As society moves more and more into an information-based existence, it’s forced to grow-up into the kind of sensitivity that prompts nauseatingly empty terms like “politically correct,” and “cancel culture.” As a society, we’re only starting to learn how to become truly sensitive to the injustice and inequalities that form the basis for everything we know. Milwaukee Chamber Theatre explores the difficulties of this growth with Larissa FastHorse’s surprisingly brisk and effervescent comedy The Thanksgiving Play. Director Laura Gordon brings together a very thoughtfully-constructed ensemble in the story of a group of actors trying to put together a culturally sensitive traditional Thanksgiving play for kids.
Kelsey Brennan and Eric Schabla are warmly endearing as Logan and Jaxton--two very progressive people trying to put together a staged story of “the first Thanksgiving” for kids. The ever-charismatic Torrey Hanson plays Caden--an aspiring playwright and history teacher looking to be as historically accurate with the play as possible. Hannah Shay rounds-out the cast as Alicia: a professional actress who has been hired to help fulfill requirements for an arts grant that’s been bestowed upon the production. Every member of the creative team trying to bring the show before the kids is saddled with serious handicaps of some sort. Will they be able to somehow bring together both educational children’s theatre AND a story the lends historical accuracy to a very bloody time in the history of North America? Probably not, but it’s fun to watch them try.
FastHorse’s script renders some pretty sophisticated characters for something that could easily be read as a light sitcom. Gordon lends the ensemble more than enough room to bring the characters to life with tender nuance. Logan and Jaxton could easily read like annoying amplifications of awkward liberal over-sensitivity, but Brennan and Schabla play them with a deep respect. These are a couple of characters who are aching to get it right in every possible way both on and off stage. Brennan and Schabla focus on that deep and driving desire for total perfection.
It’s refreshing to see former Rep actor Torrey Hanson in another local production. Caden could have struggled through an overly awkward and pathetic presence onstage. Hanson lends Caden an inner strength and integrity that fits well within the ensemble. Shay’s character could be read as the problematic stereotype of a vapid professional Hollywood-style actress who prefers to be superficial. Alicia DOES gain a great amount of power from the apparent superficiality of her personality. Shay stalks the role with impressive Zen-like preternatural poise. It’s really, REALLY hard to get preternatural wisdom to work in a portrayal of someone who appears to be stereotypically vapid at first glance. Shay lounges gorgeously into Alicia’s depth, deftly balancing out the more cerebral energies of the rest of the cast.
FastHorse’s script weaves very, very quickly between light sitcom and very, very heavy moments of social satire. Gordon and company faithfully follow the switches in tone in a production that can play equally well to those looking for something light and those looking for something a little deeper. It’s deliciously imperfect as it casts a mirror to contemporary culture. As a society, we are caught somewhere between light comedy and the need for something deeper.
Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s online production of The Thanksgiving Play is available through May 23. For more information, visit Milwaukee Chamber Theatre online.