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BWW Review: INEZ'S BIRTHDAY...AND THEN SOME at Script 2 Screen 2 Stage

A laugh-out-loud comedy that's never been produced

BWW Review: INEZ'S BIRTHDAY...AND THEN SOME at Script 2 Screen 2 Stage

Script 2 Stage 2 Screen is new to me. Not the concept, we'd been doing that in Chicago for years at Chicago Dramatist Workshop (RIP Russ Tutterow), but the company itself (which debuted in 2009) is new - but just to me. I don't know why, it's right up my alley - I love seeing new works in their infancy.

So, about a week ago, I had my first opportunity to attend the staged reading of Inez's Birthday...And Then Some by Jason Hull at this little company that breathes life into words on a page. And it was terrific.

Here's the story: Set in Tennessee, Inez (Alden West) is about to turn 85, and her sister, Louise (Shirley LeMaster) is throwing her a last birthday party. Why is it her last? Because family lore says no woman in the family lives past 85

BWW Review: INEZ'S BIRTHDAY...AND THEN SOME at Script 2 Screen 2 Stage
Cole (Brent Anderson) and Arlo (Winston Gieseke)

Louise has a couple of sons, Arlo (Winston Gieseke) and Tanner (Jason Reale). Arlo still lives at home, and is, or at least what we think is, a good old boy with an unrequited love of Loretta Lynn. Tanner has moved to California and is in a loving relationship with Cole (Brent Anderson) and is living out and proud - just not in Tennessee. Yes, he's told his mother, but she's the kind to stick her fingers in her ears and lalalalala her way to the end of any of Tanner's sentences about his orientation.

Inez, on the other hand, is the "fun Aunt" who is one of Tanner's best friends because she has always known who Tanner is and accepts him and whoever he loves with open arms.

BWW Review: INEZ'S BIRTHDAY...AND THEN SOME at Script 2 Screen 2 Stage Louise has been married multiple times and, not unlike me, her picker is off. Right now she's got her sights set on the socially, and morally corrupt Reverend Everett Stuckey (Stan Jenson) who believes he can preach the gay out of Tanner - maybe even conversion therapy.

While all of the characters are classic in their regional depictions, the writing is not. It is a very funny two-act play that could, and should, be mounted at any theater in a nano. The set is simple with a few vignettes that can be achieved with lighting and a couple of props. I can see it becoming a sought after play at regional theater companies, or even as a movie - not everything is Broadway bound. But it's a damn fine play, and this reading was well directed and very well cast.

BWW Review: INEZ'S BIRTHDAY...AND THEN SOME at Script 2 Screen 2 Stage
Inez (Alden West), Louise (Shirley LeMaster)

West's portrayal of Inez was delightful. Her combative relationship with her small-minded sister Louise is firebrand, and LeMaster's Louise gives it back as good as she gets. Although if I were the referee in the game of crones I'd give it to Inez for creativity. Contrasting that is her loving relationship with Tanner who she supports with all of her heart. Two very good performances by two terrific actors.

Now for the men in the play. Reale's Tanner is grown, but when it comes to his mama he's still a little boy. He's got the perfect partner in Cole (a lovely portrayal by Brent Anderson) who he loves but his past is keeping him in the closet in Tennessee.

BWW Review: INEZ'S BIRTHDAY...AND THEN SOME at Script 2 Screen 2 Stage
Tanner (Jason Reale), Cole (Brent Anderson)

The last two players are Winston Gieseke as Arlo and Stan Jenson as the Reverend Everett Stuckey. Gieseke's Arlo is a surprising character. He seems to be your typical redneck who lives at home with mama, but he turns out to be a very sympathetic and likable character. Gieseke plays the role with wild abandon, turning Arlo from a caricature into an Inez-in-the-making but a bit more simple. It's a very fun performance.

BWW Review: INEZ'S BIRTHDAY...AND THEN SOME at Script 2 Screen 2 Stage
Louise (Shirley LeMaster), Reverend Stuckey (Stan Jenson)

Jenson's Stuckey is a stereotypical, bombastic, greedy preacher, and Jenson gnaws on the scenery to create one of those characters you love to hate. There is no redemption for Stuckey, but in the final bow, his horror show of a preacher is what brings about change in others - just not in the way he thinks he will. Nice job.

I had the opportunity to have a chat with the playwright, Jason Hull. Here's what happened.

