Mark Roberts is a home town boy who has made it big in Hollywood. He grew up in the little bedroom community of Tolono, got involved in the community theater group, The Celebration Company at The Station Theater, worked locally and then in Chicago as a comedian, and then surfaced in Hollywood a few years later as a writer and actor. Now he is a writer and executive producer of the Emmy-award-nominated Two and a Half Men, and has acting and writing credits for a host of other television shows and movies.
Like a salmon returning to its spawning grounds, Roberts keeps coming back to Champaign to introduce new plays he has written. Welcome to Tolono, introduced at The Station Theater several years ago as a play, and now about to premier as a movie was his first effort. It is about addiction in a small town and does a wonderful job of combining humor and pathos. I thought it was a masterpiece and can't wait to see the movie. A year ago, Roberts introduced here another new play,Rantoul and Die, Rantoul being the name of another area small town. This effort was less successful, and I panned the writing, which sounded too Hollywood-sit-comish, the acting, the set and the directing. Other than that, I still didn't like the play.
Roberts is back this year with a new play, Parasite Drag, (the name is an aeronautical term referring to drag by airplane parts which are not lift producers) and it is not only his best effort, but a masterpiece that I predict will get attention outside this small area. It reminded me most of Tennessee Williams's classic Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, which won a Pulitizer Prize 50 years ago. This play is in that class. I realize I'm gushing, but I have to tell the truth. (Interestingly, the next production at The Station will be Cat on a Hot Tin Roof starting June 14th. I definitely want to be there and compare more closely that play with Parasite.)
Cat was a story of a Southern family in crisis; Parasite is a story of a Midwestern family in crisis. The crisis in Cat, comes to the forefront when the family gets together because Big Daddy is dying of cancer. In Parasite the family has come together because the sister is dying of AIDS. Cat pushed the boundaries 50 years ago of what was acceptable in theater in terms of language and sexual situations. I don't know if there are any boundaries anymore in theater, but Parasite pushes the bounds of socially acceptable language and behavior; in fact, one word that was used is not socially acceptable, and gets people fired from radio stations.
Although the family has "come together" in physical space, it is far from "together" emotionally. Two brothers, Gene, played by Gary Ambler, and Ronnie, played by Roberts, have taken entirely different life paths. Gene works at the University and is about to be ordained as a minister. They haven't communicated in many years, ostensibly because Gene disapproves of Ronnie's lifestyle, which is heavily into drinking, drugs, sex and cussing. As the play unfolds, one quickly sees that the "good brother" and the "bad brother" are not who we initially thought. Joi Hoffsommer plays Susie, Ronnie's hot little wife who can't believe that Joellen, played by Anne Shapland Kearns, hasn't had sex for eight years. (The audience can't believe it either because we have just witnessed her on the kitchen table with Ronnie, in a rather graphic scene for local theater.)
The dying sister is never on-stage but as we learn about her from the other characters, we see that there is a reason for her wasted life and that reason is the cause of the brothers' estrangement. The play is very intense, made bearable by Roberts's use of humor, but the humor is used more deftly than it was in Rantoul. Thanks to the humor, this is a serious play about a serious subject, for mature adults, but it is not maudlin and it is not depressing.
The audience on Friday night when I saw the play was an older audience; way more than half older than 50, but it was not offended by the language which was about as raw as anything I have heard in the theater and on television. It leaped to its feet for a standing ovation when the final scene went black, not like those standing o's where the friends and family of the actors get up after the first curtain call, and then gradually, one by one, the rest of the audience begrudgingly finally give a standing ovation.
The set is interesting. It is a very realistic glimpse of part of the living room and kitchen of the inside of tens of thousands of Midwestern homes. It was designed by David Harwell, who teaches theater at the University of Alabama. He also did the design for Rantoul that I panned last year. I am not sure the forced perspective used to give more depth to the small stage was really necessary, and the odd angles look odd.
The audience recognized, as the reviewer for our local newspaper, The News-Gazette, recognized that it had seen something special; something that we will remember and want to be able to say years in the future, "I was there." Roberts has certainly proven to me that he is more than a Hollywood sitcom writer, and I hope he gets the recognition that he deserves because of this play. I gave this play 5 out of 5 stars.