BWW Review: Rah Rah for THE MIDVALE HIGH SCHOOL FIFTIETH REUNION
The Midvale High School Fiftieth Reunion
Written by Alan Brody, Directed by Lee Mikeska Gardner; Scenic Design, Steven Royal; Costume Design, Chelsea Kerl; Lighting Design, John Malinowski; Sound Design, Nathan Leigh; Properties Coordinator, Annabeth Kelly; Choreographers, Marlena Yanetti, Felton Sparks; Production Stage Manager, Katherine Humbert; Assistant Stage Manager, Sarah Wallace
Performances through July 2 by The Nora Theatre Company at Central Square Theater, 450 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, MA; Box Office 617-576-9278 or www.CentralSquareTheater.org
Funny how time has a way of sneaking up on you. Today you are celebrating your high school graduation; tomorrow you are attending your fiftieth class reunion and wondering who are all those old people in the room. The Nora Theatre Company presents the world premiere of Alan Brody's The Midvale High School Fiftieth Reunion, a light-hearted, evocative trip down Memory Lane with the Class of 1954. Directed by Lee Mikeska Gardner, Emmy-winning actor Gordon Clapp and Underground Railway Theater Artistic Director Debra Wise portray two classmates returning to their alma mater for the first time. Neither is sure of what they're looking for, but they hope they'll recognize it if they find it.
Brody's Operation Epsilon was nominated for four Elliot Norton Awards and won four IRNE Awards in 2013 when it was staged at the Central Square Theater. It is a serious, complex play with an ensemble cast of eleven actors that is far removed from this 75-minute four-hander that envelops the audience in its party-like atmosphere. With stadium seating surrounding the floor on all four sides and a handful of round tables spaced around the perimeter, scenic designer Steven Royal allows us to feel like we are right there in the school gymnasium with the alumni. The room is festooned with streamers, balloons, and seat covers, all in blue and gold (which just happen to be my high school colors), and a large banner welcoming the class hangs at the far end of the hall. Frequent announcements and dance music from the era come through loud and clear with Nathan Leigh's sound design, and co-choreographers Marlena Yanetti and Felton Sparks give Clapp and Wise the steps they need to trip the light fantastic.
Although there are only four actors onstage, there are countless unseen classmates who approach both Tom Terres (Clapp) and Bettina Belknap (Wise) to say hello and reminisce. Brody creates numerous one-way conversations, but we get the gist from their facial expressions and it's a fun way to introduce more people to the party. Matthew Zahnzinger and Sarah ElizaBeth Bedard each play several characters, proving themselves to be a couple of the best chameleons in the Boston theater community. With the benefit of character-specific costumes designed by Chelsea Kerl, both Zahnzinger and Bedard do an amazing job of differentiating their various identities. Zahnzinger puts on a letter jacket and steps into the way-back machine to be Bettina's high school crush, dons tweeds and suspenders to be a stuffy and sexist academic adviser, and shares an emotional scene with Wise as Bettina's late husband. Beard plays Tom's ex-wife who can't wait to escape their stilted marriage, an efficient assistant in his book store who shares an emotional secret with him, and a teeny-bopper from his high school days who tries to get a rise out of him. Lighting designer John Malinowski brings about the flashbacks with changes of brightness and focus.
Clapp and Wise are a pair of pros who excel at developing their characters and building chemistry between them. They take their time, gradually exposing pieces of their history and personality, taking a sweet journey together that seems much like shy adolescents getting to know one another, even though they are fifty years removed from that designation. Brody ascribes extra interesting qualities to Tom, who is kind of passive, by giving him a secret vocation (no spoilers here). Bettina was a smart, popular girl in high school who went on to become a neuroscientist and excel in her field. Whereas the mention of her career is a conversation-stopper with most people, Tom is intrigued and quickly learns from her about the fallibility of memory. It's always refreshing to find such characters - a woman of value and a man who values her for it.
The Midvale High School Fiftieth Reunion is a great sendoff into the summer. It is a love story with likable characters and a simple, but heartfelt message. It's about taking risks, second chances, and realizing that you're never too old to attempt a do-over. Long after a door has closed, it may be the time to open a new window. If you've never been the reunion type, this could inspire you to attend the next one, regardless of how many years you've been out of school. If you have always gone to your reunions, you'll feel right at home in Midvale.
Photo credit: A.R. Sinclair Photography (Debra Wise, Gordon Clapp)