Family dynamics at the heart of Chamber Theatre season opener

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Madison playwright Kurt McGinnis Brown, like most authors, was originally counseled to write about what he knew. One of the results of that advice is “Broken and Entered,” a play with roots in his figurative as well literal experiences.

“One of my grandfathers led a shady life,” says Brown, whose play opens Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s fall season. “He did odd jobs, including hitting the road in his Model T to sell matches. He also organized illegal card games and ran numbers.”

On the other side of Brown’s family were two brothers who never quite made it in the world and ended up moving back to their mother’s house. The two influences combined to become the protagonists in Brown’s play, which received a Chamber Theatre dramatic reading in 2010 and will have its first fully staged world premiere later this month.

The play about two brothers who move home and embark upon a life of crime has great appeal for director Suzan Fete, who directed the staged reading and makes her Chamber Theatre main stage directing debut with this production. The appeal has less to do with criminal activity than with the relationships among the characters.

“I am very attracted to family-dynamic plays, and the intricate, fragile and often subconscious inner working of families – mine included – fascinate me,” she says. “‘Broken and Entered’ was a natural for me.”

In the play’s narrative, Vern (Jonathan Leslie Wainwright) and Wally (Andrew Edwin Voss) move back to their family home in a crumbling inner city community.  They soon realize that in order to survive, they need to take what they can get. Each night they guiltlessly burglarize houses in nearby upscale neighborhoods. 

But Wally falls for wealthy, attractive African-American neighbor Jamila (Marti Gobel, who reprises her role from the 2010 reading), who has returned to gentrify the neighborhood. Her involvement and her outsider’s view help Vern and Wally realize how impossible it is for them to fully escape their past or recriminations for their present actions. The two brothers are forced to reexamine their perceptions of race while facing the demons of their childhoods.

Despite their nefarious ways, Vern and Wally engender the audience’s sympathy in this comic tragedy, primarily because they simply are not very good burglars. The pair is also plagued by their past, resulting in a series of decisions that many of us can relate to, Brown says.

“They’d like to think of themselves as clever professional criminals, but they’re bumblers whose mad logic puts them in comic situations,” Brown says. “I think people might find them endearing. Wally and Vern are two guys that never had a chance. I don’t mean they should be excused for their actions, but all that they really want is to have lived in a family that loved and cherished them. And it’s too late for that.”

What makes this play approachable for anyone is the truth of the piece and the inevitability of its outcome, Fete says. That truth is something to which Brown as playwright could relate.

“If you’re a writer, you can’t help but write what you know,” Brown says. “The milieu in the play is not the milieu I grew up in, but by pushing my imagination in a certain direction, I can see what our family might have been like. That gave me something fun to play with in creating this world.”

Several performances of “Broken and Entered,” which runs Sept. 27 to Oct. 14 at the Broadway Theatre Center’s Studio Theatre, will be accompanied by talkbacks with Brown, Fete, Gobel and Chamber Theatre artistic director C. Michael Wright.

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Milwaukee Chamber Theatre Season at a Glance

“Broken and Entered,” Sept. 26–Oct. 14

“Collected Stories,” Nov. 21–Dec. 16

“Underneath the Lintel,” Feb. 21–March 17

“Jeeves in Bloom,” April 11–28