By Nancy Oliveri
I had the rare opportunity last week to attend a mostly off-book rehearsal of the Readers’ Theatre of Ithaca’s one-man psycho-drama Wrecks by Neil LaBute, which will be presented the weekend before Thanksgiving at the multi-use performance space Cinemapolis in Ithaca.
LaBute is an accomplished playwright, whose list of stage- and screen-writing credits is long. Wrecks is about a successful, middle-aged businessman, grieving the death of his cherished wife of 30 years. At its core, it’s a love story, and a compelling one, but you’ll want to pay close attention to catch what burbles beneath.
Accepting the role of the self-absorbed Edward Carr, the only character, takes guts. The first actor cast for the role shied away from memorizing 40 pages, but from where I was sitting, his replacement, Whitney Point actor Chris Nickerson, has the chops to take this to completion. If you like being a fly on the wall, you should go.
The Readers’ Theatre of Ithaca is now in its fifth year, and its first year at Cinemapolis. According to Artistic Director and founder Anne Marie Cummings, who invited a handful of media people to her home where she has set up an amazing rehearsal space, Wrecks is the first play done by her company that will not depend on the use of a script during the performance. Both she and the only actor in this show are keenly aware of the responsibility they have taken on.
Of LaBute’s script, Cummings succinctly said: “It is tough stuff.” And I don’t think she means in terms of the difficulty memorizing that many lines — although only a focused actor might attempt such a feat. It’s the place inside his head where this character is living and where we, as the audience, are invited to step for the duration of his musings. That is the challenge. Tough stuff, indeed, for both actor and audience, but the play is compelling.
Speaking of which, “Who actually says indeed?” wonders Edward Carr.
Apparently, he does. It’s a small thing, but in the context of this play, it informs his personality.
Before the press preview, I asked Nickerson if he was getting nervous. He said, “Not really. I’m looking forward to it. It’s really a great piece.”
And he’s right. It is a great piece, well-written, thought-provoking and with an ingenious device that allows a stage with just one actor to be filled in our mind’s eyes by quite a few others, although he remains the only character we see and hear.
I wondered what it takes from a performer to be the only person speaking for 75 minutes. How does it differ from being in a play with other actors?
According to Nickerson, it’s a formidable challenge, although “the only person who might know if you screw up is yourself … and, of course, your director.” Nickerson then glanced tentatively at Cummings, who assured him he was on track.
Cummings cautioned the handful of Ithaca media folks and me that the work in progress we were attending was only the 12th of what will be close to 20 rehearsals. If the preview is any indication, she needn’t worry. It’s going to be a great show and worth the drive if the fickle New York weather cooperates.
The show is enhanced, and the avant-garde mood is set, by the “freeform experimental jazz” of Hank Roberts, cellist, and his quartet, Phonetix.
IF YOU GO: Wrecks will be performed at 8 p.m Nov. 21 and 22 and 6:30 p.m. Nov. 23 at Cinemapolis, 120 E. Green St., Ithaca. After each performance, the audience is invited to stay and watch a 15-minute on-screen interview with the critically acclaimed filmmaker/playwright Neil LaBute – filmed by LaBute himself. Tickets are $12 ($10 for students) if purchased in advance at http://www.thereaderstheatre.com. Tickets are $15 day of show at the theater. As part of the Sunday program, Sandie Becker, the owner and chef from Niles Gourmet, will be serving food in the lobby.