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 CB Adams

Poor Carmen. As the protagonist in George Bizet’s 1875 opera, she’s sometimes reduced to being the poster person for critical analysis of gender dynamics and relationships.

Carmen’s character is often presented as some mixture of her as a free-spirited and independent woman who is simultaneously objectified and demonized (and ultimately murdered) for her sexuality. Then there are the issues related to Romani cultural representation and exoticism.

As a result, poor “Carmen.” As long as opera companies continue to mount productions of “Carmen,” they are going to beg these issues, including the normalization of toxic relationships like the one between Carmen and Don José that is marked by possessiveness, obsession and violence.

Oh, and add to these issues the way Bizet’s vibrant tapestry of unforgettable melodies and rich orchestration has been the victim of its own success. The drama and passion of Bizet’s dynamic and emotionally resonant soundscape, with evocative themes like the “Habanera” and the “Toreador Song” and their fusion of Spanish folk influences with classical operatic elements, have been hijacked by countless films, cartoons, commercials and television shows from “Looney Tunes” to “Bad Santa,” “The Simpsons” and “Gilligan’s Island.”

A lot has happened since 1875, and Carmen’s dual portrayal can be problematic in a contemporary context that seeks to dismantle harmful stereotypes and promote respect for women’s autonomy. Yet “Carmen” continues to be one of the most popular and frequently performed operas worldwide.

Elise Quagliata as Carmen and Brendan Tuohy as Don Jose. Photo by Dan Donovan.

Its enduring appeal is reflected in the regular inclusion of “Carmen” in the repertoires of major opera houses and festivals, consistently drawing large audiences and receiving critical acclaim for its compelling music and dramatic storyline.

As someone who generally accepts John Ruskin’s notion that “art is in the expression, not the subject matter,” I can’t discount “Carmen” solely on the basis of some of its problematic attributes. Its emotional and imaginative qualities are part of opera’s DNA in particular and Western cultural heritage in general, and I believe that most opera-goers can see that the opera was of its time.

Modern productions of “Carmen” often attempt to address these issues through reinterpretation and modern settings. Directors and performers may emphasize Carmen’s agency and critique Don José’s behavior more explicitly. Some productions have even changed the ending to subvert the narrative of female victimization.

Not so with Union Avenue’s production, directed by Mark Freiman, and sung in the original French with English super-titles. This “Carmen” is a traditional interpretation that encourages a critical approach to understanding  how the characters navigate a narrative fraught with jealousy, cultural clashes and fatal consequence.

Freiman, whose previous productions of “Carmen”  have infused modern elements with fresh and contemporary elements, provides Union Avenue Opera with a more classic interpretation that remains true to the Bizet’s work and offers a restrained yet still poignant commentary on love, passion and the societal pressures that shape the characters’ destinies.

It achieves this by placing a bit more emphasis on the downfall of a straightforward Don José, torn between the sincere affection of his mother and his hometown sweetheart, Micaëla, and the seductive temptation of the morally unconventional Carmen.

Joel Balzun as Escamillo. Photo by Dan Donovan.

Elise Quagliata in the role of Carmen brings a compelling and nuanced portrayal to Bizet’s iconic character. Known for her powerful mezzo-soprano voice, Quagliata’s interpretation of Carmen emphasizes her character’s boldness and independence and captures the character’s magnetic allure and defiance against societal norms.

Quagliata has tremendous stage presence filled with charisma and restrained dramatic flair. The same could be said for Brendan Tuohy as Don José, Joel Balzun as Escamillo, Joel Rogier as Moralés and Jacob Lassetter as Zuniga, but their individual performances do not cohere into a palpable chemistry, which is too bad.  

This is one of this production’s significant weaknesses despite Freiman’s direction that explores the complexities of the characters’ interactions while attempting to clarify the psychological and emotional underpinnings of their actions. This is difficult to achieve when the main characters remain self-contained in their individual performances, not matter how well sung.

