Milwaukee theatre continues to reside in little, glowing rectangles as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to roll its way through the local population. Local groups have staged a hell of a lot of Shakespeare, a little Wilde and even some Dickens (among other things.) Last night it was nice to see something relatively new by comparison as local playwright Deanna Strasse hosted a staged Zoom reading of her drama Lovers and the Like. The contemporary romance makes it to Zoom again in a second and final performance tonight. The distinctly contemporary rhythm of Strasse’s drama plays well in the Zoom format in provocative, little evening’s interaction between a few people in a small cast.
Jessica Kennedy and Josh Scheibe play Jo and Gerry Holmes: a young married couple who have just moved into their first place together. When their friend Abby (Octavia Morton) shows-up things get uncomfortable. Abby and Gerry don’t really get along. He leaves. Abby and Jo hang out, talk and drink wine. As it turns out, Jo and Gerry have been together long enough to get married, but they haven’t had sex yet. Abby is understandably concerned that her friend is married to a guy who she hasn’t even had sex with. Gradually things come to light as Abby give Jo pause to consider things which lead to revelations about Gerry that HE is still coming to terms with in sessions with his therapist Dr. Tolmers (played by Melody Lopac.)
Kennedy has her camera in portrait mode. She stands to deliver her lines, which might seem a bit awkward, but she carries it with a sweet grace that speaks to the somewhat playful formality of her character Jo. The character just wants to be nice to everyone else...and everyone else has their cameras in landscape mode. Kennedy stands like she’s ready to help out anyone at a moment’s notice. Intended or not, it’s a nice effect. There’s an appealing vulnerability about the character as brought to the screen by Kennedy.
Scheibe plays a nice guy who might be unintentionally a little too close to the camera. (He’s closer to the viewer than everyone else in the ensemble, but Gerry doesn’t seem to notice.) Intended or not, this is interesting rendering of a guy who seems to be unaware of how close he is to everyone else. He's feeling awful about himself and chooses to try to keep his distance. Scheibe manages some deft complexity in the role of someone who occasionally gets very dark and casually lashes out at people without being entirely aware that he is doing so.
Morton plays an entirely different kind of abrasive in the role of Jo’s friend Abby. Jo and Abby have known each other for quite some time. Given the conversation between them at the opening of the play, it’s a bit difficult to see why. Abby is abrasive and confrontational in a casual, offhanded way that might seem charming if given the right tilt. Morton chooses not to amplify Abby’s charm. Morton plays Abby as unapologetically forward, which DOES carry its own kind of nonchalant charm, but it doesn’t seem quite strong enough to justify a long-term friendship with a nice person like Jo who might prefer to tolerate her from a greater distance.
Lopac rounds out the cast quite nicely as Gerry’s therapist, who casually offers nonjudgmental insight into his personal issues. Lopac plays to Dr. Tolmers' professional concern with a very fluid and natural appeal. Tolmers’ approach to therapy is an open, respectably distance non-authority figure. Lopac plays the role as a pleasant, professional warmth on the edge of Scheibe’s restlessness. Without Lopac’s distinctive appeal, the therapy scenes might feel a bit weak.
Though Strasse renders some very thoughtfully-compose characters, the story lacks a whole lot of forward momentum. There IS a central conflict that drives the drama. Jo and Gerry are married couple that haven’t quite had sex. As there’s no real sense of outside pressure for them to do so, there’s no compelling sense of direction for the drama to navigate. Jo and Gerry aren't in an unloving relationship. There's no abuse or anything like that. This isn't a great concern. Some people take longer to get into a physical intimacy than others. Scenes fitfully shift forward as revelations slowly come to light. While the lack dramatic propulsion might run the risk of being downright annoying in a darkened theatre, Strasse’s drama makes for remarkably strong drama for the live video conference format. There isn’t a huge ensemble. Rarely are more than two people talking at once. Scenes gradually render a slow and steady intimacy building between a young married couple. It's a story of calm, relaxing emotional depth in and around the edges of a casually COVID-prompted evening at home.
Deanna Strasse’s Lovers and the Like opens itself online once more tonight, August 15th starting at 7:30 pm. It’s a free performance available through Zoom. For more information, visit the show’s Facebook events page.