Great storytellers are like magicians. With a twinkle of an eye and a few words, different times and places suddenly become real.
John McGivern possesses the abilities of a master storyteller in abundance, and he has plenty of great anecdotes to share in his one-man show, “Summer Stories,” now play- ing at Next Act Theatre.
McGivern is something of a perennial host when it comes to the winter holidays. In this program, he turns his attention to the summer months in Milwaukee, bookended by the rituals of Memorial Day and the waning days of August. On a stage outfitted with retro artifacts, including dusty Coke bottles, an antiquated push mower, a tire swing, a clothesline and a picket fence, scenes are set for an East Side duplex, an up- North holiday spot, and even a Girl Scout camp. Amid all this, McGivern’s experiences as a gay boy growing up in a large, working-class Catholic family come to life.
This is the thread that brings complexity into “Summer Stories,” as McGivern’s orientation is brought out gradually though allusions and spirited, self-deprecating humor. His yarns about sports, particularly the agony of obligatory baseball games, will get nods of recognition from anyone who has ever felt awkward on the athletic field. The character of “young John” is wide-eyed and knowing, highly self-aware and conscious of making his way through the uneven territory of childhood and adolescence.
McGiven also conjures up many other significant players: his gruff father with a penchant for schedules, a boyish girl who became a stalwart friend, badass older cousins and his housecoat-wearing grandmother in a scene of traumatic hilarity.
These scenes unfold in moments of wonder. A particular highlight comes with decorating bicycles for the annual 4th of July parade and contest. The relish with which McGivern describes this is delightful; for him, bespangling a bicycle was far more electric than baseball could ever be. It is not simply the words that help these memories unfold, but also his knack for vocal and facial expressions, timing and gesture.
There is never a dull moment in this two-act program, with its entertaining and sometimes poignant tales, strong pacing and frequent laughs.
“Summer Stories” is presented in the new Next Act Theatre location, just between the Third and Fifth Wards. The former industrial building is an airy though intimate space. This helps make a show like McGivern’s seem less a performance by a distant actor and more of an engrossing evening with an affable host.
This program recreates bygone days through personal reminiscences, but its coming-of-age stories are timeless. For the start of summer, it is just the thing to set your own stage for whatever adventures lie ahead.