Review: Family Love and Drama Take Center Stage in WHAT STAYS at Dreamcatcher Repertory Theatre

By: Feb. 13, 2018
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Review: Family Love and Drama Take Center Stage in WHAT STAYS at Dreamcatcher Repertory Theatre

We go to the theater for many reasons. Some of us stop by on a Friday night to escape the outside world while others head in for a challenging or clarifying encounter. Yet, despite our differing tastes, there is one thing we all hope for in a fulfilling night of theater: a good story. Laura Ekstrand and Jason Szamreta, the co-writers behind What Stays, the new play on display at Dreamcatcher Repertory Theatre, understand this basic human yearning and have crafted an intertwined tale designed to take you on an emotive, specific - if slightly familiar - journey through the lives of an American family with more than their fair share of skeletons hiding in the closet. Featuring a tremendous ensemble of players under the direction of Betsy True, this is a triumphant world premiere with a lot going for it.

The premise of What Stays, a family moving day interrupted by unexpected visitors, is a smart one. It knowingly creates a situation where people who would normally go out of their way to avoid each other are forced to work together in close quarters. Such a move also personifies the act of uncovering past evils and bringing them out into the open, a theme What Stays holds close to its heart. Yet, the clever conceit brought out the play's weaknesses as well as its strengths. While there were stunning moments of 'not much spoken, everything said' - one exchange, between a man threatened by the admiring boyfriend of his late father's youngest daughter from a second marriage, proved especially rewarding- these were tempered by scenes of drawn-out exposition and off-kilter emotion. You can sense What Stays was inspired by, and is still mostly made up of, stories gleaned from various members of the Dreamcatcher ensemble. While that background lent a refreshing specificity to the narrative, the extensive and numerous backstories became crowded. It felt as if the characters needed room to grow more and explain less.

Despite moments of uneven tension in the script, the cast tasked with bringing Ekstrand and Szamreta's work to life soared. The folks onstage were a veteran group of performers, six resident ensemble members from Dreamcatcher and two new faces. Their familiarity translated well to the family milieu of the piece, and thanks to a steady hand from True, created a deep sense that these people had existed together for a long time. And it was when this feeling of familial history extended into intimate two- and three-person scenes or a fleeting, telling moment that the production truly shined. The meticulous energy of Laura Ekstrand's Susan; the constant uncertain excitement of Christopher John Young's Graham; the matriarchal gravitas of Noreen Farley's Dorothy; the gentle attentiveness of Harry Patrick Christian's Charles; and more. True could have given these performers even more space to fill the silence with their presence. It is to the performer's credit that they warranted more time just being and perhaps a little less speaking.

What Stays is a young play. It has room to grow, room to be trimmed, room to discover new rhythms and extent successful ones. Does it overplay its hand with one too many integrated stories? Perhaps. But in a theatre climate hungry for good, honest new plays, it can stand tall and proud among the rest. Yet another enriching example of Dreamcatcher Rep's passion for storytelling and talented pursuit of quality NJ theatre.

What Stays runs at Dreamcatcher Repertory Theatre from Friday, Feb. 9 through Sunday, Feb. 25. Performances are Friday and Saturday nights at 8pm, and Sundays at 2pm. Talkbacks follow the Feb. 11 and 18 matinees.

Purchase tickets at or by calling Brown Paper Tickets at 800-838-3006. Performances are at the Oakes Center, located at 120 Morris Ave in Summit. Parking is available in the lot behind the theatre at 20 Ashwood Ave and at the Summit Recreation Center, 100 Morris Ave. The facility is wheelchair accessible. Assistive listening devices for the hearing impaired and advance large-print scripts are available for free by prior arrangement.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Dreamcatcher Repertory Theatre


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