Quagliata is also this production’s choreographer. A good production of “Carmen” should enhance the storytelling and atmosphere of the opera. Quagliata’s choreography effectively conveys, with a light Spanish flair, the personalities and emotions of the characters, particularly Carmen.

In one moment, she confidently plants her leg on a chair. This is small but potent gesture. I haven’t seen a leg used to such great effect since the leg lamp scene in “A Christmas Story.” Another delightfully staged moment is the “cigarette girl” scene (played to great effect by the women of the chorus) as the factory workers puff and prance.

Marc Schapman, Jacob Lassetter, Xavier Joseph, and Elise Quaglata. Photo by Dan Donovan.

Quagliata’s choreography effectively synchronizes with Bizet’s music (performed vivaciously by the orchestra conducted by the always-excellent Scott Schoonover) and the stage design. Patrick Huber’s stage design provides an appropriate (if somewhat generic) backdrop that complements the characters’ movements across Union Avenue’s modestly sized stage.

Huber is also the lighting designer. During one of the two intermissions, the set’s two doorways were modified for the smugglers’ scene with what appeared (in the bright lights) to be vagina-like pelts. As the scene began, Huber’s atmospheric low light effectively created a subdued atmosphere – and the furry openings transformed into cave entrances. Oooh, what a little light design can do!

Tuohy presents a compelling Don José that highlights the character’s transformation from a dutiful soldier to a man consumed by obsessive love and jealousy. Tuhoy is strong but not brutish and presents his emotionally conflicted character with a palpable sense of longing and desperation.

Tuohy’s portrayal is characterized by a powerful tenor voice that effectively conveys Don José’s emotional turmoil and ultimately unacceptable violence. His stage presence and dramatic intensity bring depth to the character, even if not to the ensemble as a whole.

Meroe Khalia Adeeb as Micaela. Photo by Dan Donovan.

One of the standout performances is provided by Meroë Khalia Adeeb as Micaëla. Adeeb delivers a character that embodies innocence and fidelity while navigating the opera’s moral landscape with her steadfast love for Don José. Adeeb’s rich and resonant voice captures the character’s gentle nature and inner strength, and the rest of performance hits all the right notes: flexibility and emotional range, expressiveness and technical skill that is precise and controlled.

Her performance of Micaëla’s most famous aria, “Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante” (I say that nothing frightens me), was heartfelt, determined and poignant.

Also commendable is the performance by Xavier Joseph as the smuggler Le Dancaïre. The role is a secondary character, but Joseph delivers his character with physicality, wit and bonhomie.

And while on the topic of fun, this production includes two scenes with controlled mayhem and exuberance provided by a delightful children’s chorus.

Lassetter presents his Zuniga with a big-throated blend of authority and moral ambiguity and a performance that captures the character’s commanding presence and underlying conflict. Rogier’s Moralés is equally strong. Rogier exudes a robust and confident demeanor that emphasizes his steady, grounded nature and his role of Moralés’ as a foil to Don José.

Balzun provides an acceptable Escamillo, the bullfighter. The role of Escamillo demands a charismatic singer who embodies traditional masculinity through physicality and social admiration and serves as a foil to Don José. Balzun delivers a Escamillo who is a pompous yet effete man.

“Carmen” continues at Union Avenue Opera through July 13. For more information, visit:

Youth Ensemble : Lucca Badino *, Bryce Cleveland *, Blaise Magparangalan *, Chloe Melton, Nora Moss *, Lila Treuiller *, Louis Wang *, Tristan Williams * (not in order). Photo by Dan Donovan.

Cover photo: Holly Janz, Marc Schapman, Elise Quagliata, Xavier Joseph, and Gina Galati/ Photo by Dan Donovan.

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

Throughout history, class wars have ended badly for many people, overt often for people in the lower class, and less so for the ruling class.

But class never matters when people show you their true selves.

