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Thursday, May 15, 2003 02:20 pm

Backstage Pass

Theater has always held a mirror up to society, and the view is often unflattering. The old Shubert Theatre in Chicago usually hosts traveling musicals, but this weekend wraps up The Exonerated, a powerful play by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen. The script, culled from actual interviews and court transcripts, relates the stories of six wrongfully convicted people who ended up on Death Row. One was there for 22 years, another for 17; eventually all of them were exonerated.

Marlo Thomas and Brian Dennehey are the "names" bringing in audiences to see the play, but they are by no means the stars of the show. They respectfully share the stage with eight excellent actors. After last weeknd's curtain call, Dennehey gave a speech, reminding the audience that this play was true and that it had nothing to do with Illinois' controversial clemency hearings (or George Ryan's controversial granting of blanket clemency). The six people whose stories are told have received no support or compensation, so each night the actors take up a collection for these victims of our flawed judicial system.

With war looming, theater may once again become an important forum for airing our concerns. Abby Mann's stage adaptation of his 1959 teleplay Judgment at Nuremberg, about the World War II war crimes trial, is currently playing at Victory Gardens Theatre in Chicago through March 2. Locally, Dennis Rendleman is putting together a reading of the classic Greek comedy Lysistrata by Aristophanes. First presented in 411 B.C., the play looks at what happens when women withhold sex from their men as a protest to the Peloponnesian War. Readings of this play are currently being organized around the world. At this point 313 readings are scheduled to take place in a variety of homes and theaters on March 3 as part of the International Peace Project (a rehearsal for the Springfield reading will be held on Sunday, March 2). For more information, or to take part in the reading, call Dennis Rendleman at 698-0885, or e-mail him at

The recent explosion of the space shuttle Columbia reminds us of the 1986 Challenger tragedy. In 1999 I helped stage a play for the New Salem Chautauqua by Jane Anderson titled Defying Gravity. Anderson called her 1997 play a "meditation" on the Challenger disaster. The story begins in the future, as the daughter of schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe, now a grown woman, walks onstage to tell the audience how she felt as a little girl when her mother died in the accident.

There are several scenes of McAuliffe teaching her class about the building of cathedrals. When discussing the effect of pillars, she says, "If you follow the lines of the pillars up, straight up, you are led to what many people thought was heaven. Before the airplane, this was the closest that we ever came to the experience of flight."

Anderson brings into the play the French impressionistic painter Claude Monet, who confides that he always wanted to paint the earth from above but could only get as high as the bell tower of a cathedral. In the play, Monet, out of his own time and into ours, converses with a retired couple who had driven to Florida to watch the shuttle launch.

The play is about wonder and human possibility and is, like Monet's paintings, sort of an impressionistic painting itself.

At the time of the Columbia disaster, Defying Gravity was concluding a two-week run at the Alton Little Theatre. When New Salem announced its plans to produce this show, many felt it would be too painful to sit through. What we found, though, was that audiences felt a catharsis---they were actually uplifted by the experience.

The same occurred in Alton, according to Lee Cox, director of the production. She says the actors were talking by phone all day after the tragedy, and their last performance was an emotional one. "They handled it was such poise," Lee says. "I was very proud of them because it was not easy for them to go out onstage that night.

"We also received flowers and cards from people who'd seen the play the previous week. And after the show Saturday night the audience would not leave--they stayed around talking for 45 minutes. Everyone was sharing stories, and it was just one of those rare experiences in theater."


Coming up on local stages:

Jacksonville Theatre Guild's musical Honk! runs February 14-16 and 21-23 (call 245-1402); Springfield Theatre Centre's Once Upon a Mattress concludes its run February 14-16; Roxy Group's A Grand Night for Singing plays for two weekends at the Center for the Arts February 14-16 and 21-23 (call 523-ARTS).

Last week's column printed the wrong contact information for Missy Thibodeaux-Thompson, director of Lincoln Land Community College's upcoming play Dimly Perceived Threats to the System. Auditions for the May 2-4 production will be held February 24 and 25. Contact Missy at 414-6670 or e-mail her at



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