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St. Louis by Richard Green

West End Players Guild

Also see Richard's review of Cabaret

Laura Singleton and Jeff Kargus
Say the words "Big Pharma" and you'll probably get a negative reaction.

But in Kate Fodor's dark comedy, modern "lifestyle" prescription drugs work wonders, allowing escape from a miserable existence, where everyone works to prop-up the increasingly brutal efficiencies of the marketplace.

And with a main character named "Meena" (like "Wilhelmina" from Bram Stoker's "Dracula"), the unspoken thesis may be that our whole economy is now being run by the spiritual equivalent of vampires. Meena (the excellent Laura Singleton, with a profile reminiscent of Carol Burnett's) is a case in point: She is admitted into a clinical trial for a new drug to alleviate work-related depression. It's code-named "SPF-925," and may just work a little too well.

Renee Sevier-Monsey directs, setting an impressive, naturalistic tone; although even the pace of the production is so driven that there's hardly time to applaud between scenes, and most of the laughs in Ms. Fodor's script are of the below-freezing variety. It all may sound terribly anti-theatrical, but the astringent atmosphere adds layers of drive and desperation to Meena's own plight.

And yet, there's also a wonderful love story running neck-and-neck with the anguish surrounding work and the clinical trials. That all starts when Meena's doctor at Schmidt Pharma (the adorable Jeff Kargus) realizes he cannot live without her, after finding a little-known copy of her book of prose-poetry, from before she took a job "in the real world." The pair blossoms beautifully together, but things will sway painfully out of control as the trials progress (necessitating the use of even more life-style pharmaceuticals).

And what about those "spiritual vampires"? Beth Davis is great as Allison, the swaggering supervisor of the research study, filled with plenty of dismissive assessments of her co-workers that seem to be par for the course these days. Likewise, Simon (Matt Hanify) and Allison, have each made so many trade-offs they no longer have any personal lives left to call their own. Still, they charge onward—as if there were an infinite number of rungs ahead of them yet to be climbed, on their respective career ladders.

But the Fodor script also weaves in lots of good, old-fashioned comedy when Meena meets an older lady on her lunch hour, and when a mad scientist seems to hold out the last hope for happiness.

The insightfully wacky Suzanne Greenwald plays the old lady, who gives us a little "old economy" perspective on modern life. She married soon after entering work life, and quickly left a paying job to tend house. This makes her antediluvian to Meena's world, but allows her a simple wisdom that the younger woman would otherwise find inaccessible.

John Lampe is equally funny, especially in his second role as the mad scientist, with a very odd assortment of experimental pills (and character tics) at his disposal. Prior to that, he's a cleverly odd, owlish marketing guru for the pharmaceutical house.

Overall, there's just an overwhelming sense of workplace abandonment and betrayal (along with the comedy and touching romance) that strongly echoes what's wrong with so much of our lives today, under the weight of a nationalized economy. And the idea that somebody's busily developing a pill—just so you won't mind all the betrayal—manages to be both funny "ha-ha," and very funny "strange."

Through April 13, 2014, at the Union Avenue Christian Church, 733 North Union, just north of Delmar. For more information visit www.westendplayers.org.

Cast of Characters
Meena Pierotti: Laura Singleton
Phil Gray: Jeff Kargus
Allison Hardy: Beth Davis
Simon: Matt Hanify
Frances: Suzanne Greenwald
Richard/Ed: John Lampe

Director: Renee Sevier-Monsey
Assistant Director/Stage Manager: Mark Abels
Set Design & Master Carpenter: Ethan Dudenhoeffer
Lighting Design: Renee Sevier-Monsey
Sound Design: Chuck Lavazzi
Costumes: Jean Heckman
Props: Rebecca Davis
Lighting Technician: Amy Ruprecht
Sound Technician: Marybeth Winslow
Stage Crew: Nikki Winslow
Original Artwork, Graphic Design, Postcard: Marjorie Williamson

Photo by John Lamb

-- Richard T. Green

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