What I love most about community theater is its unsettling quality. It's unsettling seeing your insurance agent, college professor, lawyer, doctor, or mechanic onstage pretending to be a principled juror or hooker with a heart of gold. It's unsettling to see someone have a bad night onstage – forgetting a line, blowing an entrance, or losing a wig. Frequently, it's unsettling to see what sends an audience into gales of laughter (e.g., gay jokes, scatology). But for me, community theater is most unsettling when it upends my long-held perceptions about a particular theater company.
And this is how I found myself unsettled in the comfy seats of Epilogue Theater this weekend.
Epilogue's current production is Visiting Mr. Green, the tale of a young Jew in New York assigned to check in on an aging Orthodox Jewish widower -- a widower he narrowly missed mowing down with his car. The widower is weighed down with heavy baggage, burdened not only with crippling depression following the loss of his wife but also with outmoded social views brought over from Minsk. [SPOILER ALERT - LOOK FOR THE "ALL CLEAR" BELOW!] Not surprisingly, the widower's old-world views clash with his young friend's gay lifestyle.
Think of it as an angrier Tuesdays with Morrie. And don't think for a minute that you can afford to miss it.
Mr. Green is a great choice for the typical Epilogue audience while still being challenging and sufficiently unique to lure newcomers. My chief complaint with Epilogue (along with several other area theaters) -- one to which I've alluded in prior reviews -- is poor, unimaginative programming. Epilogue's comedies tend to wallow in broad, lowest-common-denominator humor; its dramas rarely stray from comfortable themes involving aging. Rarely have I emerged excited from an Epilogue show, and I can think of only one time in the past five years when I have recommended an Epilogue production to friends. (To Kill A Mockingbird really was very well done). Yet just when I am ready to write-off Epilogue, they come out swinging with a terrific, engaging, and well-acted production.
Director Gene Cramer has lucked into a perfect cast for Mr. Green. In the titular role, Bernard Wurger turns in a dramatic tour de force. Few actors can pull off "cantankerous" as ably as Mr. Wurger, and this ability serves him well here. Yet whereas a less skilled actor might allow the character to degenerate into caricature, Wurger conjures a more plausible, fully-realized Mr. Green clothed in layers of pathos. Yes, Wurger's accent and mannerisms are amazing, but his Mr. Green is so much more; he imbues the character with such complexity that it becomes impossible to look away. I found myself transfixed by Wurger's every movement, admiring everything from the subtle improvement in his gait throughout the play to his determined focus while devouring a bowl of soup. Wurger's performance is -- in a word -- mesmerizing.
[A few months ago, Marty Essig turned in an equally nuanced portrayal of an aging Jewish mother in Crossing Delancey in Lebanon. I don't know if they've ever worked together, but I would pay serious money to watch Wurger and Essig share the stage as a Semitic couple.]
As the young man compelled by a judge to put up with his curmudgeonly charge, Josh Breese does a fine job. At times, his line-delivery feels flat, and one monologue in particular during the second Act lacked the emotional punch it deserved. But Breese's portrayal feels so effortless and his interplay with Wurger feels so natural that he is forgiven the occasional misstep. The fact remains that Breese's is the best portrayal of this character I have seen.
Which brings me to the most unsettling aspect (for me anyway) of Epilogue's production: with Mr. Green, Epilogue has bested one of the stronger, more consistently entertaining theater companies in town. Last season, Spotlight Players in Beech Grove performed Mr. Green. Though I found Spotlight's interpretation entertaining, there was nothing dazzling about the performances in that show. Suffice it to say, central Indiana theater-goers would do themselves a serious disservice to miss Epilogue's version merely because they think they saw the same show last season. Trust me -- they didn't.
For months, I have been wrestling with whether to write about what I consider to be one of the biggest obstacles to the success of our community theaters: cribbing your season from the theater across town. Every year we're treated to at least one production done the year prior by another theater in town. (Just by way of recent example, I saw Christmas Belles three years in a row recently, I will see The Curious Savage for the fourth time in two years if I can find a ride down to Franklin next month, and I could have seen Leading Ladies for the fifth time since 2008 had I made it out to Clinton County last month.) Every time it happens, I presume that someone from Theater B saw Theater A's production and thought "Hey! That's a good show. So-and-so would be great in that. We could do that better." And they never, ever do. Until now. Epilogue may have borrowed its selection of Mr. Green from Spotlight's 2010-11 season, but this time it pays off. Epilogue thought it could do the show better, and it succeeded. And in the process, Epilogue stole the wind from my sails.
But to all the show selection committees out there, please exercise extreme caution when deciding to put up a show that you just saw last season at another theater. Just think of the poor theater that decides to do Visiting Mr. Green next year, thinking it can outperform Epilogue's production and the great Bernard Wurger. That, as Mr. Green might say, would be just plain meshuga.