Reviews of “Fleshtones” and “Playing for Real” at First Run Theatre

    First Run Theatre has come dancing out of the COVID interruption with two very different but equally entertaining plays in their new home at the Kranzberg Art Center’s Black Box Theatre. J.E. Robinson’s “Fleshtones” is a realistic family story. Ron Asher’s “Playing for Real” is meta doubled and tripled.

    Robinson knows well the setting of his play in small-town Illinois. He’s placed it in May 1970, a time when folks in National City, Illinois, are beginning to wonder what the future holds for such places. Hollis Giddings, the daughter in the family, has little hope for the place. She wants to move to Chicago, with more and better jobs and big city excitement, a sentiment shared with many her age and one reason for the concerns about National City’s future as the young people leave. Her father, Albert Giddings, grew up in the house the family lives in now, and leaving it would seem almost a kind of betrayal of his parents and grandparents. His wife Theresa is not as attached to the place and would not mind having a newer and nicer home. The Giddings are struggling with a typical family disagreement, if one more major than most. Alex Jay as young Hollis, Sieglinda Fox as Theresa, Donald Douglas as Albert, director Julie George-Carlson, and playwright Robinson make clear the individual desires that drive each character and the love that holds them together until they find a resolution.

    The program for “Fleshtones” lists no props designer, so I suspect that Set Designer Brad Slavik may be the one who found the well-worn washing machine with wringers attached that keeps Theresa occupied much of the time. Albert mows the lawn with a whirring reel lawn mower. Even the clothes pins pinning up the laundry are the old all wood kind with the two legs grabbing the line. 

    “Playing for Real” takes place in a small community theatre as the company assembles for rehearsal. They are expecting a wealthy producer to observe and perhaps back the production. In St. Louis theatres now, we are having a spate of plays that examine what it means to play a part and to create theatre. They do it by having a scene we take to be real suddenly dissolve into actors playing parts, and we see the reality behind it – but is this real or is this yet another layer? This happens so often in “Playing for Real” that to say almost anything more about it would be to launch a series of spoilers. So in praise of director Julie George-Carlson again, playwright Ron Asher, and the actors, I will simply say that they manage to keep the activity as clear as it needs to be but no more than that. Bill Burke is an actor who sometimes plays Peter in “The Zoo Story” and Anthony Randle is an actor who sometimes plays opposite him as Jerry, plus a little Romeo. Kelly Boyce sometimes plays Honey in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and Jill Houghton sometimes plays Martha in that play, plus a little Juliet. Monica Allen is the very firm and determined director and John Trotwod Moore is the eccentric playwright, Mississippi Wells. Patrick Bowden plays the producer Sammy Needalender, Dustin Petrillo is a pistol-waving intruder, and the program says that Henrietta Francis is the “Real Producer.” But is she?

    Lighting designer Nathan Schroeder makes some absolutely crucial lighting changes in this second play, and Jenn Ciavarella designed sound.

    The two one-acts run through December 5. Let’s cheer on First Run Theatre to continue the good work!

    —Bob Wilcox

    Photo by David Hawley