the presence on Misha Kachman's stripped-down scenic design of a boxy television set, a Polaroid camera, and a brick-like cordless phone, the time is the 1980s.

The two leads, both new to Signature, are Morgan Keene as Stina, a frustrated teenage girl desperate to do something with her life, and Timothy J. Alex as her stepfather Red, whose business went bust and who now spends his time hanging around the house and lusting unhealthily after Stina. They dominate their scenes, Keene especially in her final solo, "Mama Cries Into Her Tea," which could also be called "Stina's Turn." Alex brings enough empathy to his characterization that he makes Red a person with (doomed) hopes and ambitions rather than a one-dimensional lowlife.

Stina and Red are often alone together because their respective mother and wife Deb (Edelen) manages a bar in a neighboring town and doesn't come home unless she has to. Smith is the kindly sheriff, the only man in the vicinity who isn't mesmerized by Stina's determination to get what she wants with no sense of guilt. (She's a churchgoing girl, after all, so she's forgiven.) It isn't that things go bad; they start out bad and just keep getting worse.

The rest of the cast includes Sam Ludwig as a neighbor boy spellbound by Stina, Rachel Zampelli in a broadly comic performance as Red's inebriated companion for a night, and the "hired boys" (Evan Casey, Jp Sisneros, Chris Sizemore, and Stephen Gregory Smith) who populate Stina's fantasies.

Signature Theatre
Midwestern Gothic
March 14th - April 30th, 2017
Book by Royce Vavrek
Music by Josh Schmidt
Lyrics by Royce Vavrek & Josh Schmidt
Stina: Morgan Keene
Red: Timothy J. Alex
Anderson: Sam Ludwig
Dwayne: Bobby Smith
Deb: Sherri L. Edelen
LuAnn: Rachel Zampelli
Rodney: Evan Casey
Evodio: Jp Sisneros
DJ: Chris Sizemore
Brett: Stephen Gregory Smith
Directed & choreographed by Matthew Gardiner
Music direction by Timothy Splain
ARK Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave.
Arlington, VA 22206
Ticket Information: 703-820-9771 or 1-800-955-5566 or www.signature-theatre.org


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