By Lynn Venhaus

A strong ensemble cast acts naturally in an unnatural setting in “Locked Ward,” a world premiere mystery-drama by Chicago-based playwright Amy Crider.

Now in its 19th season specializing in producing new works, First Run Theatre effectively realizes Crider’s play, which was inspired by her own journey with bipolar disorder, with sensitivity and compassion.

Crider’s care and concern regarding her characters, which were based on people she met while hospitalized in 1993, is obvious. And director Phil Gill follows through by ensuring a human face has been placed on the internal and external conflicts.

Crider has been on effective medication since 1994, and has been almost entirely in remission ever since, she wrote in the program notes. Her large body of work includes the topic of mental illness, and reflects not only her personal experience, but her desire to educate and make people aware of disorders.

“Locked Ward” is first and foremost a passion project, and it succeeds on its earnestness. While it has humorous elements to lighten interaction, it is serious in its intentions. Do not think of this as “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” light.

As Crider does, Gill strives to address the stigma hanging over those living with mental illness. And that is an important aspect of this presentation. In his program notes, he said he hopes it “encourages you all as our audience to see through the labels and instead see the humans that exist” behind the diagnosis.

While it could be heavy-handed in conveying the playwright’s noble intentions, First Run does not lecture, but lets the actors believably develop their familiar characters. The cast makes sure we feel their connections while shading the disparate personalities in an identifiable way.

In life, Crider may crusade, but on the page, she doesn’t preach. She has incorporated information within the framework of a murder mystery, which is a surprising component.

The story takes place in 2003 in a psychiatric ward. When the body of a nurse is found on the floor in the ‘locked ward,’ patients become amateur sleuths, united in their shock and grief. That helps them bond, but also shows their limits as their own personal issues come to the forefront.

For instance, the sweet Eleanor, affectingly portrayed by Uche Ijei, has a manic episode while the group is preparing dinner. Her escalating paranoia puts others at risk when she wields a knife (used to cut vegetables) and must be put in restraints. They smoothly diffuse the situation.

Because the actors demonstrate skill in bringing their characters to life, we get to know them beyond their ‘types’ throughout the two acts.

Duncan Phillips is impressive as Franklin, the rigid obsessive-compulsive whose daily routine of “Star Trek” episodes and the evening news is disrupted when the floor’s television set is removed. You know that character. Smart, sincere, and awkward, Phillips grabs onto solving the mystery like a lifeboat.

In a heartfelt performance, Ethan Isaac is Glen, a troubled ex-cop dealing with post-traumatic stress syndrome, who must work through a tragedy. He also provides investigative know-how as the group ascertains how their floor nurse died.

Jalani “Tamia” Hale is sympathetic as Jill, whose memory is erased with her electric shock therapy. She is heartbreaking as she walks around in a zombie-like state sometimes and has grown an unrealistic attachment to the doctor treating her.

As Vladimir, a rebel-rousing dissident who doesn’t play by the rules, Stephen Thompson maintains a convincing Russian accent. An intelligent guy that sometimes condescends, Vlad’s hostility softens as he works together with the group on a common cause.

Treating these patients is Dr. Blumenthal, and Jaz Tucker keeps us guessing about this guy – is he trustworthy or is he hiding secrets? He does a good job giving the benevolent doctor some layers.

Because of COVID-19, Lillie Weber could not play the health care professional Linda, who takes over from the ‘victim’ the patients were attached to. But stage manager Gwynneth Rausch capably filled in. Because they must adjust anyway to an ‘outsider,’ her insertion worked well as a latecomer, not missing a beat. She also provided some context to the deceased nurse’s private life.

Scenic designer Brad Slavik’s use of weathered second-hand furniture and distinct institutional props fitting such a locale’s layout adds to the production’s lived-in quality. Tony Anselmo’s lighting design enhances the moods and the characters’ emotional states, and technical director Jenn Ciavarella’s sound design is efficient and fluid.

The play is well-staged in the Kranzberg black box theatre so that each character has their moment to shine.

Without simple solutions, the play zigs when you think it will zag, so you are kept somewhat off-guard, avoiding predictability.

While the conclusion seems anticlimactic, and the path towards the resolution gets a little clunky in its exposition, the ensemble’s likability smooths the rough edges.

Overall, the actors’ grow as they share their stories, bridging some of the hurdles perceived in mental health.

Crider does not offer quick fixes, and it would be irresponsible to do so anyway. Because of the way the character’s progress, in the end, the message lands on how much more insight we need on mental illness.

Through First Run, this fiction can be a starting point to learn more.

The St. Louis chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, which serves St. Louis city and county plus the counties of St. Charles, Lincoln, Warren and Jefferson, has provided the company with resources that they have placed in the lobby of the Kranzberg Arts Center. NAMI is an organization of families, friends and individuals whose lives have been affected by mental illness

Crider has also written a mystery novel about her experience with mental illness, “Disorder,” which is available from bookstores, Kindle, and audio.

Crider wrote the play, “Charlie Johnson Reads All of Proust,” that the Midnight Company presented here in May 2019.

