By Lynn Venhaus

This year’s LaBute New Theater Festival dives right into blistering topical commentary on our great societal divide, and while “Safe Space” is one of the playwright’s sharpest one-acts in the fest’s nine-year history, the best play is about a troubled prizefighter who hasn’t been in the news for decades.

“One Night in the Many Deaths of Sonny Liston” by JB Heaps of New York City is a masterfully constructed conjecture about what might have happened the night the former heavyweight champion died on Dec. 30, 1970.

Both plays feature Reginald Pierre, who has frequently been a part of the festival since it began in 2013, and next to his outstanding work as Lincoln in “Topdog/Underdog” that same year, this is his finest hour, as Sonny Liston and as a theatergoer in “Safe Space.”

In a revelatory performance as Liston, Pierre conveys bravado, hurt, resentment, and toughness recounting how, as a celebrated and feared sports figure, he faded from glory as his bad boy reputation persisted.

Considered an outsider, his difficulties adjusting to fame, and those demands that led to his downfall are documented by Heaps in clever dollops of dialogue, as Liston opens up to a professional escort delivering a “Christmas present” from sordid types he does business with, at his home in Vegas.

While only hinted at, these presumed underworld figures are connected to a multi-state mob syndicate. All very shady, the real details are murky, and Heaps weaves a plausible tale because the tango Pierre does with Eileen Engel, playing this mysterious woman, is riveting.

With a world-weary air and looking glamorous in a glitzy evening gown, Engel’s smoothness makes us question whether she’s compassionate or has ulterior motives, and the more Liston spills the tea, what is her story?

As Pierre, who does not physically resemble an imposing boxer, skillfully peels back layers on Liston, he divulges a litany of hard-knock life injustices, his triumphs in the ring, and his torment over being blacklisted by the boxing establishment.

Eileen Engel, Reginald Pierre. Photo by Patrick Huber

Through exposition, Heaps shares key facts about one sharecropper’s son, born in Arkansas, an ex-con who knocked out Floyd Patterson, tussled with Muhammad Ali, hobnobbed with the rich and famous – and is included in the famous artwork on The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover. For real!

Thoughtfully directed by Kari Ely, she lets the drama unfold naturally while Pierre and Engel establish a rhythm, keep each other sharp, projecting both a mutual like and a distrust. It was one of the few plays in the line-up that was gripping until the very end.

The climactic impact is genuine, bolstered by the superb performances but also Heaps’ knowledge of the subject. A second-act playwright at 71, he retired from a television career as an executive producer for Showtime Sports where his shows on boxing won five Emmy Awards. (As they say, write what you know).

Liston’s death has remained suspicious for some 50 years, fueled by knowledge that he was a heavy drinker and used heroin. While no one knew for sure, his age was estimated at 40. His wife, Geraldine, whom he married in 1950, was from St. Louis and there visiting her mother over the holidays. She discovered his body about two weeks after authorities think he died.

Because Pierre gives emotional heft to a tragic, larger-than-life figure, you may want to find out more about the guy, nicknamed “The Bear,” and there is a 2019 Showtime documentary called “Pariah: The Lives and Deaths of Sonny Liston.”

Heaps’ play opens the second act, while “Safe Space” kicks off the presentation.

Engel, Anthony Wininger. Photo by Patrick Huber.

LaBute, the provocateur, through shrewd writing and supple performers, tackles the current state of “us vs. them,” the culture wars and racial friction in the U.S., in “Safe Space.” It is through the theatrical lens that he explores how we got to this point and is today’s state of outrage histrionic or necessary.

Here, he seats a privileged white woman (Jane Paradiso) next to a black theatergoer (Reginald Pierre) for a performance advertised as a special evening for African Americans to come together for this show, although they allowed others to purchase tickets too. The Man attempts to be polite in the shared space, but the Woman feels his agitation, and let the verbal sparring begin.

LaBute, the longtime playwright and screenwriter, has written a new work for every festival, and his highly verbal and rhythmic dialogue is well-suited for one of his favorite themes – political correctness. And add the divisive climate now infiltrating every aspect of daily life, and let the fur fly.

We’re at a point where any little thing we say — whether misunderstood, taken out of context, or deemed inappropriate, will be used against us in the public court of opinion. And is anyone really listening anymore or just shouting to be heard? “Safe Space” touches on all those notes.

The points of view here are strong, so if you wince at any confrontation, be warned. But it is a lively exchange that does come to some sort of truce. And a time capsule entry for 2023.

Paradise is captivating as a woman huffy about being perceived as entitled, but then demonstrating why one could understand that observation and Pierre easily throws shade with some glances and reactions, defensive about why he’s pitching a fit. Both are deft in their delivery, and John Contini astute in his direction of the rapid-fire, razor-sharp piece.

Laurel Button, Colleen Backer. Photo by Patrick Huber.

Like LaBute’s play, the others utilize the intimacy of the black box stage to their advantage. The festival features works that have up to four characters.

The other three dramas in the line-up this year include “The Blind Hem” by Bryn McLaughlin of Oregon, “DaVinci’s Cockroach” by Amy Tofte, and “The Mockingbird’s Nest” from Craig Bailey of Vermont.

I heard someone in the audience compare the offerings to a box of chocolates. The plays, always a mixed bag, are memorable when they are a touch strange and keep us off guard. Others prefer less edge, but different is better than staid.

In any case, the talent is usually affecting, and this year, the format lends itself to their particular strengths. Colleen Backer, who excels at portraying eccentrics, is a jittery scientist named Dana whose work destroys things. Perhaps she’s soulless, she seems guilty about the way her life has gone. Loathe to connection, she does engage with a staff member, Finn, who is having a bad day at an art museum in “DaVinci’s Cockroach.”

They talk about things trivial and big-picture, and you want to know more about the pair, to an extent. But hen Tofte just goes on for far too long. But Laurel Button is impressive as a kooky, colorful young woman for whom art brings joy.

“The Blind Hem” is a melancholy-tinged romance between a college professor and a former student – hence named after the ‘invisible’ stitches in a garment, and is one of those character studies where you have to read between the lines to fully grasp what is happening, and what transpired before we entered their cheap motel room. Anthony Wininger is Robert, a conflicted man fooling himself about life, while Eileen Engel is Kate, no longer in school but still naïve.

They’re fine, although unsympathetic, but does McLaughlin’s play say anything new or explore another facet of an illicit romance that we haven’t seen before?

“The Mockingbird’s Nest” takes on another familiar topic – an aging parent’s dementia but does so with a technological twist. We’ve wound up in the twilight zone, and that’s a clever aspect of Craig Bailey’s piece. But despite Backer and Paradise’s splendid portrayals, the play ultimately loses steam by not trimming what seemed to be a tacked-on ending.

The production crew is efficient in setting the scenes for each show, and Abby Pastorelli’s costume design nails each personality in a simple yet effective way. She also did the artwork shown, which is for sale.

A 10-member panel selects the plays from submissions across the country. It’s nice to see a rebound from the pandemic that halted theater, then delayed its reboot with those pesky variants.

The presentations offer food for thought, an opportunity to see something thought-provoking and watch local performers shine, but best of all, support new work.

Backer, Paradise. Photo by Patrick Huber

St. Louis Actors’ Studio presents the ninth annual LaBute New Theater Festival July 7 to 9, July 13-16, and July 20-23, with performances at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and at 3 p.m. on Sundays at The Gaslight Theater on North Boyle in the Central West End. For more information:

By Lynn Venhaus
Managing Editor
When Shannon Geier plunged into playwrighting about 10 years ago, she unlocked
a passion for characters and dialogue, which has opened a new world, looking at
life with different questions.
Four years ago, she formed because why not? Theatre company and has presented original
material at St. Louis Fringe Festival, Shake 38 through Shakespeare Festival
St. Louis and as stand-alone productions.
“We want people leaving the shows and talking about what they just saw. Maybe
we didn’t change anyone’s minds, but at least they can hopefully have those
conversations and for a moment, see things in a way they maybe didn’t see them
before,” she said.

Currently, her second production of “Fat” is in its second
weekend, playing at 8 p.m. June 6 – 9, June 13-16 at the Satori, an event venue
at 3003 Locust St.
Sparked by her own issues with weight and body image, Shannon Geier wrote “Fat”
in 2008, put it in a drawer and then resurrected it. She was aided by Tesseract
Theatre Company’s New Play Development.

The play, featuring 12 characters, centers on Amy Prestly, who has a lot going for her: a career, a happy marriage, a beautiful child, and wonderful friends. She is also a woman of larger size, a fact affecting not just Amy, but her relationships with everyone surrounding her.

Directed by Elaine Laws, “Fat” explores the struggles that come with obesity and body image ideals, taking a realistic look at the societal messages communicated with regards to size and the challenges of balancing personal health with positive body image in a world where “thin” equals “better,” Geier said.

The cast includes Amy: Laura Deveney, Joel: Dan Stockton, Tara: Bethany Miscannon, Vanessa: Ashley Netzhammer, Kelly: Robyn Couch Harders, Diana: Stephanie Rhein, Marlene: Basmin, Thin Girl: Blessed Knew, Jessa: Abby Brisbane/Laurel Button, Dave: Rob Wood, Heather: Jaclyn Nischbach and Chris: Jodi Stockton.

Current production of “Fat”“We had many people say they missed it the first time and
were we doing it again? And it’s like the piece shifts and evolves with a new
cast, a new director and a new space. I made a few revisions, but overall, it’s
still a play about the unanswerable questions. It’s a play with 12 characters,
none of whom is wrong. Everyone has their own beliefs they hold tight to and
that someone sitting in the audience agrees with, but in the end, there are no
“solutions.”  Just like in life,” she

Since the first production of “Fat,” Shannon has gained 100
pounds, but said those two events are not related.
“I have witnessed, because a part of me had forgotten, how people look at you
and talk to you when you’re of a larger size. 
How uncomfortable they are and how they view you as a tragic figure
because you aren’t ‘normal’ or ‘okay’ or ‘healthy,’ when in fact you may be all
those things and be of a larger size,” she said.

One thing is for certain. She will continue to write shows
that deal with issues that are not typically seen on stage.

“And that often don’t have a pat and easy answer. We’ve
dealt with ethical non-monogamy in “Paradigm,” looking at Shakespeare from a
feminist perspective in “Shakespeare’s Women or The Bard’s Broads,” domestic
violence in “Em,” the sexual exploitation of children in “‘Til the Cold
Winter’s Through” (written with River Dowdy).

For more information about tickets, visit:

During this summer’s Grand Center Theatre Crawl June 28-29, Geier’s because why not? theatre company is teaming up with St. Louis Fringe to present an original one-act, “Checking In,” on Friday and Saturday evening between 7 and 10 p.m.

She wrote it about a couple, Allie and Danielle, who have been together four years, living a happy All-American life with their son and Allie’s mother. But Allie’s a Dreamer, and in the current political climate, her monthly government “Check In” may be far less simple and safe than her family has come to expect. “Check In” explores the effects of immigration on one family and what happens when what you thought was solid ground, begins shifting like quick sand.

The performances are in the Grand Center Arts Academy Cafeteria South.

The play will also be part of the St. Louis Fringe Festival, Aug. 13-18. For more information or a schedule, visit

Here are Shannon’s answers to our “Take Ten” Questions:

1. Why did you choose your profession/pursue the arts? 
“I felt like it chose me!  I had a play I
wrote in a drawer and I took it out and submitted it to Tesseract Theatre
Company when I was in my early 40’s. 
That was like the top of the roller coaster and I’ve been in an amazing
creative free fall ever since.”

2. How would your friends describe you?    Funny and BUSY

3. How do you like to spend your spare time? 
“Um…what is that?  Reading plays and
recaps of TV shows I don’t have time to watch is my favorite.”

4. What is your current obsession? 
“Remaining calm and letting go.”

5. What would people be surprised to find out about you?
“That I steal mixed fruit jelly from restaurants.”

6. Can you share one of your most defining moments in life?
“Meeting Stephen Sondheim for 60 seconds (Oh and that giving birth thing too!)”

7. Who do you admire most?
“Everyone chasing a passion.”

8. What is at the top of on your bucket list?
“Go to Alaska (hopefully next year!)”

9. What is your favorite thing to do in St. Louis?
“Go to see small, intimate, local theatre created with human talent, duct tape
and prayer! “

10. What’s next? 
“Check In” an original work, dealing with immigration, will be presented as one
of the local headlining acts at the St. Lou Fringe Festival (Aug. 13-18).


Name: Shannon Geier
Age: (optional) 49
Birthplace: Poplar Bluff, Mo.
Current location: St. Charles Mo.
Education: AA from Jefferson Community College, 1992; 2016  Graduate of The Improv Shop in St. Louis
Day job: Coordinator – Risk Management
First job: Answered phones at a Greek restaurant in Randallstown Maryland
Favorite play: “Angels in America”
Dream Play: I dream of producing a play written by a middle-aged woman who just
decided to go for it one day!  Awards/Honors/Achievements:
2018 – Spirit of Fringe Award; 2016 – Fringe Merit Award for Excellence in
I have won various honors through Toastmasters and have achieved the status of
Competent Communicator and I am a graduate of The Improv Shop in St. Louis. 
Favorite quote/words to live by: “Do not look for sanctuary in anyone except
yourself.” (Attributed to Buddha by the internet, but impossible to confirm.)
A song that makes you happy: “Running on Sunshine” by Jesus Jones