Tag Archives: milwaukee chamber theatre

Surviving loneliness in Chamber Theatre’s ‘The Few’

Cut into a cross section of the American psyche and you will find at least a little bit of loneliness in everyone. However, the absence of human connection is rarely as deeply felt as it is in the loneliness of the long-distance trucker.

Award-winning playwright and out author Samuel D. Hunter captures such loneliness — and despair, anger and even a bit of humor — in The Few.

Milwaukee Chamber Theatre opens 2017 with the state premiere of Hunter’s 2013 work on Feb. 23 at the Studio Theatre in Milwaukee’s Broadway Theatre Center. The show runs through March 19.

The drama focuses on three characters involved in publishing The Few, a newspaper for truckers that attempts to stem the tide of loneliness for those who drive so many highway miles. The paper’s sometimes-heartbreaking personal ads provide the lion’s share of income for the meager publication — and the ads’ content captures the themes of the play in an emotional and evocative fashion, says director C. Michael Wright.

“A few summers ago my partner (Skylight Music Theatre interim artistic director Ray Jivoff) and I saw The Few off-Broadway at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater and fell in love with the piece,” says Wright, the Chamber Theatre’s producing artistic director. “It was a pretty insightful character study of lost and lonely people and seemed perfect for MCT and our 2016–17 ‘Season of Misfits.’”

In Hunter’s narrative, Bryan (American Players Theatre veteran James Ridge), returns to the dingy doublewide in rural Idaho that serves as the publication’s office after an extended and unexplained absence. His former partner QZ (Mary McDonald Kerr) greets his return with caution and resentment.

Enter Matthew (Mitch Bultman), a 19-year-old gay man taken in by QZ when his father threw him out after catching him having sex with the wrong person. For Matthew, Bryan’s return is a bit like the second coming of a would-be Messiah, as Bryan’s earlier articles had inspired him.

But Bryan is in no mood to save anyone, especially himself.

According to Hunter, who grew up gay in northern Idaho, there is a bit of himself in each of the three characters. For instance, like Matthew, he was 18 in 1999, when the play takes place — a year after he came out.

As to the paper itself, Hunter says it’s based on similar publications he saw when he was in grad school in Iowa City, Iowa, a college town near the truck stop Iowa 80, said to be the world’s largest. It features a customized truck showroom, movie theater and dental and chiropractic services, along with restaurants, showers and fuel bays.

“I stopped there and picked up a newspaper called Country Singles that was nothing but personal ads,” says Hunter, who’s earned multiple awards for his work, including a MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Grant. “These ads were like flares being sent up in the night and these people seemed like the last American cowboys, especially the long-distance truckers.”

Hunter says The Few is not about driving a truck, but rather a story about community.

“At about 86 minutes, this is my shortest play and yet it took the most time to write,” Hunter says. “Was it about democracy and discourse? I wrote 50 pages and decided it just didn’t feel right.”

The chance to revisit The Few during a workshop in Minneapolis clarified Hunter’s vision.

“I realized this wasn’t a play about big, heady ideas,” he explains. “It was a play about loneliness and isolation and about people seeking human connections.”

Both Bryan and QZ embody that loneliness, the kind reflected in the personal ads the paper publishes. Those ads come to life in the Chamber Theatre’s version through a series of voices on an answering machine leaving their desperate messages in hopes of having them published.

“Bryan and QZ are not older people, but people made world-weary by having been put through the wringer of life,” Hunter says. “This is especially true of Bryan, who’s in a sort of spiritual coma after discovering that the human connection he thought he had was nothing more than an illusion.”

The character of Matthew operates at the other end of the spectrum. He’s bright, albeit awkward and, despite having demons of his own, sees in Bryan and his earlier writings the hope and optimism he desperately seeks.

“Matthew’s Messiah has returned and he spends the entire play trying to wake him up,” Hunter says.

As to Bryan’s secret, Hunter says there’s “no big reveal” at the end of the play. Bryan’s accumulated circumstances over the years have depleted his energies and spirits, and it’s bringing him back to center that concerns the other two characters.

The comfort of home

The fact The Few is set in Idaho isn’t unusual, since all of Hunter’s plays are set in his home state, providing him with specificity about the surroundings so he could comfortably explore his themes without learning the details of new settings.