You can follow her career, including winning the Tennessee Williams One Act Play contest, on www.amycrider.com.

Jaz Tucker, Ethan Isaac

First Run Theatre presents “Locked Ward” Aug. 12-14 and 19-21 at the Kranzberg Black Box Theatre, 501 N. Grand Blvd., St. Louis. For tickets and information, visit www.firstruntheatre.org.

By Lynn Venhaus

Two oil-and-water grown brothers, Valene and Coleman Connor, constantly bicker and fight like two Rock ‘em, Sock ‘em Robots – but real physical and psychological damage takes place in “The Lonesome West.”

That’s a calling card of Irish playwright Martin McDonagh, whose works, often involving dysfunction, are mostly bleak, dark, and if a pitch-black comedy, outrageously funny.

Such is the case in West End Players Guild’s hardscrabble production, running through May 8, of McDonagh’s 1997 play, part of his Connemara trilogy (Tony winner “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” and “A Skull in Connemara” being the others). It was Tony nominated for Best Play in 1999, when it transferred to Broadway.

The middle-aged brothers escalate violence over the most mundane things – such as bags of Taytos’ ‘crisps’ (chips). Think “The Odd Couple,” only more gruesome and foul-mouthed.

While McDonagh’s contemporary play is not as well-constructed as Sam Shepard’s “True West” about two battling brothers that at times, resembles a Looney Tunes’ roadrunner and coyote cartoon, the material is suitable for an acting showcase.

And WEPG rises to the challenges, with strong production values and outstanding performances.

It’s just that hurling insults gets tedious, and the story has no where to go after two and a half hours.

The amount of physicality required of Jeff Kargus as Valene and Jason Meyers as Coleman is enormous, and they are ferocious onstage, with a toughness and single-mindedness that is stunning.

Their agility in movement is matched by their full immersion into the Irish dialect, which is superb all throughout the two-act drama-comedy.

The remarkable dexterity Kargus and Meyers display as these difficult characters indicates much dedication to getting all aspects right. One must note the superb work of fight director and weapons supervisor Michael Monsey for his intense choreography.

Kargus, never better, has long passages of dialogue to deliver as the more sympathetic and dutiful brother, as Meyers’s Coleman is maniacal, likely a psychopath, has shot his father and will likely kill again – and no one would be surprised if Valene was his target.

Shades of Cain and Abel, and that is not a joke. Both are examples of arrested development, but Connor is a one-note character compared to Valene. As the hot-head, Meyers outbursts of rage quickly build in a matter of seconds, but he is not always convincing in depicting menace. He’s downright cruel about his brother’s religious figurines – and you’ll find out about the dog soon enough.

Valene isn’t entirely innocent, for they have antagonized and done horrible things to each other over the years. Kargus does a fine job conveying his character’s peculiarities perfectly, including a fascination with the old ABC western “Alias Smith and Jones,” which ran for three seasons from 1971-73, patterned after the wildly popular film “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” Apparently, it made a huge impact on Valene as a youth (or maybe home video).

The reason it is brought up in conversation is part of a bigger discussion on suicide, and whether the individual goes to heaven or hell. The Catholic Church believes those who kill themselves do not ascend to heaven, although there is some debate.

When a rash of suicides in the small town take place, people talk. Which leads to the old TV show discussion, because actor Peter Duel, 31, died of a self-inflicted gunshot after the first season.

That’s only one of the stream-of-conscience discussions in the shabby abode where the brothers live in the rural town of Leenane, in County Galway, where there is a shocking underbelly of mayhem and far too many strange-circumstances fatalities.

Scenic designer Brad Slavik has fashioned a very specific kitchen-living room combo with splendid detail while Frank Goudsmit’s props establish how the brothers live in an old farmhouse.

Tony Anselmo’s lighting design reflects the different moods and a more unsettling nighttime, while Jenn Ciaverella manages a sharp sound design – the Chieftains’s folk music is a good choice to play before the show and during intermission.

Under Robert Ashton’s fluid direction, the ensemble works together well, with Ted Drury as the hapless local priest Father Welsh and Hannah Geisz as Girleen Kelleher. Their comic timing is crisp, as is their ability to not break character, no matter how daffy or audacious the dialogue sounds.

Drury’s booze-swilling, advice-giving priest is hell-bent on saving the brothers’ relationship, but realizes it’s hopeless, and his despair is palpable.

Ashton has included a handy reference sheet to explain some of the Irish terms, such as poteen – meaning moonshine. You’ll see the men drinking copious amounts of the hooch, which is made from potatoes.

McDonagh, an Oscar nominee for writing “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” doesn’t seem to have an endgame here, which is frustrating, but at least what WEPG does with it is impressive.

Photos by John Lamb

West End Players Guild presents Martin McDonagh’s “The Lonesome West” from April 29 through May 8 at the Union Avenue Christian Church, 733 Union in the Central West End. For more information or tickets, visit westendplayers.org

The West End Players Guild is employing touchless ticketing, socially-distanced seating and indoor masking of all patrons, front of house staff and volunteers.