Live theater, unsolicited commentary. From Detroit to Lansing.


Mid-Michigan theater can let out a collective breath: after nearly a year of fundraising, a flurry of staged readings, and two incarnations of its Web site, Stormfield Theatre has taken the leap of faith and come out with its first fully staged production. With founder and artistic director Kristine Thatcher as the public face of the company, it's only fitting that the inaugural play be not only directed by Thatcher, but written by her as well. Happily, the choice is much more than just apropos; her 1997 Among Friends is a tour de force, and this incarnation quite simply shines.

With this production, the theater has also found a new temporary home in downtown Lansing, a ringingly bare-walls property tastefully softened with curtains and rows of chairs on three sides of a modestly sized raised stage. Yet this unassuming setting is home to lush production values in Michelle Raymond's set of staggered walls and Tim Fox's through-the-window lights that introduce each scene. Sparsely appointed enough to stand in as three men's homes, the set is a marvel of varied hues and finishes that's a perfect fit for its surroundings. These elements are also well met by three expert performances in a story about how surprisingly tenuous friendships can be.

In an otherwise routine poker night, Will (Bill Bannon) witnesses his brother-in-law, Dan (John Lepard), cheating at the table, depriving mutual friend Matt (Aral Gribble) of some spending money. The event marks a sea change in their relationships: Will blatantly avoids Dan for weeks, even skipping the ceremony honoring Dan as Humanitarian of the Year. Struggling appliance salesman and new father Matt finds himself caught in the middle; he, like the viewer, is privy to both sides of the issue. The casting could not be better: Bannon is illogically damning and suspicious — you can almost see him sizing up his every action against Dan's in order to remain superior; Lepard plays notes of slickness opposite ones of generosity that explain his unparalleled success and allow a little doubt to seep in; and Gribble both watches out for himself in his individual relationships with each man and calls for them to get past their differences.

A major strength of Thatcher's script is its even-handed treatment of personal ethics and their role in relationships. On some level, Will realizes that Dan's cheating is not a big deal, yet it's emblematic of the values that make Dan different from Will, which he uses as a lens through which to scrutinize the rest of his brother-in-law's actions. What the real estate mogul sees as networking and good business, the schoolteacher sees as cutting corners and taking kickbacks. It's a very real and honest treatment of the dynamics of family and close friendships, when people's ideological incompatibility threatens their emotional closeness. Granted, this intriguing ambiguity is undercut by a too-pat ending that suggests there must be A Reason for their differences and lets both lay it out succinctly; however, Bannon and especially Lepard play the hell out of the scene, sufficiently for me to overlook my misgivings.

The ninety-minute production that ensues is often funny, but mostly insightful and deeply affecting. It's a more than solid starting point for the new company — the future of Stormfield may not yet be certain, but the talents of its contributors are absolutely not in question. This is a collective of artists determined to create top-quality work in any setting, and the power of Among Friends suggests that the community will be better off for its continued success.


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