Sunday, September 26, 2021

Roustabouts “Book of Leaves” Leaves Much to Think About

 One of the things I miss about living on the East Coast are the changing seasons. Right about now the foliage is bright with oranges, reds and yellows. By the end of the month the leaves will fall and one can almost burry oneself in a pile of fall colors. But for Walter leaves are not his main concern. The trees that he plants on his many acres of land in rural upstate New York, and in particular, the ‘family plot’ is a day’s work in some cases. 

On this particular weekend, Walter has invited his two grown children and their partners for a tell all meeting. Walter has cancer and his time on this earth is limited. His son Prince has been looking for his dream job as an actor, much to Walters chagrin. Prince’s girlfriend Silvia or Sylvie wants him to follow his dreams and Walter’s daughter, Beth and her husband Jack came looking for some of Walter’s estate money. They are broke having made some pretty risky investments. All in all, all five characters had ulterior reasons for the visit, and none correlated with the others. 

With all that said, much of the above reveal is known only to the persons with the secrets, soon to be uncovered to siblings and parent as the play moves forward. As is the case in many families, secrets, code words, and feelings often take on different meanings to different members. Oft times speaking directly to each other is not an option, so they speak around each other and through each other and about each other as was the case of the playwright’s characters. Family dynamics is so interesting to watch as long as it doesn’t involve our own. 

Co-founder of The Roustabouts Theatre, Will Cooper (“Margin of Error”) was the recipient of the San Diego Theatre Critics Circle Craig Noel Award for outstanding New Play “gUnTopia” in 2020 as well as other plays in progress. With his “Book of Leaves’ currently in a full reading, and premiering on line through Oct. 10th. “Book of Leaves” was a finalist at the Playwrights Development Center in Chicago. 

Justin Lang as Prince and Maybelle Shimizu as Sylvie
Photo by Michael Brueggmeyer

This virtual reading, directed by Kim Strassburger and starring Tom Stephenson as Walter, Leigh Akin as Beth, Justin Lang as Prince, Maybelle Shimizu as Sylvie. Durwood Murray as Jack and Kandace Crystal as Alice the real estate broker all make a convincing case for their causes; some more so than others. But the bottom line in Coopers “Leaves” is that the story is compelling and forces us to take another look at our own family dynamics. 

When Walter tells his grown children that he continued to keep their Books of Leaves (when they were young they all picked a favorite leaf from the back forest of trees and wrote something about it) current to this day, they rolled their eyes in disbelief, but when they looked inside, fond memories came rushing back. Or when the circumstances of their mother’s death finally were told, it crushed Beth. Beth never saw that coming, and when Prince announced that he was going to follow his dream in spite of it all, Cooper and Strassburger manage to be direct without being hurtful, gentle without being wimpy and relevant without being soapy. 

Tom Stephensen as Walter

The staging is a bit odd as the film version was originally a reading and each actor was in essence doing a solo, never really interacting with each other. It looked like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Sometimes it worked and other times the actors, with the exception of facial movements, looked like cutouts set in a living room or tree filled environment. (Michael Brueggemyer is director of Photography and Rebecca Crigler , stage directions.) 

Stephenson’s Walter was able to overcome, for the most part with his wonderful empathetic looks, relaxed demeanor and sincere smile. Justin Lang’s Prince the name is fitting as in 'sarcastically ("What a Prince of a guy") was convincing as the errant son and Durwood Murray had some great lines as Beth’s husband who, I felt was pretty verbally abused by his wife and Kandace Crystal is quite the card as a wanna be actor, as she convinces Walter to sell his property.

(l to r) Leigh Akin as Beth, Tom Stephenson as Walter, Maybelle Shimizu as Sylvie and Justin Lang as Prince.
Photo by Michael Brueggemeyer

Roustabouts Theatre has done some interesting works in the past. Some day in the near future I would like to see Book of Leaves as a full production in front of a live audience.  As an experiment, the story did bring out some much needed family reconciliations. 

Contact for more information.

Tickets: $10.00 available through Oct. 22

Running time 2 hours.

See you at the theatre.

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