Such is the complicated “Bitter Fruit,” a 2018 social commentary-human drama by Argentinian playwright Hector Levy-Daniel, “El Fruto mas amargo,” which has been translated from Spanish by Philip Boehm.

Boehm, Upstream Theater’s artistic director, wanted to bring it here for the U.S. English language premiere, so he not only translated but also directed it in a deliberately mysterious way.

Since 2005, two-thirds of the plays Upstream has produced have been U.S. or world premieres, with the goal to not only “move you” but “move you to think.” And they always do. This is a play to mull about, for at its center is a logical question on identity that has dramatic consequences. How can you deny who you really are, and what does that say about us as a society?

The playwright’s focus on identity crisis has roots in Argentina’s Dirty War, when from 1974 to 1983, an estimated 9,000 to 30,000 were killed by the state, or disappeared, in a right-wing effort to eliminate leftist political adversaries, including writers, students and journalists. Others were imprisoned.

Their children were not always killed, and sometimes, they were put up for adoption or given to supporters of the right wing.

There are children born during this period that don’t know their real identities because they were adopted by their captors and given new lives. They either discover this fact or never know the truth, but there isn’t any justice or peace amid the inequality that rages, along with political corruption.

According to the play’s notes, about 500 children were affected and the Argentine government is still sorting it out after years of protests from grandmothers.

In this quietly devastating production, a committed cast provides complex portraits of people representing different factions of entitlement and insincerity, of loss and lies.

However, as good as actresses Jane Paradise, Jennifer Theby-Quinn and Michelle Burdette Elmore are, all members of the Actors’ Equity Association, they are not Latino women, and they are playing characters named Luisa, Maria, and Teresa respectively.

Isaiah Di Lorenzo has a small but important supporting role as Pedro Coltinari, the labor representative in factory negotiations, and in flashbacks, as Maria’s teenage paramour. He establishes his character’s pure heart and breaking point in only a few scenes.

None of the four identify as Hispanic — although the play never specifically states Argentina or alludes to the Dirty War, and there are no accents used, so…but it is perplexing, and does raise questions.

If it’s vague on purpose, so be it. Nevertheless, these days, people tend to notice whitewashing. It may not be as egregious as, say Laurence Olivier as “Othello” and John Wayne as Genghis Khan in “The Conqueror,” but it is something that crossed my mind, especially given Upstream’s commitment to shows with global themes involving marginalized people.

Set in a mansion, it’s late night or early morning, depending on your perspective, and a new maid, Luisa (Paradise), is up to prepare her mistress some tea, as requested as she waits for her daughter. Upon arrival home, haughty Maria, demands to know who this interloper is in her home.

As played coldly by Theby-Quinn, Maria is a cruel woman who has no qualms about making people feel inferior in her presence. She lacks compassion and a conscience, brought up in wealth, sheltered from the world. She is now running her father’s cotton mill with a tight fist and a disdain for the workers. They are in financial trouble, and Maria is tough about negotiations. Her mother, Teresa (Burdette Elmore) is clueless (or is she?).

Yet, once upon a time, Maria fancied a local boy, someone beneath her in social status, and those scenes reflect a person she used to be but is far removed from now.

Teresa, who was kept in the dark about that relationship, is oblivious to other behaviors and sentiments as well, and Michelle Burdette Elmore portrays her as if she’s firmly entrenched in a bubble — and a bit la-di-da.

Luisa’s gaze is a tad too intense for Maria, who is threatened by the new maid, for she views her as a spy who has infiltrated the home on behalf of the workers in the factory. Paradise’s gut-wrenching performance is the show’s highlight.

As tension increases – especially with suspicious deaths, and characters smolder, the secrets, deceptions, and denials are slowly disclosed.

Another of the show’s high points is original instrumental music performed by guitarist Lliam Christy. The minimalist scenic design by Patrick Huber represents a small portion of a large estate, with ornate touches to indicate affluence, darkly lit by Steve Carmichael to reflect shadows. Costume designer Michele Siler selected outfits according to economic status.