“What I love about the plays, now I’ve become a mid-career artist with a body of work, is that they all feel like branches of the same tree,” says Hunter, who studied theater at NYU. “It’s like several chapters of the same novel. I don’t know that this is what I always will do, but it’s excited me for a long time.”

His themes still will resonate among those in the house for The Few.

“Even though Hunter is zooming in on just a few individuals, I feel quite certain audiences will be able to relate to these people,” director Wright says. “That’s the beauty of the play’s title. It’s not just these few characters that are hoping to connect with someone. Aren’t we all?”

Out in Idaho

Playwright Samuel D. Hunter did not come out as a gay man in his native northern Idaho until 1998, the year he turned 17. Events in neighboring Wyoming contributed to his decision.

Matthew Shepard was a student at the University of Wyoming in Laramie when he met Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson at the Fireside Lounge Oct. 6, 1998. The men offered to give Shepard a ride home, but instead drove him to a desolate area, where they robbed and tortured Shepard and then left him to die.

Shepard’s murder spurred the passage of hate crime legislation. His death also served as the basis for Moisés Kaufman’s play The Laramie Project.

Hunter was a student at a religious high school in 1998 and the response to Shepard’s murder affected him deeply. The parents’ negative attitude toward homosexuality allowed students to “run rampant,” he said.

“A friend of mine made a joke about the Shepard killing and that was the worst thing I heard,” said Hunter, who left the school at the end of the term and never went back.

On stage

Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s production of Samuel D. Hunter’s The Few runs Feb. 23–March 19 in the Studio Theatre at the Broadway Theatre Center, 158 N. Broadway, Milwaukee. Individual tickets run from $15 to $40. For tickets, call 414-291-7800. Find more online at milwaukeechambertheatre.com.

Milwaukee theaters feature breadth and depth

Milwaukee’s theater companies take to the boards this season with a staggeringly wide range of productions. From the largest venues to the smallest, the city’s theater companies have something on the schedule for audiences of all stripes.


Mark Clements, artistic director of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, begins his seventh season with a one-two punch of a timeless jazz piece and a musical theater classic.

Author Lanie Robertson’s Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill chronicles one of the last performances of jazz legend Billie Holiday, featuring some of the songs that made her famous, including “God Bless the Child,” “Strange Fruit” and “What a Little Moonlight Can Do.” The show runs Sept. 9–Oct. 30 in the Stackner Cabaret. There will be an Out-n-About LGBT Night at the Oct. 12 performance.

Also on tap for the Stackner this season: Irving Berlin’s I Love a Piano (Nov. 4–Jan. 15); author Dick Enberg’s McGuire, about legendary Marquette University basketball coach Al McGuire (Jan. 20–March 19); and the return of Frank Ferrante in An Evening with Groucho (March 24–May 28.)

The Rep’s Quadracci Powerhouse Theatre opens its season with Man of La Mancha, the Tony Award-winning musical about misguided errant knight Don Quixote and his noble quest and love for the “kitchen slut” Aldonza/Dulcinea. The show, which features the song “The Impossible Dream,” runs Sept. 20–Oct. 30. Man of La Mancha also has an Out-n-About LGBT Night scheduled for Sept. 28.

This Quadracci season also presents Milwaukee author Larry Shue’s The Foreigner (Nov. 15–Dec. 18); Milwaukee native Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced (Jan. 17–Feb. 12); Tennessee Williams’ “memory play” The Glass Menagerie (March 7–April 9); and a theatrical version of Charlotte Bronte’s classic Jane Eyre (April 25–May 21.)

The Rep’s Stiemke Studio fills out the bill with The Royale (Sept. 28–Nov. 6) written by Marco Ramirez, a writer for TV’s Orange is the New Black and Sons of Anarchy.

Next up is George Brant’s Grounded (Feb. 22–April 2), about an F16 fighter pilot whose unexpected pregnancy leads to her grounding.

Frank Ferrante as Groucho Marx at Milwaukee Repertory’s Stackner Cabaret.

Finally, Ebenezer Scrooge, Tiny Tim and all those troublesome ghosts reappear once again in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. The annual holiday haunt, as always, plays on the historic Pabst Theater stage (Nov. 29–Dec. 24).

The Milwaukee Repertory Theater complex is at 108 E. Wells St., Milwaukee. The Pabst Theater is adjacent to the Rep at 144 E. Wells St. 414-224-9490; milwaukeerep.com


Politics is in this fall, which might explain why Next Act Theatre starts its new season with Lauren Gunderson’s The Taming (Sept. 29–Oct. 23). Miss Georgia has more than just the Miss America contest on her mind in this play. She and a group of female friends hatch a hilarious plan to give the U.S. government a makeover.

The season continues with unSilent Night (Nov. 17–Dec. 11), author John Kishline’s suspenseful holiday tale of a Milwaukee radio DJ who, on Christmas Eve of 1953, finds himself faced with an unusual latenight guest — a troubled intruder in search of redemption.

Next Act starts the new year with Sharr White’s The Other Place (Feb. 2–26), a psychological and emotional thriller in which a medical researcher finds herself adrift among family and professional peers without knowing whom to trust.

The season ends with the Milwaukee premiere of Steven Dietz’s Bloomsday (April 6–30), an Irish time travel love story — there aren’t many of those — that blends wit, humor and heartache in a familiar tale about the one who got away.

Next Act Theatre is located at 255 S. Water St., Milwaukee. 414-278-0765; nextact.org


The Milwaukee Chamber Theatre got its season off to an early start on Aug. 11 with Christopher Durang’s Tony Award-winning comedy Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. But there’s much more in store from artistic director C. Michael Wright and his crew.

Leda Hoffmann directs A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur (Sept. 21–Oct. 16), a rarely produced Tennessee Williams drama that looks at the comic side of heartbreak.

The rest of MCT’s season includes Kenneth Lonergan’s Lobby Hero (Nov. 23–Dec. 18); The Few, a drama by MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant awardee Samuel D. Hunter (Feb. 23–March 19); and Gale Childs Daly’s fast-paced and suspenseful adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations (April 13–30).

The Milwaukee Chamber Theatre performs at the Broadway Theatre Center, 158 N. Broadway, Milwaukee. 414-276-8842; milwaukeechambertheatre.com


Dale Gutzman’s Off The Wall Theatre is tackling a broad range of works this season.

OTW opens with A Passage to India (Sept. 22–Oct. 2), the stage adaptation of E.M. Forster’s novel exploring racial and class tensions in British-controlled India. Next up is David Ives’ Venus in Furs (Nov. 3–13), the award-winning adult drama in which the goddess appears as a sadomasochist.

OTW welcomes the holiday season with Gutzman’s own work The Last Holiday Punch! (Dec. 14–31), which is filled with music, mirth, mayhem and more than a stocking full of political incorrectness. OTW turns serious again with Women of Troy (Feb. 16–26), a new translation of the Euripides classic.

The stage brightens in the spring with The Fantasticks (April 22–30), at one time Broadway’s longest running musical and the model for many subsequent stage productions. OTW wraps it up with Titus Andronicus (June 14–25), a radical new version of Shakespeare’s early tragedy of love, loyalty, honor and family set amid a gory Roman Empire-era war.

Off the Wall Theatre is located at 127 E. Wells St., Milwaukee. 414-484-8874; offthewalltheatre.com


Renaissance Theaterworks opens its season with a taut thriller perfectly designed for the Halloween season.

The Drowning Girls (Oct. 21–Nov. 13) is a true-crime drama told from the point of view of the victims of early 20th-century serial killer George Joseph Smith. He married three women and drowned each one in the bathtub. In the play, the victims meet and share their chilling tales.

Renaissance next stages Luna Gale (Jan. 20–Feb. 12), which focuses on a social worker’s struggles to safely place an infant in a family with a shadowy past.

David St. Louis
David St. Louis in Center Theatre Group’s production of “The Royale.”

The season ends with The Violet Hour (April 7–30), a hilarious tale about a small-time publisher facing a big decision.

Renaissance Theaterworks performs at the Broadway Theatre Center, 158 N. Broadway, Milwaukee. 414-291-7800; r-t-w.com


In Tandem Theatre Company also opens during the Halloween season, presenting Dracula vs. The Nazis, a romp that has two actors playing 20 characters in a tale of evil versus, well, more evil.

The irreverence continues with Holiday Hell: The Curse of Perry Williams (Dec. 1–Jan. 8), penned by local playwrights Anthony Wood (A Cudahy Caroler Christmas) and Mondy Carter (A Twisted Carol). In Tandem also presents its bawdy annual fundraiser The Eight: Reindeer Monologues, in which eight of Santa’s most trusted associates charge him with sexual harassment.

Things get serious with Time Stands Still (Feb. 23–March 19), a tale about two war correspondents tired of living in imminent danger. The season ends with Carnival, April 20–May 14), the musical best known for the song “Love Makes the World Go ’Round,” produced in collaboration with Milwaukee Public Theater.

In Tandem Theatre Company performs in theater space provided by Calvary Presbyterian, “The Big Red Church,” on Wisconsin Avenue, with its entrance at 628 S. 10th St., Milwaukee. 414-271-1371; intandemtheatre.org


Soulstice Theatre opens its season with Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson (Sept. 23–Oct. 8), Michael Friedman’s comic rock musical about America’s seventh president and the founding of the Democratic Party. The season continues with Bess Wohl’s American Hero (Jan. 27–Feb. 11) and concludes with Copenhagen (April 29–May 14.)

Soulstice Theatre is located at 3770 S. Pennsylvania Ave., St. Francis. 414-481-2800; soulsticetheatre.com


First Stage, one of the nation’s most acclaimed children’s theaters, offers a full slate of productions starting with Goosebumps: Phantom of the Auditorium — The Musical Oct. 14–Nov. 13 at the Todd Wehr Theater in Milwaukee’s Performing Arts Center.

The season continues with Mole Hill Stories (Nov. 5–20 at First Stage’s Main Stage Hall); Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer (Nov. 25–Dec. 31, Todd Wehr Theater); Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors (Dec. 9–18 at the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center); Welcome to Bronzeville (Jan. 13–Feb. 5 at the Todd Wehr Theater); and Lovabye Dragon (Jan. 21–Feb. 19 at the FS Main Stage Hall).

The troupe also produces Robin Hood (Feb. 17–March 12 at the Todd Wehr Theater); Txt U L8r (March 10–19 at the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center); Mockingbird (March 24–April 9 at the Todd Wehr Theater); Julie B. Jones is Not a Crook (April 28–June 4 at the Todd Wehr Theater); and George Orwell’s Animal Farm (May 12–21 at the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center).

First Stage is headquartered at 325 W. Walnut St., Milwaukee. 414-267-2900; firststage.org


Theatre Gigante, the self-proclaimed “theater of big ideas,” is fresh from its Aug. 28 appearance at the Milwaukee Fringe Festival and ready for a new season.

The troupe’s upcoming performances include Mark Anderson’s Quorum (Oct. 7–15 at Plymouth Church); Gigante Reads Excerpts from Spalding Gray: Stories Left to Tell (Nov. 17 at the Whitefish Bay Library); David Sedaris’ The Santaland Diaries (Dec. 9 at Boswell Book Company); Little Bang Theory & Laugh, Clown, Laugh (March 3–4 at Kenilworth 508 Theater) and Anderson and Isabelle Kraj’s Lysistrata (April 21–29 at Alverno College’s Pitman Theater).

Theater Gigante is located at 1920 E. Kenilworth Pl., Milwaukee. 414-961-6119; theatregigante.org


Milwaukee-based Theater RED is producing the world premiere of Bonny Anne Bonny (Oct. 27–Nov. 12), a new play by Milwaukee writer Liz Shipe about the infamous female pirate captain.

For this production, Theatre Red is partnering with Wisconsin Lutheran College to provide students the opportunity to work alongside professionals. Performances are at the Raabe Theater at the WLC Center for Arts and Performances, 8815 W. Wisconsin Ave., Milwaukee. theaterred.com

‘Vanya & Sonia & Masha & Spike’ a modern riff on Chekov

Playwright Christopher Durang’s most famous work, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike may be strongly influenced by the plays of 19th-century Russian writer Anton Chekhov. But it’s the contemporary elements he’s woven in — including quasi-autobiographical details and those of friends like Yale Drama School classmate Sigourney Weaver — that give the play’s characters the energy, vitality and pathos to rise above stereotypes and imbue the play with lasting comedic appeal.

Winner of the 2013 Tony Award for best play, Durang’s classic/contemporary mashup is on stage Aug. 11–28 at the Broadway Theatre Center’s Cabot Theatre.

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is firmly rooted in the present,” says Marcella Kearns, director of the production. “Though his musing about Chekhov provided inspiration for the play, Durang gives us much more. He actually sweeps us through a survey of Western theater — eras, styles, acting techniques — with nods to the Greeks, Chekhov, acting for television versus the stage, and more. And that’s just in the first act.”

The play’s references to Chekhov are deliberate and overt. Vanya, Sonia and Masha’s names are taken from the Chekhovian canon, as is the name of an additional character, Nina. The play blends comedy with semi-tragic situations in a way similar to such Chekhov works as The Seagull and The Cherry Orchard.

Durang says Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is not a parody of Chekhov. One doesn’t need to know his plays to appreciate this contemporary one.

“I do like Chekhov’s plays and got to read them in my 20s and 30s,” says Durang. Durang left New York City several years ago and moved to rural Bucks County, Pennsylvania, with his now-husband John Augustine. The play is set in that same county and reflects an urban/rural tension.

“A lot of Chekhov’s characters are unhappy with their lives and regret the things they didn’t do, and those who live in the country seem to be unhappier than those who live in the city,” Durang says. “I thought, ‘What if I wrote a play that incorporated the themes of Chekhov and set the play in modern day?’”

Durang’s question led to Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike and drives its comedic trajectory.

The story is set at the home of Vanya (C. Michael Wright) and Sonia (Jenny Wanasek), siblings who live together in Bucks County. Unemployed, they have spent most of their adult lives caring for their now-dead parents, literature professors who loved Chekhov and named their children after his characters. The siblings are supported by their movie star sister Masha (Carrie Hitchcock).

The pair’s static environment ruptures when Masha returns home with her boy toy Spike (JJ Phillips). Sonia’s insecurities and Masha’s competitive nature spark a series of arguments that Vanya must try to mediate, while Spike flounces about the house distracting the trio with his buff body. It quickly becomes clear that Masha is intent on selling the family home, which would leave Vanya and Sonia destitute.

Durang says the characters in the play must deal with feeling left behind as times change, as well as with the struggles people face in their attempt to coexist and come to terms with their gains and losses.

While Durang acknowledges the play’s characters share some similarities to his own life, he says their differences helped him maintain needed distance.

“I realized that I was the age now of Vanya in the play, and I am very much that character,” Durang says. “But it’s more of a what-if scenario. I feel very lucky that I was able to pursue a career in theater after college, but the Vanya character is what I think I would be if I didn’t get to follow my choices.”

The play is largely motivated by jealousy and sibling rivalry, another what-if scenario for Durang, an only child who had to play peacemaker between warring parents.

One of the major forces in this play is the longing for connection,” Kearns says. “It’s as old as human community.”

Durang says he created Sonia as a composite of several women he’s known, and the narcissistic Masha is inspired by Weaver — or rather, by a similarly self-involved character she played in college. “I’m not saying that any part of Masha is based on Sigourney Weaver,” Durang explains, “but I thought she would have fun playing the role, and I was lucky to get her.

In addition to Weaver, the Broadway production featured David Hyde Pierce and Kristine Nielsen as Masha’s siblings and Billy Magnussen as Spike.

On stage

Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s production of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike runs Aug. 11–28 at the Broadway Theatre Center’s Cabot Theatre, 158 N. Broadway, Milwaukee. The Aug. 11 performance features an LGBT Night Out promotion at 7:30 p.m., with a 25 percent discount on tickets using the code LGBT25. For tickets, call 414-291-7800 or visit milwaukeechambertheatre.com.

Editor’s Note: Michael Muckian’s interview with Christopher During was conducted in 2015 for a preview of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike that played at Madison’s Forward Theatre Company.


Milwaukee Chamber Theatre has an eye for picking out just the right new work to bring to Cream City, and Slowgirl looks to continue that fine tradition. The two-hander depicts a teenage girl fleeing the consequences of a potentially fatal house party and the reclusive, secretive uncle whose Costa Rican retreat she impulsively arrives at. Over the course of 90 minutes, these two self-imposed exiles will be forced to reveal details from their pasts, own them and, maybe, get on with their lives.

At the Broadway Theatre Center, Milwaukee. Tickets are $38 and $34; $25 preview. For more information visit milwaukeechambertheatre.com.

Feb. 26 to March 20

‘Dear Elizabeth’

Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop are known as two of America’s greatest poets. Less known is the correspondence they shared for decades, writing back and forth about their work, their lives and their affection for each other as friends and fellow poets. Sarah Ruhl has crafted a play dramatizing that dynamic, and Milwaukee Chamber Theatre has placed two talented actors in the roles: married couple Carrie Hitchcock and Norman Moses.

At the Broadway Theatre Center, 158 N. Broadway.Tickets are $38 or $34, with a $5 discount for students and seniors. Call 414-291-7800 or visit milwaukeechambertheatre.com to order.

Sept. 25 to Oct. 18

Milwaukee Chamber stages a supreme encore for “Jeeves”

Good heavens! A British bachelor is embarrassingly engaged again — to two different women. There’s a pinstriped gangster ready to put him and his best friend in a coffin at the slightest provocation. He’s wearing terrible socks.

Call for Jeeves, one last time!

Milwaukee Chamber Theatre has proven the success of playwright Margaret Raether’s Jeeves series twice now, with productions of both Jeeves Intervenes and Jeeves in Bloom that were wildly successful for the company. So it makes sense they’d go for the trifecta with Jeeves Takes A Bow, the third and final adaptation Raether wrote of P.G. Wodehouse’s classic tales of a bumbling British aristocrat named Bertie and his perfect valet Jeeves.

The Jeeves formula is simple. We are introduced to Jeeves (Matt Daniels, reprising the role for the third time) and his employer Bertram Wilberforce Wooster (Chris Klopatek), a paragon of Britain’s idle rich. A meddling aunt shows up to try and reform Bertie. We encounter a school chum of Bertie’s in a pickle — in this case, Nigel Bingham-Binkersteth (Chase Stoeger), Binky for short. In his attempts to help, Bertie gets himself confused for his friend, with comically unfortunate results. And just before it all goes to hell, Jeeves steps in with a multi-layered, complex chessmaster’s solution that ends with everyone getting what they want, be it marriage, bachelorhood or just a clean, tidy living room.

If Jeeves Takes A Bow were merely a paint-by-numbers recreation of that formula, it’d still have been an exquisite evening of theater. Having mastered the role over five years and two productions, Daniels has the comic timing of Jeeves down perfectly, catching letters in midair as Bertie throws them and smoothly gliding in and out of conversations to drop off or take away teacups before their owners even know they’re gone. There’s a bit of meta-humor inherent in the mistaken identities of Klopatek and Stoeger’s characters, since they’ve both played Bertie in Jeeves productions (Klopatek originating the role), and having both played the part of the buffoon before allows them to perform their buffoonery in tandem all the more effectively.

But Raether’s added a wrinkle to the plot that breathes new life into the premise: Jeeves and Bertie have traveled to New York City, a realm that is both a welcome respite for Bertie from his bothersome aunts and deeply unsettling for the normally unflappable Jeeves, caught off-guard by handshakes, showgirl gowns and the peculiar American custom of Prohibition.

Just seeing Jeeves temporarily off his game is worth the trip across the Atlantic alone (don’t worry, he’s back to his old self after a few scenes), but it’s the culture clash between the Brits and the Yanks that really punches up the plot. 

Anna Cline is a vivacious burst of energy as Ruby LeRoy, the actress Binky has fallen in love with while pretending to be Bertie, and just about every heavily accented line she utters is a showstopper. Her knight in shining zoot suit is “Knuckles” McCann (Steven M. Koehler), a protective mobster with an amusing connection to Ruby who injects the play with more legitimate danger than any antagonist Jeeves and Bertie have faced before. Both give the play a distinctly Broadway sensibility, only compounded by the actual song-and-dance number they participate in near the end of the play.

It’s not only the Americans who punch up the play though. Bertie may have no aunts in America, but one has sent him the next best thing: a prim, proper and morally upright young fiancee named Vivienne Duckworth (Kay Allmand). Allmand is a gem from her first moments onstage, playing the role with a rigid physicality matched only by Daniels, but she’s even stronger once she loosens up, increasingly corrupted for the better by New York’s many temptations.

No critique of Jeeves Takes A Bow would be complete without a separate round of applause for director Tami Workentin, who’s directed all three plays in the Jeeves cycle. Leading actors and designers to create a world of impeccable timing and immersive hijinks isn’t easy to do once; to do it three times is a triumph in itself, even with the good fortune to have some of her cast members returning more than once. 

Bertie’s motto is “In Jeeves we trust.” Insert Workentin’s name, Raether’s, or MCT itself, and the sentiment seems likely to ring equally true.

Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s production of Jeeves Takes A Bow runs through May 3 at the Broadway Theatre Center, 158 N. Broadway. Tickets range from $15 to $40 and can be purchased at 414-291-7800 or milwaukeechambertheatre.com.

‘The Train Driver’

Milwaukee Chamber Theatre takes on South African playwright Athol Fugard’s latest work The Train Driver. Inspired by real events, the play follows a former driver, haunted by a mother and child he accidentally killed, on his quest to find out their identities. MCT artistic director C. Michael Wright will rely on his longstanding relationship with Fugard (feature article HERE) in his direction.

At the Broadway Theatre Center, 158 N. Broadway. Tickets are $34 or $38 Fridays and Saturdays. Call 414-291-7800 or visit milwaukeechambertheatre.com.

Through March 15

MCT’s ‘The Train Driver’ offers a bleak, complex look at post-apartheid South Africa


That’s the single word I’d use to sum up The Train Driver, the exemplary Athol Fugard play currently receiving its Midwestern premiere at Milwaukee Chamber Theatre. Taking place over a few days at a desolate South African paupers’ graveyard, Fugard’s play asks us to watch the struggle of its title character, a white former railway conductor whose life jumped the tracks when a black woman killed herself and her child by throwing themselves in front of his train.

And it’s a tough struggle to witness. The driver, Roelf Visagie (David Daniel), enters the play in a rage, cursing and shouting at the gravedigger Simon Hanabe (Michael A. Torrey), a black man who will become his impromptu companion on the final leg of his journey. Since that fateful death, Roelf has been on a journey spiraling downward, haunted by the face of the woman and compelled to track her down. His exact justification for doing so fluctuates throughout the 90-minute play — he initially wants to curse on her grave, prompting horror in Simon, but his intent softens as time passes — but there’s a sense throughout that he doesn’t truly know why he’s standing in that graveyard. Or that he already knows and just needs to make himself realize it.

Structurally, the play belongs to Daniels, who is tasked with long stretches of conversation that begin directed to Simon but end with his gaze reaching out into the middle distance, perhaps at a face only he can see. They seem at first the rantings of a madman, and a racist one at that. But the more time we spend with Roelf, the deeper we see into his tortured soul, and the more we recognize his rage is not actually over the damage the accident has done to his personal life but over an increasing awareness of the hopelessness his victim faced in her impoverished village. The transition is subtle, but Daniels plays his earliest scenes with an undercurrent of Roelf’s later understanding that keeps him a sympathetic character even when he’s at his most racially unjust.

Torrey gets less to say, but his role is no less important. Simon serves as a constant reminder of the great luxury Roelf still possesses in his madness — the ability to acknowledge and act on it. As a white man, Roelf is offered every resource to assuage his guilt, and has the means to travel from slum to slum hunting for her. Simon cannot even acknowledge the great sadness of daily digging graves for nameless black corpses because for him it is just a job — and one he cannot lose.

Director C. Michael Wright has a long history with Fugard works, and it shows in the well-realized ambiance of the production. An encyclopedic knowledge of South Africa and apartheid isn’t necessary to understand the play (though it certainly helps with some of the smaller nuances) because Wright and his cast make the play feel both specific and universal. The Train Driver is in many ways clearly of South Africa’s post-apartheid era, but it feels equally of any racially uncertain period, where classes clash in ways both explicit and implicit.

But it’s a complex play, and while it’s gripping to watch, it’s not immediately clear what our audience takeaway is meant to be. Roelf’s journey brings him to a point of understanding and empathy that is surely meant to be aspirational for his fellow South Africans, black and white. Yet his need for closure takes the play to a dark, hopeless place that would seem to cut off that conclusion at its roots.

In his notes to the play, Fugard writes that his journey to write The Train Driver mirrors that of Roelf Visagie, who comes to find he neither needs to understand nor bear witness to the tragedy he has been swept up in. He needs to claim her, for himself, and move on.

Perhaps The Train Driver is as simple as that, an attempt to exorcise the demons of the past and move on to an improving future. But the bleakness of its conclusion seems to suggest it’s also meant to reveal the forces that propel racial conflict still surge on even without the legal support of apartheid — and may be as difficult to stop as a train hurtling along its tracks.

Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s The Train Driver runs through March 15 at the Broadway Theatre Center, 158 N. Broadway. Tickets are $34, or $38 Fridays and Saturdays. Call 414-291-7800 or visit milwaukeechambertheatre.com to order.