In their first season in the new Charleston Acting Studio, Midtown/Sheri Grace Productions has delivered classic fare like Crimes of the Heart and Visiting Mr. Green while experimenting with the possibilities of its new home. Now, Midtown’s production team has found a true challenge for their theater, in the form of a play that requires a great deal of skill.
“One of the first things I was grabbed by is that it’s a show that demands a lot technically and creatively,” says Robin Burke, director of Out of Sterno, which opens at the Charleston Acting Studio next week. Burke says he found the play, a piece written by comedienne and playwright Deborah Zoe Laufer, in a pile of scripts brought in by Sheri Grace as possibilities for the Midtown season. Burke was struck hard by the piece and presented it to Ryan Ahlert (Midtown’s technical director). Ahlert got behind the show, and together they convinced Grace to take a chance on what is sure to be a whirlwind ride.
Out of Sterno, which premiered at Portland Stage in Maine in March of 2009, tells the story of Dotty (Laura Artesi), a young woman who never ventures outside. She lives a fairy-tale life, considering herself to be a princess, an artist, a designer — whatever she wants to be. All this changes when she discovers the real world that she’s been hidden from.
Burke feels the show is more than just a feminist coming-of-age tale. “It’s about public perception and self discovery. She meets all these people who are extreme personalities, and she realizes that she can’t just jump to those ends … She has to use pieces of each of those people.” Due to a last-minute casting conflict, Burke will play the 10 minor characters that help shape Dotty’s journey.
Ricky Dunn and Palmer Stowe play the two major characters that have significant impacts on Dotty and her view of the world. Dunn is Hamel, Dotty’s husband of seven years. Described in the script as “very, very, very dumb,” Hamel is shaped by his own personal influences and forbids his wife from leaving the house during their marriage. Stowe, who stage managed for Burke earlier this season with Visiting Mr. Green, plays the “tough as nails” Zena, the proprietor of a beauty salon.
The true star of this production might end up being the terrific set design by Ahlert. “I was immediately grabbed by the comic book feel of the script, right on the page,” says Ahlert. That comic style extends to all aspects of the production, but nowhere is it more evident than in the design and color scheme of the scenery. Ahlert drew inspiration from Lichtenstein’s work in the 1960s, and it’s evident in the black and whites, bright colors, and patterns at work. The set itself springs to life like the pages of a children’s popup book; its hidden secrets might be worth the price of admission alone.
Both Burke and Ahlert’s excitement is apparent in the work they’ve put into the show and the way they’ve discussed the production process. It’s something different for Midtown/Sheri Grace Productions, and a great test for the capacity of the company’s new space — a test they seem on the verge of acing with an incredibly fun show.