The playwright challenges memory and how sacrificing love shows true colors. It’s not an easy play to understand. Because one is off-guard, it is hard to relate to – however, Paradise’s performance as a crushed woman who has lost everything is haunting. Nevertheless, it brings attention to a tragic, dark time involving innocent children – and is that ever over?

Upstream Theater presents the US premiere of “Bitter Fruit,” by award-winning playwright Héctor Levy-Daniel in a translation by Philip Boehm, Oct. 13 through Oct. 29. It is 1 hour, 30 minutes, without intermission. Performances are Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m., and at 7 p.m. Oct 15 and 2 p.m. Oct.22 and 29, and take place at the Marcelle Theatre, 3310 Samuel Shepard Dr. in Grand Center. For more information:, For tickets, visit:

Photo by ProPhotoSTL

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

By CB Adams

Benjamin Britten said that “Composing is like driving down a foggy road.” He could just as easily been describing the experience of attending Union Avenue Opera’s production of his “Turn of the Screw.” Many know the story from junior high school English lit or from one of the 12 – 12! – films that have adapted the Henry James ambiguous novella about ghosts (or not) and innocents (maybe).

Union Avenue Opera’s (UAO) production of “Screw” keys off of the story’s enigmatic opacity of the goings-on at Bly, a country house in Essex and augments the story’s ambiguities with an immersive cerebral-ness. The experience begins with the two-level set (designed by Laura Skroska and lighted by Patrick Huber) that is part Hill House and part Rose Red – Shirley Jackson and Stephen King, respectively. The set has the perfect amount of goth to visually augment Britten’s tautly composed opera with libretto by Myfanwy Piper and is perfectly scaled for Union Avenue Christian Church’s compact stage.

Much has been written about the duality of Britten’s use of musical characterizations for “Screw” since its debut in 1954. This duality concerns those characters who can be interpreted as moral (the Governess, Miles, Flora and Mrs. Grose) and those that could be considered of the more ghostly or spiritual persuasion (Peter Quint and Miss Jessel). The former are surrounded by uncomplicated music and the latter with music that is amorphous and other-worldly. As the opera progresses the two styles become ever more entwined and intense – and ending with a profound feeling of disquiet.

Dress rehearsal for Union Avenue Opera’s production of The Turn of the Screw on July 5, 2023

UAO’s production of “Screw” is richly nuanced, compelling and emotionally powerful, and that’s thanks mostly to the direction of Nancy Bell and the strong cast, including Meroë Khalia Adeeb as the Governess, Sophie Yilmaz as Miles, Cecilia Hickey as Flora, Christine Brewer as Mrs. Grose, James Stevens as Peter Quint and Alexandra Martinez-Turano as Miss Jessel. Adeeb, Yilmaz and Martinez-Turano are making their UAO stage debuts in this production.

As the opera begins, a “character” named Prologue, played by James Stevens (Peter Quint later on), provides the background to the plot and sets the action in motion. On stage are blindfolded characters, and Prologue (or is he Quint?) removes the blindfolds.

As the opera “unfolds” in this moment, it seems Prologue’s removal is a visual metaphor for what is about to be revealed. Yet, the opera’s climactic, mysterious final scene lends itself to multiple interpretations, not a clear revealing. This brilliant effect is thanks to Bell’s direction.

This production’s performers are well balanced and well cast, top to bottom. Stevens in his dual roles delivers a riveting performance in both as he slithers from taunt to seduction to malevolence.  As the Governess, Adeeb’s performance stands out among the others.

She provides an impressive range of technical voice control and realistic acting during her transformation from the poised servant we meet at the beginning to the unraveled, emotionally undone  protector in the final scene.

Christine Brewer as Mrs. Grose embodied her character fully through her effective acting and her rather authoritative singing with impressive dynamic control and proper diction. Yilmaz provides a Miles with an unsettling dissonance. Her voice offers the higher pitch of the boy she portrays – a sort of reverse castrati.

