Patrick Schmitz is best-known as a Milwaukee funny guy. As a writer, he’s responsible for stage spoofs like Rudolph the Pissed-Off Reindeer and the “Kinda Sorta” series of Shakespeare parodies. This weekend (and this weekend only) Schmitz unveils something entirely different: an original 70-minute family drama which draws some inspiration from T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland. The family drama Katelyn’s Wasteland is a series of brief moments between flawed and damaged people who are all struggling to understand the world. The drama plays out almost entirely without a set on the relentlessly intimate stage of the Alchemist Theatre.
Dominating the cast are three women largely known for their work in local comedy. Beth Lewinski, Melissa Kingston and Megan McGee play three grown sisters in a series of listlessly restless conversations in the shadow of the past. Very little of what’s happening onstage doesn’t involve talk about personal histories...some of which are shared and some of which are intensely private. What plays out onstage is a shadow of an echo of actual action with its own kind of lingering afterlife. There's drama between the characters, but the more active end of things has been and gone long before anything has settled onto Schmitz's stage. We're in a dreamy kind of an emotional afterlife for much of the 70 minutes of the drama.
So often this sort of thing can feel weird for someone sitting in an audience. You don’t even know these people and yet here they are dissecting themselves, their pasts, each other and each other's pasts intellectually and emotionally. Schmitz and company bring enough familiarity to the stage to keep this from feeling too distant, though. Each one of the characters in the ensemble reflects different aspects of everyone. It’s all very relatable. Schmitz’s dialogue is very organic. People are casually rendered in great emotional detail.
With heartbreaking empathy and subtlety, Lewinski plays Katelyn--the sister who has moved away and come back. She’s visiting the other two and their father. She and Melissa Kingston share a moment in the opening dialogue between Katelyn and Claire. Shades of unseen intricacy and competing exhaustions wrestle in casual conversational dialogue that is attached to deeper issues between the two. Not an easy place for any drama to start, but Lewinski and Kingston establish a very earthbound dynamic that resonates through the entire show. They’re both best-known for comedy, but Lewinski and Kingston show remarkable depth in a very nuanced drama. Lewinsky and Kingston clearly have a very clever grasp of drama. It’s too bad that there aren’t as many opportunities for original contemporary drama like this on the local small stage.
After the establishing moments, Schmitz’s drama trudges off to the residence of Katelyn and Claire’s sister Patti (Megan McGee) and her husband Mike (Jacob Woelfel.) They’re playing chess. She’s itchy. He’s inert. Then Katelyn shows-up and there’s conversation about a past Katelyn hadn’t been there for. It’s been years since Katelyn has seen her sisters. There’s been a wedding, a divorce and host of other things. Schmitz cleverly and concisely delivers the family drama one moment at a time.
A very somber and soulful Jeff Ircink rounds out the cast as Katelyn’s dad. It’s a single dialogue shared between aging father and adult daughter. He’s dealing with retirement in somber sadness and emotional distance. She’s trying to relate to him. He’s trying to relate to her. After the lights fall on the two of them, there are a few scenes left. There’s drama. There’s frustration. Some things are said. None of it really resolves. It's a lot like life. Or...it would be a lot like life if life was roughly 70 minutes long and followed by a talkback.
Schmitz and company have rendered a drama that is specific enough to be memorable while still being universal enough to be totally accessible. And with the very, very short runtime both performance AND talkback leave plenty of time for contemplation off into the evening beyond the drama. This is a quietly impressive departure for Schmitz. Given how easy it is to grab many, many roomfuls of audience with comedy, there’s a kind of fearlessness in Schmitz’s willingness to walk away from comedy long enough to explore something with a different kind of depth.
Katelyn’s Wasteland a new drama by Patrick Schmitz runs through June 23 at the Alchemist Theatre. There’s one more performance tonight. For ticket reservations, visit the Alchemist Theatre online.