Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Phoenix

20th Century Blues
Stage Left Productions
Review by Gil Benbrook

Also see Gil's reviews of The Lady's Not for Burning and Women in Jeopardy

Monique Café, Cindy Miesse, Debra Lyman,
and Carol Gibson

Photo by Cody Dull
Susan Miller's 20th Century Blues, which is receiving its Phoenix premiere in an engaging and well-cast production at Stage Left Productions, shows the close bonds that women who have known each other for 40 years can have and how being over 60 presents a myriad of challenges, especially if you're a woman.

The plot centers on Danny, a well-regarded and famous photographer who has been given the opportunity to exhibit her work at the Museum of Modern Art. Instead of having a retrospective of her work presented, Danny has decided that she'll use photos taken each year at an annual get-together with the three women she met and bonded with forty years ago when they were all jailed for their participation in a civil rights protest. But will the women give Danny their permission to include the photos, which they always thought would remain private?

Miller presents interesting, three-dimensional characters who are unique and who each represent a different aspect of the impact of being around 60 years old today and having experienced most of the major events of the 20th century. She also uses the interesting idea that the result and impact of the events of history and our own personal experiences can be seen on our faces in photos. As Danny puts it when describing the photos, "they all have something to tell you. Their faces say what I can't." Danny also talks about how the series of photographs document the changes we all go through from youth to old age, and they specifically show this group of women from youth to adult to old age.

Miller presents interesting concepts that, when coupled with intriguing characters, form a personal connection with the audience. However, Miller also tries to shoe-horn into the play many topics from recent history as well as the various struggles impacting baby boomers today, and even throws in potential issues with having an adoptive child. At times it seems like she's trying to throw everything she can at the piece to make it seem current and relevant, but not all of it sticks and most of it isn't anything we haven't heard before.

Director Cody Dull has cast the show with a quartet of actresses who do a beautiful job portraying this tight group of friends. Debra Lyman is wonderful as the headstrong Danny, who, on top of worrying about getting the releases from her friends to use their photos, is dealing with a mother bordering on dementia and an adoptive son who has made plans to meet his birth mother. Cindy Miesse provides plenty of humor as Gabby, a veterinarian who is currently living in a hotel as she sees what it will be like once she becomes a widow, even though her husband is perfectly well. Monique Café is incredibly realistic as Mac, the intellectual journalist who is African American and gay, so she's had plenty of struggles in her past, but who is currently dealing with the reality of the downsizing of newspapers faced with serving a digital audience. As Sil, the real estate agent who is so concerned with her looks that she's just been to a plastic surgeon, Carol Gibson presents a wonderful portrayal of the affect of aging on a woman and how difficult it can be to compete with younger people in an industry where looks are deemed important.

In smaller roles, Paula McKenny is quite effective in showing the result of dementia, and Eric Bond is good as Danny's son Simon. All six actors create warm characters who have a natural bond with each other. Lyman, McKenny and Bond are especially effective at creating realistic familial connections and Lyman, Miesse, Café, and Gibson all come across as friends who have known each other, through thick and thin, for years. Dull does a very good job in deriving realistic performances from his entire cast and doing a pretty good job in staging it on his set that resembles Danny's living room.

While not every element in 20th Century Blues works, the important idea of how we've all experienced tragic world and personal events over our lives, while our bodies have also changed from child to adult, and how that all shows on our faces, is interesting and intriguing. It may also make you think of events in your past that have impacted you and how looking at a series of photos of you over the years will show how you've been affected by those events.

20th Century Blues runs through February 27, 2022, at Stage Left Productions, 11340 West Bell Road, Suite 105, Surprise AZ. For tickets and information, please visit or call 623-285-6321

Director/Scenic/Media/Lighting Designer: Cody Dull
Prop Designer: Wendi Taylor

Cast: (in order of appearance)
Danny: Debra Lyman
Bess: Paula McKenny
Gabby: Cindy Miesse
Mac: Monique Café
Sil: Carol Gibson
Simon: Eric Bond