Britten’s score receives a beautifully haunting rendition by the UAO orchestra, led by conductor Scott Schoonover.

Dress rehearsal for Union Avenue Opera’s production of The Turn of the Screw on July 5, 2023

Union Avenue Opera presents “Turn of the Screw” at 8 p.m. on July 7, 8, 14 and 15 at the Union Avenue Christian Church, 733 Union Boulevard. For more information, visit

James Stevens as Quint

By Lynn Venhaus

Ah, existential angst. Few acting roles are as consequential as the ones in Anton Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya,” and few casts are up to the stimulating challenge like the outstanding ensemble is at St. Louis Actors’ Studio.

Expert craftsmen present deeply felt and moving performances, as they peel off the many layers of Chekhov’s tortured characters like they are giving a master class in rejuvenating a classic 19th century work.

To portray how a family’s ordinary life on a rural estate is disrupted by a self-centered relative and his alluring younger second wife one summer, each performer shades the subtext, making sure the melancholy is perceived and yet, displaying glimmers of joy.

Smooth, insightful direction by Annamaria Pileggi makes every corner of The Gaslight Theatre’s intimate black box crackle with tension and melodrama as messy family entanglements unfold.

Greg Johnston makes the vain retired university professor Aleksandr Vladimirovich Serebryakov thoroughly detestable. He has lived in the city for years on the earnings of his late first wife’s rural estate. You can understand his brother-in-law Vanya’s resentment and how his faithful wife Yelena has fallen out of love with this irritable, demanding man.

As the beautiful Yelena, Jennelle Gilreath Owens makes her misery palpable and her torment realistic over two other men professing their love, as she has beguiled them with regal bearing, and intelligence.

John Pierson as Uncle Vanya. Photo by Patrick Huber.

As lovesick Vanya, aka Ivan Petrovich Voynitsky, John Pierson gives one of his finest, most explosive performances – and I didn’t think he could top “Blackbird” and “Annapurna,” but he burns bright as an agitated powder keg of conflicting emotions and seethes, consumed by grudges, and fumes, because of the rejections and his many regrets. It’s also a surprisingly physical part, too.

Grumbling Vanya and his devoted niece Sonya have kept the crumbling estate going, all in service to the professor, and he is hopping mad at giving his life to such a thankless role. His sister, first wife, is Sonya’s mother and this was her estate.

In a devastating performance, Bryn McLaughlin is heartbreaking as beleaguered Sonya, written as “plain” but kind, and wise beyond her years. She is in love with the visiting doctor, Mikhail Astrov, who only has eyes for Yelena, and endures countless agony as a woman without any prospects for marriage. McLaughlin, a young actress fairly new to St. Louis, breaks through in this memorable role.

Our empathy for Sonya is strong. As the rock of the family, she clings to her idealism as well as her practical nature, still hopeful and understanding of her circumstances. She soothes her malcontent uncle, even though she is deserving of happiness too.

Michael James Reed is commanding as the visiting country doctor Mikhail Lvovich Astrov, glum yet charismatic. His provincial existence isn’t fulfilling, and neither is his medical work, although he takes it very seriously.

He is clueless about Sonya’s unrequited love, which causes her hard-to-bear sorrow. She has poured her heart out to her stepmother, not realizing the sparks between her and the good, but hard-drinking, doctor. He is drawn to spend more time there and things get topsy-turvy.

Photo by Patrick Huber

In supporting roles, Jan Meyer is Maria Vasilyevna Voynitskaya, Vanya’s out-of-touch mother; Eleanor Mullin is caring, pragmatic housekeeper Marina Timofeevna; and Michael Musgrave-Perkins is good-natured Ilya Ilych Telegin, a poor landowner, who is nicknamed “Waffles” for his pockmarked skin, and lives on the estate as a dependent. His music added a pleasant cultural note.

