Sam Cordes chases fires in a play that sets the stage aflame.

Hero Worship 

Sam Cordes chases fires in a play that sets the stage aflame.

"Most of the time, I try to stay invisible," says Win, the teenage protagonist of Laurie Brooks' marvelous new play, Everyday Heroes. Played with skin-flaying honesty by Sam Cordes, Win is the kind of kid who really isn't all that thrilled with invisibility -- or its contemporary opposite, fame, which flares brightly for him and then burns out by the close of this 75-minute drama. The play has its professional premiere at the Coterie Theatre.

Though Brooks lives in New York, she's essentially the Coterie's playwright-in-residence. Past Brooks plays like The Wrestling Season and The Tangled Web have tackled sexual identity, teen pregnancy and vicious gossip with style and smarts, making the theater a hip destination for local teen thespians. On the strengths of Everyday Heroes, the Coterie should make room for many adult theatergoers as well. The script can be faulted for having too much to say, but it's probably the most important play staged in Kansas City this season.

The introspective and unpopular Win and his older brother, star athlete Kurt (Richard Stubblefield), are like hollow outlines from an "I Have an Alcoholic Parent" coloring book. From the outset, they argue about their drunken mother, who is upstairs (and offstage) napping off that afternoon's shots.

Afraid to leave her unsupervised, the boys make a decision that turns tragic after a devastating house fire mortally injures her. Before the fire's cause become clear, Win is canonized as a hero for pulling Kurt to safety and then attempting to save his mother. But his sudden fame eats at him; soon, he's eavesdropping on a police scanner and showing up at other fires.

Largely responsible for stoking his celebrity are a pair of local news anchors with the perfectly silly names of Cash McKenzie and Peyton Powers. The characters are deliciously carved with a pointed blade by Heidi VanMiddlesworth and Sam Wright. The medium gets a lashing, too, when the anchors turn Win's valor into a sweeps stunt: "Coming up next: How you can instill heroics in your son or daughter!" (Of course, when it all goes sour later, there's no egg on the media's face; they invented shirked responsibility.)

Win is drunk on the attention, but he's tortured by the secret details of the night of the fire. A sharp fire department lieutenant, Jo Judson (Andi Meyer), slowly uncovers the nick in Win's armor. She calls him on his fire-chasing and then suspects that he may not deserve the hero halo. He knows only too well that he doesn't.

The measure of Brooks' capacity as a playwright is in the play's deconstruction of the term hero. Though she wrote the show before September 11, 2001, it's an incredibly apt comment on those events. Her astute message is that there are Everyday Heroes among us constantly -- such as two boys who survive a wreck of a mother.

Win is still in denial about his mother, but when Kurt, who calls his brother "Boy Scout," says that the fire may have been a blessing in disguise, the shock of the truth seems to crack Win's spine. As Win's defenses soften, Cordes' face takes on a moving glow; you sense there's going to be healing through this pain.

I also liked Meyer's nurturing yet masculine Judson and two adult actors' choices with their adolescent characters: Angela Wildflower Polk's savvy yet flighty Shawna (who may be Win's girlfriend) and Stubblefield's tightrope walk along the brink of manhood.

Jeff Church's expressionistic direction is a success -- there are hardly any props, and the actors never leave the stage, turning in their seats away from or toward the central action. Art Kent's lighting design is dark or bright in sync with the script, and Georgianna Londre's costume design is first-rate (especially Polk's high-heeled red Keds). But David Kiehl's subtle sound design is most compelling. When you hear the faint urgency emitting from Win's scanner, you get a chill that this story could be all too real.

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