A play about the weather may infuriate those who bemoan the state of America’s political theater—isn’t the weather something people talk about when they're avoiding politics? I for one do not share this concern about American theater, and the idea behind A Great Place To Be From (with the emphasis on “From”), a play which examines how human psychology is strained in temperatures that humans were simply not meant to live in, is certainly an interesting conceit for a play. The deadly Chicago heat wave of 1995 was addressed by not one but two plays this year alone, so as the saying goes, three plays about deadly Midwestern heat waves is a trend. While A Great Place focuses on a more recent heat wave and is set in Milwaukee, its premise is not the problem. The pitfalls of the play lie in its execution.
A Great Place to Be From consists entirely of monologues, all of which are performed with an exceptional degree of realism in acting, writing, and directing. They tell of an unemployed loser reconnecting with his wife during a power outage, a man who gives a blood transfusion to his dog, an embittered grocery store clerk with a paranoid manager, and, in one extended monologue (so extended that it was about half an hour too long), a peeping-tom housewife who watches her neighbor’s teenage son naked…while she’s pretending to be one-legged. All the monologues are occasionally funny, and all the actors do a deft job with their roles. The bare-bones set and brilliant lighting effects do wonders in the black box setting.
The main problems of A Great Place come from playwright Norman Lasca’s constant attempts to add a higher significance to what are otherwise minor storytelling events. Lasca shows some promise as a writer, though he will have to write a more extensive dialogue-based play before his true skill can be assessed. But in each of the monologues, Lasca’s writing forces his actors to play an excessively impassioned defense of what seem like minor issues. Lasca’s justifications for jumping into seriousness are often quite flimsy—though some of the psychologies behind his characters are more believable than others. Lasca has given out higher-meaning emotions and language when he can’t seem to find a deeper or higher meaning.
The lack of non-heat-related connections between the monologues is one example of A Great Place’s lack of purpose. But the unfortunate consequences of the play's listlessness are much worse than that. The first monologue, “Stars in the City,” takes a supernatural turn that cheapens what otherwise might have been the strongest monologue of the night. The last one, “Phantom Limb,” features lines that seem better on the page than spoken aloud. Despite dealing with a mad sexologist's combination of voyeurism, exhibitionism, and an amputee fetish, it resorts to surprisingly and disappointingly conventional motifs at too many points.
Does every play have to have a deeper meaning? Some plays, like some forms of any art medium, are meant simply for lighthearted enjoyment. There is nothing necessarily wrong with this; in fact, a philosophically shallow play can even be the most captivating kind of theater if the storytelling is strong enough (Proof didn’t win the Pulitzer for its political significance). When a play makes an open call for pathos, however, and particularly when it does so by using elements of everyday modern life, it needs a thematic framework stronger than how the heat makes people crazy. A Great Place To Be From aims to be something more than a series of personality studies, but as a result of its confused deeper intentions the end product only tarnishes its strengths.
A Great Place To Be From by Normann Lasca. Directed by Geordie Broadwater. Starring Matthew Johnson (Paul), Jacques Roy (D), Andrew Zimmerman (Gerry), and Kim Martin-Cotten (Anne). Sets by Tristan Jeffers; costumes by Mike Floyd; lighting by Eric Southern; sound by Anthony Gabriele. Photos by Rachel Roberts. Opened Sept. 8, 2008. Running time: 2 HOURS, 15 MIN.
A Great Place to Be From runs through Sepember 27. Tickets can be purchased here.