Patrick Huber’s set design is visually appealing and practical for country living in a sweltering summer. Teresa Doggett’s costume design outfits each character well, especially Owens. One quibble — McLaughlin’s wig is too large and heavy for her delicate face.

This version of Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” was adapted by contemporary playwright Neil LaBute in 2020, and he has retained the passion and intensity without chopping much, to my recollection. Any changes he made aren’t jarring or noticeable, and the length is still three hours.

This Chekhov work has been adapted many times on stage and in film, and inspired other works. The fact that its chaos is relatable today – lonely people living in isolation, family hierarchies, and even the doctor’s talk of ecological problems and destruction of forests — is remarkable.

Vanya is one of Chekhov’s four classics, written in 1897 and directed by Konstantin Stanislavski at the Moscow Art Theatre two years later, following “The Seagull” and before “The Three Sisters” and “The Cherry Orchard.”

Because of his penchant for realism, Chekhov is credited with establishing modernism in theater, and Stanislavski took the ‘between the lines’ concept one further with the “Method” acting blueprint for many performers.

His influences remain, and it’s refreshing to see how much we can relate to his bleak visions on lost youth, disappointments and finding our purpose – but with some satiric touches, too. For a classic to work in the 21st century, it must have a vitality and teach us anew.

In 2016, St. Louis Actors’ Studio presented “Ivanov,” which was a tall order with 14 people in the cast but was an effective, smart work with stellar performances.

Greg Johnston, Jennelle Gilreath Owens. Photo by Patrick Huber.

The skill shown throughout this ambitious work is exceptional, and another crown jewel for St. Louis Actors’ Studio.

The St. Louis Actors’ Studio presents Chekov’s “Uncle Vanya” from Feb. 17 to March 5, with 8 p.m. shows on Fridays and Saturdays and at 3 p.m. on Sundays, with Thursdays at 8 p.m. on Feb. 23 and March 2, at the Gaslight Theatre, at 360 North Boyle in the Central West End. Tickets through Ticketmaster or show up at the box office half-hour before curtain. For more information:

Photo by Patrick Huber
Michael James Reed, Michael Musgrave-Perkins, John Pierson. Photo by Patrick Huber

By Lynn Venhaus

A fascinating piece that combines intricate magic feats with intimate storytelling, “Forget Me Not” is an uncommon presentation.

Illusionist Kyle Marlett engages with an original and autobiographical one-man show that is much more than sleight of hand magic tricks and stunning visuals. As nifty as those inspired bits are, they are part of a bigger picture.

This is not your flashy extravaganza with pulsating music and fancy lighting that you often see as show biz spectacles — nor is it lacking artistry. Quite the contrary. It’s a one-of-a-kind rumination on learning, living, and leaving a mark, done with tender care.

This ambitious production appears to be a solo enterprise, but it’s not, for he has an accomplished cohort. Gunnar Sizemore, an actor who has appeared as Micah in the TV series “Nashville,” is Marlett’s co-creator. He is a director and voice actor, too, known for voicing Bao in the TV series “Kung Fu Panda: The Paws of Destiny,” among others.

The unusual set design – walls of boxes, some opening for effect, was co-designed with Patrick Huber. Several boxes hang from the ceiling, and are timed to drop as part of the show.

Kyle Marlett “Forget-Me-Not”

The subdued atmosphere includes low lighting and smoky effects, and the sound is soft. Huber was the lighting designer, too, and Marlett designed the sound.

Wearing his heart on his sleeve, Marlett shares his life story in a measured tone, with striking visual flourishes along the journey – such as recounting the times he and his brother shared giant bowls of cereal after school.

He has been estranged from that brother because of drugs. His brother’s woes and his father’s alcoholism didn’t make for a happy childhood, and he grew up escaping into his own fantasy world.

Magic enthralled him from the get-go and determined his path. His story’s unique, yet familiar, and that’s the endgame goal here – to engage people in a memorable way.

It’s doubtful that you’ve seen anything like it before. I know I haven’t.

