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The Best of Enemies
Florida Studio Theater

Best of Enemies
Sheffield Chastain and
Stephanie Weeks

Florida Studio Theater has much to celebrate coming into the end of 2012 and beginning 2013. They were able to open the renovated Gompertz Theatre in a short four months with Lanford Wilson's Talley's Folly for a trial run during their summer season. Where it used to be run down and unappealing it is now brand new and beautiful. Now, they have opened phase two with a new lobby and box office area also including a bar and café service. On January 4 they will open the new John C. Court Cabaret, a larger venue to house what has always been one of their most popular features, the cabaret series. I was able to peak inside the cabaret area and, while they were still adding some finishing touches, it is going to be beautiful. Bravo to our friends at Florida Studio Theater.

To more formally open the Gompertz they have chosen Mark St. Germain's newest play The Best of Enemies, which is based on a true story. FST Artistic Director Richard Hopkins delivers a very strong production on every level. The play received excellent notices in The New York Times for a production in New Brunswick, New Jersey, and is a provocative choice for Sarasota audiences. Artistic Director Richard Hopkins has directed a well-focused, tight production.

The play is the story of Ann Atwater, a civil rights activist in the deep South, and C.P. Ellis, exalted Cyclops of his local chapter of the KKK. They are brought together to co-chair a group which is to make recommendations on how to proceed with school desegregation too many years after the Brown vs. The Board of Education Supreme Court ruling. It focuses on how the two people's lives are changed by this experience. The author has given us a play with many highly charged moments, such as the appearance of C.P. in his clan regalia and the initial confrontation between Ann and C.P. when they go eyeball to eyeball, pictured above. Mr. St. Germain is able to balance the high intensity with quieter more personal moments. This play has a great dramatic arc, as two people, so seemingly different in the beginning, begin to feel the commonality and then see it as well. The political turbulence in the back ground adds another layer of richness.

Excellent as it is on paper, The Best of Enemies demands great performances, especially from the leads, and Florida Studio delivers. The standout performance comes from Sheffield Chastain as C.P. Ellis. He delivers everything required, from the rigid taughtness of his stance in the Klan regalia, to the tenderness he shows his wife as she succumbs to cancer, and finally to a completely changed human being as a result of age and other forces. Also excellent is Stephanie Weeks as Ann Atwater. The physicality of the performance is remarkable, as she shows us the toll that domestic work takes on the body of these poor Southern women by the way she stands and moves. Fine support is offered by Amanda Duffy as C.P.'s wife, Mary, and Kevyn Morrow as Bill Riddick, the force that brings these opposites together. (Mr. Morrow is also the director/choreographer of Florida Studio's other hit, Smokey Joe's Café, currently scheduled to play at The Keating Theater through January 12, 2013, but likely to extend.)

The Best of Enemies was written in short scenes, meant to be staged fluidly, and stage manager Garry Allan Breul does an outstanding job getting major scenic elements on and off quickly, keeping the dramatic flow moving forward. Scenic Design by Bill Clarke is extremely effective—there is a clear difference between the white poverty of C.P.'s home and the black poverty of Ann's. At the rear of the stage, projections help define the location of various scenes as well as adding emotional depth by showing the political landscape of the era. The projections find the perfect balance, not forcing attention to themselves at the expense of the actors. Costume Design by Lynda Salsbury and Lighting Design by Rob Perry are both worthy elements in an outstanding presentation.

I found the play so intriguing that I have purchased the book that the play is based on for further study.

Florida Studio Theater presents The Best of Enemies through January 27 at The Gompertz Theater, 1241 N. Palm Avenue, Sarasota. For tickets and performance information, please call the box office at (941) 366-9000 or visit www.floridastudiotheatre.org

Cast
C.P. Ellis: Sheffield Chastain*
Ann Atwater: Stephanie Weeks*
Bill Riddick: Kevyn Morrow*
Mary Ellis: Amanda Duffy*

* Member Actors Equity Association

Director: Richard Hopkins
Scenic Design: Bill Clarke
Costume Design: Lynda Salsbury
Lighting Design: Rob Perry
Sound Engineer: John Valines
Stage Manager: Gary Allan Breul
Production Stage Manager: Kelli Karen


Photo: Brian Braun

See the current season schedule for West Coast Florida

--William S. Oser



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