Jan. 22, 2009
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Another play about theatre makes it to a Milwaukee stage this month as the Milwaukee Rep stages its production of Trouble In Mind. Here we see actors onstage playing actors backstage who are preparing to play characters in a play they don’t particularly like. While I quite enjoy the existential vertigo of thinking about a group of modern Equity actors rehearsing scenes of actors rehearsing scenes, doing initial read-throughs and arguing about the script, the playwright’s doing a lot more here than merely toying with theatrical reailty. . .


Stephanie Berry plays Willetta Mayer—an African American stage actress on Broadway in 1957. Mayer has been cast as the mother of a man who is struggling with civil rights in the deep-south. Her son is being played by John Nevins—a talented young actor played by Wayne T. Carr (also talented young actor.) The initial tone of the play is set as Mayer talks to Nevins about the finer points of working with a white director in an era when all of the directors were white. The traditional try-to-suck-up-to-the-boss advice takes on an interesting tone when set against the backdrop of a racially divided ‘50’s. Here we also meet much of the rest of the cast: There is an attractive, stylish young black actress named Millie Davis (played by an attractive, presumably stylish actress named Rachel Leslie.) There is Judy Sears--a struggling, young white actress who has never performed professionally before played by a much more seasoned actress named Kelsey Brennan. The extensively experienced Ernest Perry Jr. plays an extensively experienced black actor named Sheldon Forrester. (Milwaukee Rep resident actor James Pickering also plays an actor in the cast, but he doesn’t show-up until after intermission.)


A good portion of the first act happens before the director shows up. The cast has a pleasant conversation peppered with an ample amount of wit from playwright Alice Childress. Richard Halverson also shows-up in this act in the role of a charming, old Irish American techie who enjoys talking with Mayer. The ensemble seems really well balanced. With the exception of Halverson’s character, Childress seems to have done a really good job of giving almost every character equal time—kind of an impressive feat considering the nature of the play.


Eventually, the director shows-up, played here by the Rep’s Lee Ernst. Ernst’s usual likeable persona has been poured into a relatively complex character here. He’s a guy who has good intentions that are kept from their full potential by his own limitations. He strives to bring a realistic story about the struggle for racial equality to the stage while still struggling with his own prejudices. It’s easily Ernst’s most interesting performance in a few seasons.


 Aside from Ernst, there are a number of really good performances here. The intensity of Berry’s performance in the last act is commendable. Ernest Perry Jr. has a impressive charisma onstage in the role of Sheldon Forrester. The actor he’s playing is a workhorse actor far more intelligent than the scripts he’s given to perform and Childress weaves a great deal of subtle humor into the character’s dialogue. He clearly has a sense of humor about what he’s doing and can’t help but ridicule it. Being professional, the character’s jabs at the script are done very subtly. If Ernest Perry Jr. were to emphasize the humor in his role any more, it would imbalance the play. His performance here is brilliantly reserved.  


Usually when modern stage plays fill out two full hours, they do so somewhat uncomfortably. Some scenes feel rushed, others feel long and ponderous. Childress has sculpted a couple of rehearsals into a really well-balanced couple of hours. The Rep’s production mirrors the script’s balance remarkably well.  


The Milwaukee Rep’s production of Trouble In Mind runs through February 15th at the Quadracci Powerhouse Theatre. A much more concise review of the by Jason Powell appears in this week’s Shepherd-Express.        


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