Marlett has more than 1.5 million followers online and has been on such television shows as “The Tonight Show,” “Penn and Teller’s Fool Us,” and “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” He has also produced magic for movies and streaming series. A few years ago, he appeared at The Gaslight Theatre “in a very different show,” he told me.

Now, this show’s purpose is to focus on more meaningful connections. You know, the heavy stuff – Why are we here? What happens after we’re gone – who will tell our stories? What impact can we have? The clock is ticking, so how do we go about being remembered?

Marlett respectfully asked the audience for their thoughts, and to share some details, while he incorporated magic into the structure. Without razzle-dazzle, they were quite impressive – and the audience reacted warmly.

 This is a departure from the customary fare at St. Louis Actors’ Studio but follows that theme of connection that’s been ever-present in our post-pandemic (well, post-vaccine) world.

The feeling of a shared experience, like live theater represents, remains.

The St. Louis Actors’ Studio presents “Forget Me Not,” Dec. 3-18, Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. in The Gaslight Theatre. It is 75 minutes without an intermission. Box office 314-458-2978 or www.ticketmaster, or one-hour before each show. For more information, visit or contact

By Lynn Venhaus

Sympathies shift as does time in the twisty relationship drama “Fiction,” presented by the St. Louis Actors’ Studio as a study in the stories we tell ourselves.

Playwright Steven Dietz explores “What would you do if you had to live with a secret that you thought you would die with?”

That complicates life for sophisticates Linda and Michael Waterman, who are both writers, thus the verbal jousting throughout the two acts.

Their literate lives will be turned upside-down with the diagnosis of a terminal brain tumor (hers) and the revelation of an affair (his).

After Linda’s devastating news, she asks her husband to share his diaries with her. Who can refuse a dying person’s wish, right? He agrees – tearing out a page – and his entries disclose what happened at a writer’s retreat with a young Abby, an administrator at The Drake Colony. Rut-ro.

With his customary witty dialogue, Dietz examines the blurred lines between fact and fiction, truth and lies, reality and imagination. Does discretion spare pain or make betrayal worse? Can couples overcome deceit? Is “memory the better writer” as Michael states?

And what kind of mind game are we exactly in for here?

As cagily played by Lizi Watt as Linda and William Roth as Michael, their carefully constructed worlds come to a head when they are forced into edgy territory – and are backed into a corner.

The very opinionated and glib Waterman defends his journaling by describing it as fiction. A rather stressed Linda conjures up scenarios in her head, as she thinks she knows him well enough to figure out what happened. He described Abby as a lethal combination of beauty, danger, youth and wit.

As they revise facts, trust breaks down. Then Michael reads Linda’s diaries. Well, who is keeping secrets now? And what isn’t disclosed on the hand-written pages?

What a tangled web Dietz has weaved into two hours, adding plot twists – and a few contrivances to make this more confounding rather than easily filling in the blanks.

William Roth, Bryn McLaughlin, Lizi Watt. Photo by Patrick Huber.

What the Watermans have been telling themselves for 20 years is that their longtime relationship is built on honesty and candor. After all, they are writers. But the irony is that sometimes, those adept at the written word aren’t always the best communicators when it comes to expressing feelings and deep thoughts one-on-one.

Confrontations will expose vulnerabilities and appear to be ripping scabs off old wounds. And what’s with this mysterious Abby, and how long was she in contact with Michael? How does she know Linda?

Agile at rapid-fire banter, Watts and Roth are convincing, if not enitrely relatable, as the pair – his character tends to pontificate, and her healthy self can get snippy, but you do feel for her current predicament. His novels are so popular they’re made into movies while her one acclaimed book, “At the Cape,” a fictionalized account of her sexual assault in South Africa, is long in the rearview mirror, and she now teaches creative writing. Linda is tough and confident, not a pushover.

As Abby, Bryn McLaughlin plays her close to the vest when she appears before and present, shading her ambiguously. She holds her own in scenes with the older established characters.

