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Review: Theatre eXceptional's INTO THE NIGHT at the Tampa Fringe Will Make Your Heart Sing

Peace, Love, Fringe!

Review: Theatre eXceptional's INTO THE NIGHT at the Tampa Fringe Will Make Your Heart Sing

There's a special place in heaven for the individuals who run Theatre eXceptional, which is theatre "for, about and including artists with disabilities." Seeing one of their shows will give you a newfound love of humanity. I know that sounds like a mighty tall hill to climb, especially in a divisive year like 2022, but experiencing one of their productions will give you hope, will cheer up even the Grinchiest of hearts.

INTO THE NIGHT, a one-hour Tampa Fringe version of the full-length play by Linda MacCluggage and Rosalind Cramer that was unveiled earlier this year, focuses on a young man named Benny Fallon who has Down Syndrome. Benny is in his own world, listening to the voice of Baloo the Bear from The Jungle Book and wanting something more in life, perhaps more independence. When the show starts, the covers of his bed look like they belong to a five-year old; when the covers are eventually changed, we know that this reflects the change and maturity in Benny. He lives alone with his needy widowed mother, and his world is turned upside down when he meets his mother's fiancé and, especially, the fiancé's daughter, who opens the door for Benny's independence.

The cast is joyous.

Nicole Jeannine Smith as Benny's mother is one of those performers that I adore watching onstage even when she doesn't have any lines, even when she's just listening and reacting. There's nary a false note, never a wrong move with her. It's the difference between acting and being, performing in a show and living a life onstage. As Mrs. Fallon, Smith is so caring but also frustrated, and we sense that she feels that her son is slowly moving out of her life. It's not as much jealousy with her, although there is some of that when she feels that Benny's art teacher is in a way stealing her son, but it's really more simple than that: the need to be needed. What will her life be like when her son eventually becomes independent?

Ryan Prince as Benny is quite a find. He so wonderfully underplays the part, exacting so much humor. The audience falls in love with him immediately. There's a moment when he says his mother's name-"Clair..."-that sounds like a tire deflating. He's so focused, and when he changes, we feel that change, that growth. And Sally Norris, as his new girlfriend, does well in a truly grounded performance.

Brian Shea shocks INTO THE NIGHT to life; no one plays discomfort better than he. Also, Mr. Shea adds a few doses of over-theatricality that the down-to-earth Nicole Smith lacks, and the differences in their acting style showcases the differences in their characters, a difference that plays an important part in the play's plot.

MacKenzie Aaryn as Shea's daughter, Jenny, is a lovely presence, so caring and real without pushing anything. And Roz Potenza--as Benny's grandmother--performs some homerun-swatting monologues. Last but not least, Matthew Frankel has never been better as Benny's imaginary bear, sitting s sweetly outside a window, so nice and jovial; you understand why Benny is drawn to him.

The show, directed by Linda MacCluggage and produced by Brianna Larson, is as sweet as it gets, but it deals with some very important ad heavy themes. The shortened version may shortchange some of the emotional scenes, but INTO THE NIGHT, whatever length, still gets its point across. During the Fringe production's beautiful ending, just a breathlessly glorious moment, the sound of sniffles-the entire audience in tears-echoed throughout the HCC Studio Theatre. It's such a moving show, and it proves that Theatre eXceptional is just that...exceptional. You actually feel like a better person in a better world after watching their remarkable productions.

INTO THE NIGHT plays Monday, August 1 @ 8:45 PM; Saturday, August 6 @ 1:30 PM; and Sunday, August 7 @ 8:00 PM at the HCC Studio Theatre in Ybor City.

From This Author - Peter Nason

    An actor, director, and theatre teacher, Peter Nason fell in love with the theatre at the tender age of six when he saw Mickey Rooney in “George M!” at the Shady Grove in Washington,... (read more about this author)

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