Review: Sunlight

Friday night found me and my permanent theatre date, Mike, on Mass Ave. After dinner at Yats, we headed to the Phoenix Theatre to see their latest offering–the National New Play Network’s rolling world premiere of Sunlight. This thrilling family drama offers insight into a post September 11 world, through the eyes of one family. The play, by Sharr White, comes to the Phoenix Theatre from the National New Play Network, which the Phoenix has been involved with for years. It opened at the Marin Theatre in Mill Valley, California in January 2010. The Phoenix lays claim to the second production of this play ever. The rolling premiere is made possible through the National New Play Network’s Continued Life Fund. In addition, Sunlight received two prestigious awards: the 2009 Skye Cooper New American Play Prize and the 2009 Edgerton Foundation New American Play award.

On her website, Indy Theatre Habit, Hope Baugh spoke to the growing concern in Indianapolis theatre over premieritis. I must confess, along with her, that I have it and I don’t want to be cured. In bringing Indianapolis culture an array of new plays, the Phoenix Theatre provides an extremely valuable service to Indianapolis arts. Theatre, like film, is meant to reflect our current times, whether through an ageless classic or a brand new American play. How often do people spend an evening at a movie house watching Holiday Inn or The Maltese Falcon? It is a rare occurrence to even have the opportunity to see these on a big screen, though the Indianapolis Museum of Arts offers the odd old movie here and there. What is more, how accurately do these films reflect what is happening in society today? If you want to see a reflection of current trends in politics, art and culture, we take in newly released Hollywood blockbusters or the debut film of an independent filmmaker.

Why then should theatre goers be subjected to seeing the same plays by Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams time and again? Do not misunderstand me, I love these playwrights as much as the next theatre junkie. But why can’t theatre be dominated by the same trend toward new invention that dominates the film industry? Old recognizable play titles garner more audiences than newly written scripts, but old movies do not generally attract more film goers than the latest releases by Martin Scorsese or James Cameron. The Phoenix Theatre is slowly but surely working to change this misconception when it comes to Indianapolis performing arts, one play at a time.

In his program notes, director Brian Fonseca speaks to the Phoenix mission of producing topical drama. That is newly written drama that concerns current events and their effect on our shared cultural ethos. Sunlight concerns one family’s disintegration in the post 9/11 world. The play opens in the crest of a wave as the daughter of a college President and his assistant sit shredding documents. After learning that his former protege and current son-in-law was responsible for authorizing controversial torture techniques, the ever liberal (and sometimes drunken) Matthew Gibbon wrecks his colleagues’ office. The school, up in arms, is clearly moving toward the termination of Gibbon’s contract, as his son-in-law Vincent must prepare to face the consequences of his legal memo.

Though the play forces us to examine a “shift in definition and application of torture techniques,” as Fonseca explains, it is about so much more. Fonseca goes on to say in his notes, “The drama, however, is the impact of the redefinition on our collective pysche. The indisputable cause for the shift was our response to the catastrophe of 9/11. We see the impact of all this thorough the eyes of a single family. The beauty of Sharr’s play is that the family represents us all.”

The structure of the play alone is enough to earn Sharr countless New American play awards. It is designed to engage our common ethos, as we watch a family crumble before our eyes. The two heavy hitters, Matthew Gibbon and Vincent Kreiger, are introduced through the eyes and actions of the two women in the play. And though we see them both on stage in the first Act, they are never together, creating an intense build up to the prize fight we all expect. By the time the pair finally meet face to face, the entire theatre is electrified with fear and excitement over what will happen. It feels almost voyeuristic.

Angela Plank plays Charlotte, daughter to Matthew Gibbon and wife to Vincent Kreiger. As the rag doll caught in their dirty tug-of-war game, Plank plays it just right. She is a strong female figure in both her professional and private life, but as Charlotte is forced to remember horrible events from her past underlying intentions are revealed. When her tragedy no longer belongs to her, her helplessness puts everyone around her to shame. Though we feel guilty seeing her tragedy tossed around like grenades in Iraq, we cannot tear our eyes away from the scene. Her performance is both captivating and distressing. Plank dishes out both strength and shame in her performance as she is bantered back and forth by Matthew and Vincent.

Gayle Steigerwald, last seen in A Very Phoenix Xmas, is a breath of fresh air from start to finish. As the single source of comic relief in the play and the only non-family member on stage, Steigerwald, as the trusty assistant Midge, becomes the lens through which we watch the drama unfold. I literally found myself looking to her reactions, as word bombs were dropped left and right. Steigerwald’s presence and interpretation of Midge made it feel safe to watch. She brings a delicate balance to the events occurring on stage.

Bill Simmons donned the role of Vincent, the conservative Republican. In a difficult role, Simmons was faced with the challenge of being cast as a villain by audience members. Though I found myself wanting to jeer his character’s choices at times, Simmons did an excellent job of walking the fine line between evil conservative and real human, making it impossible to hate him and leaving us largely without a villain (what a parallel to the actual events of 9/11). Though Simmons shows little range when his performance is compared with his last role on stage at the Phoenix in The Most Damaging Wound, he is enjoyable to watch nonetheless.

Rich Kommenich takes on the role of Matthew Gibbon. Where we wanted Simmons to be a villain and he wasn’t, we want Kommenich to be a hero and he isn’t. In a brilliant move by White through writing and Fonseca through directing, Sunlight reveals that nothing in our modern world is black and white. Kommenich does “degenerate old man” near perfectly. His character loses integrity while gripping tightly to self-importance. With ever sip of liquor Gibbon takes, Kommenich transitions beautifully into a broken man. It is very nice to see this seasoned actor tackle a more dramatic role after seeing him last in the indyFringe Theatre Festival offering Another Classic of Western Literature.

Though each performance in Sunlight is noteworthy, the play shines because of ensemble work. Apparent from the cast’s goofy bios, the collective work each member did on the play results in a grouping that is truly believable as family. Their performances pair nicely with the richly crafted set from University of Southern Indiana professor Robert Broadfoot, who managed to make the stage look extremely decedent (not an easy feet on a Phoenix budget). With a long background lighting fade from Purdue University professor Michael McNamara, the audience is ever aware (though subconsciously at times) of the amount of time that passes, moving us closer and closer to the moment of truth.

Overall, Sunlight at the Phoenix Theatre is an incredibly rich theatrical experience. Topical drama may not stand the test of time, but the lessons offered to us today by current, living, breathing artists can help us to heal, to move forward, to “live again.” See Sunlight on the main stage of the Phoenix Theatre now through March 20.

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Now through March 20, 2010

The Phoenix Theatre
749 North Park Avenue
Indianapolis, IN 46202