BW: How long have you been writing plays?

BWW Review: INEZ'S BIRTHDAY...AND THEN SOME at Script 2 Screen 2 Stage
Writer Jason Hull

Hull: I wrote my first show in 2000. I wrote sort of as a catharsis. And aside from two friends who sat in their living room one night and read it with me, no one else no one else has ever seen that play. Luckily, two years later, in 2003, I picked up the pen again to write a play. I had already started writing my first novel in 2001. And so I penned another play in 2003 that I still considered one of my best, it's called The VP. It's a one act comedy.

We ran it at a dinner theater [in Tennessee] where I was performing. We ran it for four weeks to wonderful response from our audiences. When I moved to California, I took another look at that show. It centers around a couple named John and Carolyn. And I said, You know what? I wonder what would happen if I made that couple John and Gary, and so I rewrote it with a same sex couple and it works even better.

BW: How many plays have you written?

Hull: Eleven. Three are one acts, the rest are two. Only one is really a drama, the first one that nobody's ever seen, probably never will. All the others have been comedies. And I have also written, gosh, a large number of comedic sketches with Script to Stage to Screen for three years running. I wrote and directed a sketch comedy cabaret evening of sketch comedy. The first one, in 2012 was called Random X. And then the next one the next year was called Don't Touch That Dial. And then the last one was called Is It Just Me Or Is It Really Dumb, and each each one of those shows consisted of 12 to 15 short comedy sketches. I was working with a dozen actors who were playing upwards of, you know, 30 or 40 characters. So it became like a Saturday Night Live or a Carol Burnett Show done live on stage as an evening of comedy. So, one novel 11 plays, God knows how many comedic sketches over the years, and I'm currently working on the second novel, so I'm never not writing something. I always have something in the works in terms of writing.

BW: Who are you? What is your background?

Hull: I always say when I was born and I popped out in the delivery room - you know, those really bright lights over the table where what a mother is delivering her child - I think I popped out, I saw those bright lights, thought it was a spotlight and said I'm on.

I've always, always always loved acting. [I did] a little bit in Middle School; in high school {I was in] drama clubs - that kind of thing that most kids do if they're not athletic.

In college, as much as I would have loved to pursue theater, unfortunately I finally fell into the trap "you need to do something practical", blah blah, blah. You know, the horrible advice so many of us get and so I got my degree in communications and whatever. But my final semester I allowed myself to take two acting classes as electives just for a breather from the other high-stress classes I was taking. And then unfortunately, I graduated college and I got my first job as a graveyard shift supervisor in a call center for four and a half years. That working schedule turns your life upside down. And so I really never got a chance to connect with theater and finally when I left that job in 1997,

I have a friend that had just started auditioning at a small dinner theater {in Knoxville, TN). He told me "there's a theater is auditioning for Deathtrap. Why don't just come audition. What do we got to lose?" So I said okay, and so I went and auditioned and I got cast as the lawyer and it felt so incredible to finally be on stage in an actual production with an actual audience, something that I have wanted to do my whole life. And it for me, being on stage as an actor is, is as natural as breathing.

BW: Did you have any theater training other than those few classes in college?

Hull: A lot of people talk about where did you train as an actor and I always refer them to Robert Mitchum's comment, "Trying to teach someone to act is like trying to teach someone to be tall."

BW: Is the play based on people you know or have met?

Hull: I know every one of them. I mean, at some point, I have met them. I have worked with them, I've gone to school with them. The character of Tanner, the young man - it's sort of his hero's journey, and I was a lot like Tanner, in my younger years. A sort of people pleaser, trying not to rock the boat and with whatever you're dealing with and just suck it up for other people's comfort. Not so much now (laughs).

Inez comes from two influences. She is in many ways an homage to my late Uncle Frank, an uncle by marriage to my father sister. And Frank would say anything. He absolutely put on no airs. There was no guile about him. He absolutely put it right out there. Everybody else in the room is tiptoeing around the elephant, and he would walk into the room and go "Who put the elephant in here and what are we going to do about it?" He is the one who would call you up just to tell you a dirty joke and nobody told dirty joke better than Uncle Frank.

The other influence for Inez is that I again consider myself very lucky to have had a number of really, really strong women in my life over the years. Friends and co-workers in particular.

Inez is definitely the backbone of that family. She is is the one that keeps the family on the road - there's that old saying, Don't worry about the horse going blind just hold them on the road, and she is the one that holds them on the road and will call people on their bullshit whether it's her nephew that she loves dearly, or her sister that she loves.

Louise resembles my own mother in that she has always been very concerned with what other people are going to think. And she is very conservative. However, I have no doubt that if someone were to start trash talking me with her in the room, she would get right up in their face and tell them No no no you don't get to say that about my son. Let me tell you about my son.

And Arlo, I have known so many Arlos.I worked for a country club back east for 11 years. And the chief mechanic for the greens department [golf courses] was southern, East Tennessee born and bred NASCAR flag waving, bearded, flannel shirt wearing buy. He was a nice guy really, a really nice guy but he was just as much of a character as you can imagine without crossing the line into caricature. And I worked with him for probably about a good a good six or seven years. And he finally left the club to take a different position elsewhere, and on his last day, he made it a point to come by my desk, and he said, "Jason, I'm getting ready to leave and I just wanted to tell you something."

He said "for a lot of years, most of my life, I had a really negative opinion of gay people. And he said, I realize now it's because I didn't really know any. Working with you has changed my mind. It really has opened my mind and made me understand that gay people are no different than anybody else, and I just want you to know that I have a new respect for gay people and, you know, people in your community, and that's due to you and I just wanted to say thank you."

That touched me on such a deep level that that had happened for him and that he would make a point of coming to tell me that before he left and that that is why my favorite moment and the entire play is that that moment when Arlo is talking with Cole Tanner's boyfriend in the middle of the night and Arlo says, "You know what, I don't care if you are a homo, you're alright with me."

And Arlo puts out his hand to shake Cole's hand and says, "You know what, Cole? You are alright with me too." It really is a transformative moment.

BW: The Reverend Stuckey seems to be born and bred of the Westboro Baptist Church - Wikipedia describes them as " an American hyper-Calvinist hate group known for engaging in inflammatory homophobic and anti-American pickets." Is that accurate?

Hull: Unfortunately, there are a lot of Reverend Stuckeys in the world, particularly in the south. Another one of my uncles, who fortunately I never got to know very well, and again, another uncle by marriage. He was a fire and brimstone hellfire Southern Baptist minister who was - how can I put this delicately - he was not kind emotionally or physically to his wife, my aunt, or his children. And they were expected to simply fall in lockstep behind him, and you get that kind of religious hypocrisy, where so many, many people are put in positions of power by the church and they use that power as a cudgel to beat other people down.

BW: You also did a great job casting and directing this staged reading. How was that for you?

Hull: From a directing standpoint, I put so much staged direction on the page because that just saves me work as a director. I've been a martial artist for going on 39 years. And as a director, I just, I approach a cast the same that as I would approach students at a dojo, so I direct like I teach. And I as I've told every cast I've ever worked with, I may not be the best director you've ever worked with, but I at least hope I'm one of the kindest.

And if you cast good people who know what they're doing, and then it's just sort of "can you try it like this? Try this for me" and I never like to just say, "do it this way". I say, if you will do it this way, and see this, and wait - that's what will get the laugh. That's what will get the joke. Trust me. If you do it like this. I promise you the audience will love you for it." Or I'll say "try it like this and if it doesn't work, we'll try something else."

BW: How do you feel about seeing your play on its feet?

Hull: I was not certain how it would be received, simply because I had become known in the valley as somebody who just writes really, really funny plays. All of my other plays had been comedy for the sake of comedy, just literally writing to get the laughs. That is my goal, get the audience to laugh. And anything else is cake. This one, I set out to write a comedy, but then it just sort of took on a life of its own and I realized I actually had something to say. And it was something pretty important. And I wasn't sure that the audience would get to be along for the ride if it wasn't just you know, that continuous laugh fest, totally light-hearted. I wasn't sure if they would be on board for something that while very funny also has some weight to it. But they did climb on board.

If you've never stretched yourself - whether you're a writer or a singer or a painter, dancer or actor, if you never stretch yourself beyond your previous comfort zone you're never going to grow.

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This is one theater-goer who would love to see Hull continue to stretch. If this is his first time, we can expect his future plays to be hold a LOT of laughs, and a clever, well-written message.

*All show photos courtesy of Rupert Smith

Script 2 Stage 2 Screen

Hull can be reached at jasonloves2sing@gmail.com



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