This three-hander, deftly staged by Wayne Salomon, digs deeper into the gray areas of relationships that aren’t so black-and-white. Salomon’s a master at dissecting ordinary people and their motivations, as he has shown in an illustrious career spanning 50 years.

In recent years at STLAS, he’s done sharply defined work with “August: Osage County,” “Three Tall Women,” and “Farragut North.” This one, with its enigmatic premise, is indeed a challenge.

While the actors are smooth and obviously well-rehearsed, given the dexterity on display and their earnest analysis to make the material understandable, the stumbling block is the play’s structure.

The time shifts are not always clear, which is intentional. There are minor changes in costumes to reflect the year depicted, a smart move by costume designer Carla Landis Evans.

When we first meet the couple at a café in Paris (really?), they seem to have a comfy rapport. Dietz’s idea to start with a high-spirited argument on best rock vocal performance is clever, for we immediately ascertain they’re Boomers, with each taking a side – he’s adamant it’s John Lennon in “Twist and Shout,” and she’s making a case for Janis Joplin for “Piece of My Heart.”

Music, being the universal language, helps us size up the characters. But turns out, this is their first meeting, and they eventually marry. It sets up their rhythms, for couples tend to have their own shorthand..

This shift in time will keep us off-guard, particularly with the back-and-forth on the Abby sequences, and perhaps more at a distance that we should be as we’re trying to keep straight what’s accurate.

Then, there is the matter of mortality. The reason she’s reading his diaries is that she’s going to die soon (three weeks, or as she puts it, “twenty meals.”) Spoiler alert: But then, lo and behold, doctors say ‘oops!’ and never mind — due to an “oncological misapprehension,” she’s given a reprieve, so that makes things stickier for what’s out in the open. But then… (won’t spoil the rest). And if she has a malignancy tumor, undergoing treatment, wouldn’t that affect her behavior?

These choices are debatable, and the off-kilter nature can be frustrating, if that’s how you sense it. I can see where deciphering the relationships can become chore-like.

In all narratives, talking about writing can get in the weeds with theatergoers, while showing the writing process is even trickier. I can see responses vary about the two.

Should our lives be an open book in our intimate relationships? Dietz brings up questions, but are his points persuasive?

Are the characters unreliable narrators? Things are open to interpretation, depending on your viewpoint. And given human nature, perspectives will vary.

The setting, designed by Patrick Huber and carried out by Andy Cross and Sarah Frost, is minimally staged to focus on the verbal fireworks. No bookshelves, such as those artfully staged for Zoom, for the backdrop.

St. Louis Actors’ Studio, now in its 15th season, is looking through the lens of life’s fundamentals in several productions this year.

Their selections always bring up provocative issues that make a viewer consider how they think and feel, which results in an interesting experience worthy of discussion.

“Fiction” was produced in a workshop setting through ACT Theatre in Seattle in 2002, then presented at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, N.J., and later, off-Broadway by the Roundabout Theatre in 2004.

Active for 30 years, the prolific Dietz is one of the most widely produced playwrights in the U.S. Locally, his works “Bloomsday” and “This Random World” have been performed by the West End Players Guild. “God’s Country,” “The Nina Variations,” “Lonely Planet,” “Shooting Star” and “Private Eye” are among his many plays, often staged in regional theaters. Always witty and frequently insightful, Dietz’ comedy-dramas intrigue.

This much I know is true – the truth is uncomfortable but lies are worse. Although this brings up thought-provoking topics, whatever Dietz was going for in “Fiction” doesn’t land wholly satisfactorily, although the performances are genuine and the production work sincere.

William Roth, Lizi Watt. Photo by Patrick Huber

The St. Louis Actors’ Studio presents “Fiction” by Steven Dietz from Oct. 7 to Oct. 23, on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 3 p.m. at The Gaslight Theater at 358 N. Boyle in the Central West End.

For tickets, visit or purchase at the box office prior to showtime. For more information: