By Lynn Venhaus
A walrus and a manatee walk into a polar bear’s bar that’s a comical rant. There is trouble in paradise between Adam, Eve, God and Satan. A mother and a daughter square off, a coach and a parent exchange words, and a married couple share their rocky heart-tugging journey.

A range from savvy farce to poignant drama, this year’s 10th annual LaBute New Theater Festival’s line-up stresses shared humanity in five strong complete-thought one-act plays that press different emotional buttons.

Every year since 2013 – when live theater could be presented, St. Louis Actors’ Studio has collaborated with playwright, screenwriter and film and theater director Neil LaBute to support new works from across the country.

LaBute not only lends his name, but he is part of a 10-member panel that selects the plays from a vast number of submissions, often emerging voices. The company provides the resources for local presentations.

In years’ past, selections have included some edgier and esoteric works, but this current slate is as relatable as it is affecting – and still in a thought-provoking way.

However, typical topics like politics, the state of the world or a dystopian future are not on this roster.

It may not be intentional, but I detected a unifying theme between the five — wrestling with demons and doubts, and addressing elephants in the room, all in compelling contemporary presentations. After all, there is more commonality than differences among us, as the arts frequently point out.

Lorelei Frank, Greg Hunsaker and Tyler Crandall in “Grief & Woe.” Photo by Patrick Huber.

All five are particularly suited for The Gaslight Theatre’s black box stage intimacy, and in keeping with the festival’s rules, plays can only have up to four characters.

LaBute contributes a world premiere one-act every year. This year’s original presents a view askew of sports at young levels. Although not specified, I surmised it was a summer squad aka “Little Leagues” or those between school leagues, like American Legion and ‘select’ teams.

Called “Who’s on First?”, this uncomfortable exchange between a baseball coach and the parent of a player whose skills are lacking is entirely plausible.

A rueful commentary on how we got here, LaBute’s razor-sharp rhythmic dialogue is superbly delivered by Chuck Winning as the coach (Abbott!) and Anthony Wininger (Costello!) as the father.

As they painstakingly reveal motivations, they re-affirm the present-day stakes matter-of-factly. The scene, which opens the second act after a 15-minute intermission, takes place in a dugout, and is shrewdly directed by Kristi Gunther, the current production manager at St. Louis Actors’ Studio.

She and Spencer Sickmann, a veteran performer who took a couple years off for a personal-life break, has returned to tag-team directing this program.

Previously, he had acted in two earlier new theater festivals, and in leading roles in LaBute’s “Comfort,” St. Louis native Beau Willimon’s “Farragut North,” and St. Louisan Cory Finley’s “The Feast,” among others.

Hunsaker, Anthony Wininger and Crandall. Photo by Patrick Huber.

Gunther assuredly guided two conflict pieces – a wacky one that escalated, called “Walrus,” and a somber two-hander that came to a resolution, in “Cage.”

Sickmann perceptively helmed the opening kick-off, a bracing battle of the sexes featuring a fractured relationship between the first man and first wife, Adam and Eve. Quick-witted dialogue by playwright Paul Bowman of New Albany, Ind., makes “Grief & Woe” an interestingly observed relationship study, interrupted by God’s rules and Lucifer’s interference.

The Garden of Eden resembles a battleground like “Men are from Mars; Women are from Venus.” The not-so-happy bickering couple is tested by a seductive, slithery serpent, ‘just call me Lou,’ played slyly by Winning, affecting a devil-may-care attitude and dominating the stage.

A benevolent but exasperated “Mr. G” is humorously fleshed out by Greg Hunsaker as a cross between a Borscht Belt comedian – think “Your Show of Shows” sketch – and a ‘60s sitcom boss.

It’s a clever albeit lighthearted scenario, with impressive new-to-Gaslight-stage Tyler Crandall as an inattentive Adam and Lorelei Frank as a frustrated Eve

The festival is usually modestly presented, with simple, functional staging by set designer Patrick Huber, who also astutely augments each scene as lighting designer. With distinctive outfits and props, production values are elevated this year by costume designer Abby Pastorello’s outstanding choices and Emma Glose’s props.

Pastorello’s slick attire for Winning as “Lou” is a sensational assortment of pieces including a shiny carnival barker’s jacket, brocade vest, lime green shoes and a gold-plated leaf barrette for his deceptive wig.

To easily alter appearances of actors comically portraying North Pole wildlife in the act-one closer, “Walrus,” she chose whimsical noses, ears and ‘hands’ so that it’s obvious Wininger is an obnoxious blowhard walrus, Crandall is the more agreeable, timid manatee and Hunsaker is the no-nonsense proprietor of the drinking establishment where they regale each other with tales of life in arctic waters.

Gunther directed as if they could be super-fans knocking back a drink in a Chicago sports bar, and the trio has fun with the goofy premise. The cagey play was written by Brandt Adams of Brooklyn, N.Y.

A complicated relationship between a mother and daughter is depicted in an argumentative “Cage” by Barbara Blatner of New York. The pair, deftly played by Jane Paradise (Bobby) and Frank (George), must consider the other person’s pain and come to an understanding.

Using the miserable girl bringing home a wild snake as a pet, it’s a metaphor about the things that hold us back and move us forward, and the women strike the right tone.

Hunsaker and Jane Paradise. Photo by Patrick Huber.

In one of the saddest and hardest-hitting one-acts ever presented, “Love in the Time of Nothing” chronicles a marriage from courtship through loss, as a couple grapples with the husband’s early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease.

Playwright Jayne Hannah of North Providence, R.I., accurately reflects the rollercoaster life after a dementia diagnosis changes everything for a husband in his 50s and a wife in her 40s.

If you have family experience with this disease, you will recognize all the symptoms, treatments, roadblocks, and the heartbreaking decline of a once-vibrant mind and the unrelenting burden placed on caretakers.

Hunsaker, as David, and Paradise, as Julieanna, masterfully interpret Hannah’s literate and lyrical prose, conveying the ecstasy and agony of a serious commitment.

These parts are demanding of the actors, and their proficiency makes an impact. This one lingers, and it was a wise choice for the finale. Sickmann presents both the hope of good times and the tragic realization of never-ending sad times with inevitable anguish.

This year’s festival is smoothly executed, intellectually nourishing and engaging in unexpected ways. The best part, besides being a splendid showcase for high-caliber performers, is that it surprises with its empathy.

The needle drops are particularly affecting, so kudos to whoever selected the music. Pastorello also effectively managed wigs, hair and makeup.

Special shout-outs to stage manager Amy J. Paige and her assistant Collin Brinkley for their unflagging efforts to keeping the pace from sagging, and their ninja staff for quick set changes.

To celebrate a decade of this fruitful collaboration, STLAS has published a book, “Unlikely Japan and Other Plays: Ten One-Acts from Ten Years of the LaBute New Theater Festival,” that features ten pieces by LaBute that were created and staged exclusively by STLAS at The Gaslight, 59E59 Street and Davenport Theaters.

The book is currently available on Amazon and can be ordered directly from St. Louis Actors’ Studio. It is also available at the box office during this show’s run.

Frank and Paradise. Photo by Patrick Huber.

St. Louis Actors’ Studio presents the 10th annual LaBute New Theater Festival July 12 to 28, with performances at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and at 3 p.m. on Sundays for July 18-21 and July 25-28, but only Friday-Sunday July 12-14 at The Gaslight Theater on North Boyle in the Central West End. For more information:

General admission tickets are available via Ticketmaster or at the theater box office one hour before show time. For more information, visit or email

A playwright reception will be held on July 19 to celebrate the artists’ work, giving patrons an opportunity to learn and understand the stories they’ve just digested.

By Lynn Venhaus

It really is a yard sale and a play rolled into one kooky experience. A Masha! Masha! Masha! mash-up of absurd comedy and history, “Romanov Family Yard Sale” is another unconventional offering from ERA (Equally Represented Arts) Theatre, always pushing whatever envelope they think needs a prod.

All tchotchkes must go so that these survivors, pushed out of power during the Russian Revolution, can flee abroad. Explained as a “purgation play told in three demonstrations,” we travel back in time to July 1919.

These chapters identify the quirky focus: “Capeetalism,” “The Church of the Great Babooshka,” and “Independence Day.” Life, as they knew it, is over, and their future is scary, given the recent past and unmoored present.

This takes place exactly one year after the last Russian Tsar, Nicholas II, was executed, along with his wife, Empress Alexandra, and their children – grand duchesses Anastasia, Maria, Olga and Tatiana, and only son Alexei, a hemophiliac.

Their distant cousins want to escape to the U.S., with hopes of American filmmakers publicizing their plight. Chrissy Watkins, as very serious Dody, and John Wolbers, as a determined Kirk, arrive with their video cameras, and receive an enthusiastic royal welcome.

This part is fictionalized, but the House of Romanov really ruled imperial Russia from 1613 to 1917, until forced to abdicate and placed under house arrest by those Lenin-led Bolsheviks. That’s when the Iron Curtain came down as the Communist Party took over.

The play’s setting is in a former Tsar-sponsored theater wrecked by those revolutionaries. The loyalists warn us not to sit in a red chair, or we may be shot.

Frustrated by their predicament, they express themselves as people clinging to their old way of life. But they are also protective of each other, like families are.

You might feel like you are entering a reality TV zone. Prior to the performance, tables and racks are laden with goods that are later made available in the lobby. And the cast is already in character, hawking their wares and advising on what to do.

They are really pushing the ‘Baby Beans,” aka plush toy animals that look like the Beanie Babies popularized in the 1990s. There is no such Beanie Baby Bubble Burst in their world.

Ellie Schwetye as Little Yelena.

Using convincing thick Russian accents, aided by dialect coach Keating, an all-in repertory of regular ERA interpreters and other veterans dance, prance, bicker and sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” like they are putting on a pageant for their wannabe home in exile.

As part of this eccentric ensemble, they offer us bread, vodka shots, and Anastasia’s hand in marriage while trying to purge all their possessions.

They will collect tickets, and people do walk out with stuff (they even have a basket of plastic bags to carry purchases). Need a VHS copy of “Waterworld” or a well-worn romance novel?

It is not a prerequisite to brush up on Russian history to understand the story, but if you recall a basic outline, and recognize a Faberge egg, you’ll find Courtney Bailey’s clever original play even more amusing. And while the acting is mostly for laughs, their characters’ despair does peek through.

Adam Flores offers a touch of poignancy as bereaved Cousin Alexi, waltzing with his deceased wife, Cousin Katrina (a skeleton often guided by Bailey)..

Lucy Cashion, director and ERA mastermind, is adept at making classic literature structures fresh with unique twists and divergent perspectives.

She keeps the characters swirling so the action is swift, although a tad chaotic at times with 15 people on stage. Resourceful, she also designed the set and the sound and was the video editor.

She last tackled Russia in a Chekhov-inspired “Moscow” drinking game and one-act play produced for the St. Louis Fringe Festival in 2015, and again as a whimsical red-soaked Zoom play fundraiser in 2020.

Bailey, who wrote the imaginative “Bronte Sister House Party” for SATE in 2022, Best New Play Award from the St. Louis Theater Circle, has created another fertile playground for her latest effort.

Last year, the pair humorously combined the John Hughes Brat Pack comedy “The Breakfast Club” with a Bertold Brecht pastiche – and nod to Cold War spies in an East German political satire called “The Brechtfast Club.”

Inspired by Southern yard sales and pop culture touchstones, whip-smart Bailey has inserted references to the 1975 “Grey Gardens” documentary through very funny portrayals by Rachel Tibbetts as Big Yelena and Ellie Schwetye as Little Yelena, a perfect pairing.

She also credits the 1997 Dreamworks animated feature “Anastasia,” the “Independence Day” blockbuster movie from 1996, and Episode #822 of NPR’s “This American Life.” And apparently, Kate Bush’s 1980 song (also misspelled title) “Babooshka” was an influence.

Alicen Moser as Pigbat and Cassidy Flynn as Rasputin.

The spry large cast, some of whom were in “The Brechtfast Club” and The Midnight Company’s recent “Spirits to Enforce” that Cashion directed, includes characters you might recognize from their historical significance.

For instance, always hilarious Cassidy Flynn is Rasputin. He makes a dramatic entrance, in a stringy raven-haired wig with a shock of a silver streak, and black garb, as the controversial figure – charlatan or mystic, visionary and faith healer?

His sidekick, Pigbat, is played in disguise by Alicen Moser. I did not fully understand that character’s purpose, possibly only to add sight gags as she flaps her white Russian wings?

Ashwini Arora has fun toying with the public mystery of princess Anastasia – who may be dead or may be an imposter, or who might actually have escaped. That tale has been the subject of movies, plays and musicals, so the ERA collaborators incorporate the legend and surrounding confusion.

Three strong actresses play sisters named Masha like they are part of the Brady Bunch (of course!) – Celeste Gardner, Kristen Strom, and Maggie Conroy are engaging maidens, who can be kinda bitchy too, moving in unison.

They are outfitted in distinctive peasant garb, which displays the fine handiwork of costume designer Marcy Wiegert.

Exaggerating stereotypes, Miranda Jagels Felix is a hunched over and very worried Aunt Babooshka, wearing the traditional kerchief tied under the chin, and deep-voiced Anthony Kramer looks like a member of the politburo with a tweedy jacket and a thick mustache (that had trouble staying on) as Uncle Boris. He is obsessed with eggs, a running joke.

Multi-hyphenate Joe Taylor is this production’s Most Valuable Player, as he not only composed an interesting original cinematic-like score, but also plays the keyboard, and performed as “A Choir of Raccoons.”

He was the cinematographer for a black-and-white old-timey film called “The Last of the Romanovs” that is played at the conclusion. And added AV technician and music director to his chores, too.

As much as I enjoy watching this collective perform, and I consider their “Trash Macbeth” in 2016 one of the all-time treasures in local theatre, this play is too stretched out and would work better condensed into one act, not two.

A little nipping and tucking would heighten the ‘oomph’ that it achieves intermittently. As funny as Flynn is onstage, and the devilish Rasputin is in his wheelhouse, the middle “Church of the Great Babooshka” segment slumped when it went off on religious tangents, especially the communion.

Admittedly, the wedding ceremony, and plucking a game groom from the audience, was confidently handled, and the revelry was fun. Time for a daffy dance break!

The audience seemed to lean in to all the goofiness that ensues, even if it wasn’t always clear what was happening in this universe that teetered between fantasy and reality.

When you have that much assembled talent, it’s hard to find everyone a moment or two to shine, but they sure had a blast together as a tight-knit unit. These are swell collaborators who make the tiny but mighty ERA standout in the local landscape.

The show is co-produced by Cashion, Felix, Will Bonfiglio, and Spencer Lawton, who also effectively stage-managed. They are fully committed to surprising patrons and making sure their presentations offer something different.

Crisp work by Emma Glose as tech director and Denisse Chavez as lighting designer is also notable.

With their avant-garde experimental nature, inventive ERA always sparks ideas, and they gather the talent to pull off even the most peculiar material. No matter what, they are conversation starters.

ERA Theatre Presents “Romanov Family Yard Sale” from July 4 through July 20, Thursdays through Sundays, at 8 p.m. at the Kranzberg Arts Center (Blackbox theatre), 501 Grand Blvd., St. Louis, MO 63104. It is recommended for audiences age 21+. For more information, visit, For tickets,

By Lynn Venhaus

Anyone who has experienced grief knows that moving forward, life is measured by “Before” and “After.”

“The Whale” delves into the mental and physical health problems of a morbidly obese recluse, showing us the “After” and explaining the “Before” in an emotionally honest drama by Samuel D. Hunter.

In yet another well-cast, impeccably directed production, St. Louis Actors’ Studio imbues this gut-punch of a script with empathy and authenticity.

In his play, Hunter forces us to see the complexities in human nature, so impressions aren’t so easily defined, and judgment can wait. He has crafted flawed characters who have dealt with adversity and challenges in very different ways. Yet, they are stuck in time.

First presented in 2012, Hunter later wrote a bleak screenplay adaptation for the 2022 film that won two Oscars – one for Brendan Fraser’s performance and the other for makeup.

The film, while much dimmer inside the claustrophobic apartment, is very similar to the stage play, yet the characters are more severely portrayed, and redemption doesn’t seem plausible.

Set in a small town in northern Idaho, over the course of a week, four people interact with a nearly immobile Charlie (William Roth) in his dingy living room – nurse and friend Liz (Colleen Backer), estranged daughter Ellie (Nadja Kapetanovich), ex-wife Mary (Lizi Watt), and Mormon missionary Elder Thomas (Thomas Patrick Riley).

All affected by loss and loneliness, they are each wrapped in their own cocoons, and grace has eluded them. Director Annamaria Pileggi has drawn out nuances among this exemplary cast as they reveal truths about themselves. You feel their misery, but you also see signs of hope.

In a brave, towering performance, William Roth has never been better as Charlie, a sensitive soul whose heartache and regrets have led to self-destructive behavior. A writing instructor who now conducts classes online, he has ballooned to 600 lbs., suffers from congestive heart failure and is on a trajectory to imminent death.

Roth has delivered virtuoso performances before, notably as George in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and as Charlie Aikin in “August: Osage County,” both at St. Louis Actors’ Studio, which he founded and is the artistic director.

William Roth as Charlie. Photo by Patrick Huber

But this realization is both heartfelt and haunting. Hunter enlists many ways to display Charlie’s self-loathing, visually masking his pain with an eating disorder, and describing memories from what had been an ordinary life. Roth disappears into the role, wistfully recounting happier times at the seashore with his wife and child, and then later being with his lover and former student Alan. Will he ever forgive himself for what he perceives are his failings?

Using a colloquial term, Charlie has “let himself go.” Eating his feelings since Alan’s death eight years ago, he has guilt in his psyche – but passion in his heart for literature. You feel his remorse – and his enormous capacity for love.

Through grading papers, talking to his class via computer, and reading aloud their essays, Charlie displays a fine mind, a keen grasp of literature, what authors meant, and encourages self-expression.

Conveying that love for the written word that once gave him great joy makes it much sadder that, sidelined by grief, he’s not the teacher he once was, and not entirely comfortable connecting with his students (yet, astute in his comments). The isolation, as reflected in that tiny room, is crushing.

He also has vast unconditional love for his daughter Ellie, a sullen teenager who feels abandoned and lashes out cruelly. After years of no contact, he has attempted to reconnect with her, and she is seemingly unreachable – tough, rebellious, impulsive.

Her mother, angry and filled with rage too, has kept her from establishing a relationship with her father. At 17, she hates everything and everybody, and is flunking out of school. She is repulsed by his appearance, but visits anyway — after all, he is writing her English papers, and there is a pledge of money.

Displaying hostility, confusion, forlornness, and defiance, Nadja Kapetanovich is a knockout in a finely textured performance as Ellie. It’s a sensational breakthrough performance in regional theatre.

Kapetanovich, Riley, Watt, Backer, Roth. Photo by Patrick Huber.

Thomas Patrick Riley also has a breakout opportunity as Elder Thomas, and he’s splendid. He has the most complicated backstory of them all, and represents the evangelical religion that Hunter focuses on as a root to issues expressed here, particularly religious homophobia, and pointedly The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

More dots in the plot are connected through Liz, the tough-love nurse played with heartbreaking compassion by Colleen Backer, whose ability to shift moods between comic and dramatic is one of her finest features.

Liz is Alan’s sister, so there is that. And she’s trying to keep Charlie healthy and alive, but also enabling him with high-fat, high-sodium foods (fried chicken, sub sandwiches, pizza, doughnuts and soda). She offers comfort while admonishing him with lectures. It’s an endearing performance by the always entertaining Backer.

In a brief but pivotal role, Lizi Watt blows in as the blustery ex-wife Mary, whose resentment is at a full rolling boil. She’s full of outrage, and vents to Charlie on how exasperated she is about their daughter. While she’s snarling, she’s also drinking copious amounts of vodka. It’s apparent that Ellie is a mirror image of her mother.

What is interesting about these hardened characters is you see them mentally and physically soften when confronted with Charlie’s predicament – if only fleeting. There is also more humor in the play than I recall from the film, which are moments of relief from the grim subject matter and the blame game volleys.

Wearing an impressively designed body suit by Angela B. Calin and engineered and constructed by Laurie Donati of the South Coast Repertory Theatre in Costa Mesa, Calif., Roth’s physicality is key to the character, portraying the very real struggles of someone so overweight as to be in pain from the slightest exertion.

Costume Designer Teresa Doggett also worked skillfully on Roth’s prosthetics to ready him for this appearance on stage, and her casual outfit choices for the five actors were on point.

Patrick Huber’s scenic and lighting design reflects the slovenly quarters but also Charlie’s thirst for knowledge, with crammed bookshelves and papers everywhere. Props designer Emma Glose did a fine job littering the apartment with discarded food boxes, beverage containers and academia.

Caleb D. Long supervised the crafts parts as technical director. Another standout is the sound design by Kristi Gunther, also production manager, which incorporated hearing seaside noises like seagulls and the waves on the beach to evoke pleasant memories.

Others responsible for shaping this tight production: Bryn McLaughlin was the assistant director, and stage manager Amy J. Paige, with Glose her assistant.

This show’s cast was able to let us into their world, tinged with melancholy, and indicate the possibility of mercy, which is a final grace note.

And we can debate the ending for a long time, but I choose triumph, even if it is just in the teeniest glimmers of change that may be ahead for all.

St. Louis Actors’ Studio presents “The Whale” Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. April 5 through April 21 at The Gaslight Theatre, 358 N. Boyle. For more information:

By Lynn Venhaus

Local treasure John Contini is at his best in a vibrant, vigorous portrayal of legendary actor John Barrymore that is both funny and sad at the same time, but never sags or lags for a second.

It’s a remarkable tour-de-force for a seasoned pro used to delivering classic portrayals of Shakespeare, Albee, Miller, Mamet and more during a career that has spanned over 40 years.

Barrymore came to prominence for his stage work, notably an acclaimed “Hamlet” in 1922, and went on to become one of the most influential and idolized actors of that era. His movies included “Grand Hotel,” “Beau Brummel,” “Dinner at Eight,” “Twentieth Century” and “Svengali.”

He died at age 60 in 1942, and by then, his sordid personal life had eclipsed his professional accomplishments.  

But even with the title “Barrymore,” it’s not a one-man show. One of the most surprising aspects of this captivating work is that it’s a two-hander, and sparring with an offstage prompter, Frank the stage manager, offers insight into the actor’s twilight years.

Frank is voiced by Alexander Huber, and his shifting moods come through loud and clear –exasperated and stern as he pleads and cajoles with the once-great but in serious decline star to get his act together and complete the tasks at hand, which is rehearsing for his comeback as “Richard III.”

The famous actor is, by turns, insufferable, mean, vainglorious, rueful, flamboyant, distressed, ribald and pitiable, and Contini is seamless as he swiftly moves in and out of Barrymore’s many moods.

Playwright William Luce depicts Barrymore a few months before his death as he is rehearsing the Shakespeare tragedy which would be a revival of his 1920 Broadway triumph. This is fiction, of course.

The setting is a small stage that he has rented to prepare for what he hopes will be his comeback. But he is too far gone, ravaged by alcoholism and hard living. But he sure has hilarious stories to share.

In two acts, he jokes with the audience, breaking the fourth wall, imitates his siblings Lionel and Ethel, both legendary actors themselves, and reminisces about better times. He had been married four times and is candid in sharing sexual exploits and off-color jokes.

Luce’s play was produced on Broadway in 1997, with Christopher Plummer in the title role. He won the Tony Award for his performance and reprised the role in a 2011 film adaptation.

Contini has portrayed the superstar thespian before, for the former Avalon Theatre Company at the ArtSpace at Crestwood Court in 2009 and won a Kevin Kline Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Play.

While Contini commands attention from start to finish, what is also noteworthy is Erin Kelley’s supple direction. Kelley co-founded the Avalon Theatre Company and served as its managing artistic director for seven years. However, this is a fresh interpretation of that show.

Also lending their talents to this superb collaboration is scenery and lighting designer Patrick Huber, bathing the stage with a ghost light and minimal illumination for a forlorn effect, and costume designer Teresa Doggett, whose wise sartorial choices dress Barrymore in a dapper suit for the first act and in a well-worn regal outfit for King Richard III in the second act.

Emma Glose’s prop designs create a bygone era’s theatrical tools and provide a few of the actor’s possessions. Kristi Gunther, production manager, and Amy Paige, stage manager, keep things moving at a swift clip.

A witty and wise work, “Barrymore” showcases artistry while offering both comedy and pathos in a virtuosic production.

The St. Louis Actors’ Studio presents “Barrymore” in a limited engagement Dec. 1 -10 at the Gaslight Theatre, 360 N. Boyle. Performances are Friday through Sunday Dec. 1-3, and Tuesday through Sunday, Dec. 5-10, at 8 p.m. except for Sundays, which are at 3 p.m. General admission tickets are $40 each plus fees, $35 each plus fees for students with valid ID and seniors 65+, available via Ticketmaster or at the theater box office one hour before showtime. For more information, visit or email

By Lynn Venhaus

Women leading lives of quiet desperation are hanging out on a rooftop one sweltering summer evening in red brick south city St. Louis.

Intrigued? In the smartly written and well-acted “Dr. Ride’s American Beach House,” you are not going to get a pat script here. In fact, St. Louis playwright Liza Birkenmeier’s comedy-drama provokes more questions than answers – but in a good way.

It’s Friday, June 17, 1983. The time, date and place are firmly established if the play does not, or refuses to, fit into tidy boxes. The songs of that summer, catchy radio hits, immediately take you back to that period as they blare out of a boombox.

NASA nerds can point to that night as the eve of astronaut Sally Ride’s groundbreaking achievement as the first American woman in space as part of the Challenger Space Shuttle mission.

To these unfulfilled women hanging out in the sticky humid air “near Highway 55 and the Mississippi River,” they realize this is a giant leap forward for women, at least professionally. But for Dr. Ride, she can’t acknowledge that she’s gay until she announces it in her obituary nearly 30 years later, revealing her partner of 27 years, Tam O’Shaughnessy.

However, it’s still a big-deal achievement that they are in awe of – risky, bold, adventurous. Not spoken out loud is that it was just a different time – that uncomfortable putting on a front to not make waves move so many accepted as the way it had to be.

They are stuck in ruts of their own choosing, as they stay in second gear living inauthentic lives. Harriet and Matilda, seemingly lifelong friends who share a deeper relationship and should be self-aware that their failure to launch is self-inflicted, display a palpable bond and familiar shorthand. Whatever is currently troubling them is suppressed in exchange for quips and vague discontent.

The setting is Harriet’s place, a sanctuary above where the hum of her air-conditioning unit dripping water – that irritates her landlady Norma (Lizi Watt)—is a nuisance that she’s ignoring.

As played by the intuitive Lindsay Brill, Harriet’s a wallower, a quick-to-be irritated woman going nowhere. She has returned from visiting her dying mother in Florida, carrying plenty of emotional baggage, and is drinking a beer and eating ice cream straight out of a carton for dinner. There is mention of a boyfriend, but that reeks of convenience.

She’s as restless as bestie Matilda, who has stopped by, still wearing her waitress uniform, singing snippets of Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams,” and griping about her sick child and lack of a supportive husband. Clearly a life choice that she seems ill-suited for, as she tosses off quips and complaints. She brings up that she is smart, a chip-on-the-shoulder retort — after all has an MFA in poetry. We can tell her verbal skills are highly evolved, and Bridgette Bassa breezes in as a force to be reckoned with – but maybe she’s all talk?

These two women may rhyme together, but nothing else does in their fragmented lives. It would be an ordinary, insignificant night, but it’s not, really.

Birkenmeier, now living in New York City, made her off-Broadway debut with this play, which premiered in 2019 after being commissioned by Ars Nova in New York. It was a New York Times Critics Pick and a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award in Drama.

RN Healey

This is her return to St. Louis Actors’ Studio as a playwright, after her astonishing performance in “Blackbird” in 2018, nominated for Best Actress in a Drama by the St. Louis Theater Circle. She appears to have an old soul and a sharp wit.

Annamaria Pileggi directed her then, and helms this current production, intending for us to read between the lines. Pileggi, STLAS’ associate artistic director, is assured in drawing out the personalities of these dissatisfied women who sadly lack the tools to take the reins of their own lives.

They are ‘meeting’ for the Two Serious Women Book Club, but really, that’s not happening, although newcomer Meg comes over to join them by invitation. Now Meg, as played by an assertive RN Healey, is everything these two are not: comfortable in her own skin. Wearing a rock band T-shirt and showing tattoos while wearing scrubsi, she could easily stand up and unapologetically sing “I Am What I Am” at a nearby karaoke.

Are Harriet and Matilda afraid of pursuing their own journeys, hiding in the trappings of a humdrum life because it would be too difficult to take the road not traveled?

That’s for you to ponder – especially if you think we are our choices.

 For certain, this production features vibrant, fully realized performances, punctuated by an astute selection of songs of the day. (Brilliant choices – especially the misunderstood “Every Breath You Take” hit by The Police, not a love song suitable for weddings).

You will hear the sounds of loneliness, remembering what you had and what you lost.

Patrick Huber’s interesting rooftop set design captures the modest space of multiple story flats, with thrift shop finds, aided by Kristi Gunther’s effective lighting design, using accent lamps and strings of lights as twilight falls.

Emma Glose’s sound design is crisp and clear, and her props selection reflect life 40 years ago. Abby Pasterello has wisely chosen appropriate costumes, hair and makeup looks. And as always, Stage Manager Amy J. Paige keeps things flowing smoothly.

This robust 90-minute production indicates Birkenmeier has a special voice and showcases a tight quartet who were at ease playing complicated females. We can look back now, and say affirmatively women have come a long way.

St. Louis Actors’ Studio presents “Dr. Ride’s American Beach House” Oct. 6-22, with Thursday through Saturday performances at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. at The Gaslight Theatre, 358 N. Boyle Ave., St. Louis. Tickets are available through Ticketmaster or at the box office one hour prior to the performance. For more information, visit

Lindsay Brill, Bridgette Bassa

SATE presents the Seventh Annual Aphra Behn Festival, May 5-7, 2023, at Fontbonne University. Performances are at 8:00 PM on Friday, May 5 and Saturday, May 6. Performance on Sunday, May 7 at 4:00 PM.

When established in 2017, a goal of the Aphra Behn Festival was to give women interested in directing and writing for theatre an opportunity to get more experience, try out ideas, experiment, and hone their craft. SATE now looks to make the Festival a more inclusive space for transgender and non-binary artists, as well.

The Aphra Behn Festival is named for the fascinating poet, translator, and spy, Aphra Behn, who is widely considered to be the first English woman to make her living as a playwright. SATE produced a play about her, Or, by Liz Duffy Adams, in February 2015 and collaborated with Prison Performing Arts to adapt Behn’s play, The Rover, for the artists at the Women’s Eastern Reception, Diagnostic, and Correctional Center in Vandalia to perform. The Rover was also the text shared by the directors in the 2020 Festival. SATE feels very much a part of Aphra’s legacy.

This year’s list of ingredients for plays to be submitted in the 2023 Festival challenged the writers to re-tell, adapt, or respond to one of the plays on Hedgepig Theatre Ensemble’s Expand the Canon list ( SATE hosted readings of all three “Re-Told” plays on February 19, March 19, and April 30.

2023 Festival Plays

Bold Stroke for a Villain by Summer Baer
Directed by Emma Glose
Inspired by Hannah Cowley’s Bold Stroke for a Husband
Performed by Gabrielle LynnJaelyn HawkinsGreta Johnson
Welcome to purgatory! Victoria, condemned to an eternity of reflection, attempts to call into the void to someone she wronged but gets Elle Woulds instead.

Lieblingstante, by Aurora Behlke
Directed by Kayla Ailee Bush
Based off The Uncle by Princess Amalie of Saxony
Performed by Maida DippelMichael Pierce, and Leslie Wobbe
Julius introduces his girlfriend to his aunt Claudia. Who knows where the conversation may go after one or two (or four) glasses of wine.

reANIMA by Aly Kantor
Directed by Britney N. Daniels
A speculative subversion of Amelia Rosselli’s Anima
Performed by Keating and Taylor Kelly
Cricket totaled her meat vessel at a party—but not to worry! Her best friend has an industry hookup and made her a brand new one with all the bells and whistles she could ever want (and a few she’s slightly reluctant about). Now everything can get back to normal…right?

Stage Manager: Spencer Lawton
Costume Design: Liz Henning
Lighting Design: Michael Sullivan
Graphic Design: Dottie Quick
Photography: Joel Rumpell
Set/Props Design: Rachel Tibbetts, Ellie Schwetye
Sound Design: Emma Glose, Ellie Schwetye
Intimacy Coordinator: Rachel Tibbetts