A powerful new drama opened this week at Premiere Stages at Kean University. The play, the winner of Premiere's 2013 Premiere Stages Play Festival, is The Beautiful Dark by Erik Gernand. This is an outstanding play with an excellent cast and a haunting story clearly inspired by the horrific school shootings that have tragically become all too frequent. It tells the story of a mother Nancy (Dana Benningfield), a divorced school principal, trying to raise two sons, 18 year old Jacob (Daniel Pellicano) and 13 year old Charlie (Logan Riley Bruner). She's relatively successful with young Charlie; however, Jacob is secretive, combative, non-communicative and downright abusive, particularly to his recovering alcoholic mother. For the most part, he might be considered a typical teenage boy, but Jacob is no ordinary teen. Brighter than his contemporaries, he has mental issues that place him in a dark anti-social world. He has just returned home from college having been expelled for failing grades, or is there another reason? Four years earlier, he attempted suicide and his early writing dealt with bizarre death and destruction themes. His mother is convinced that he can be saved by her unswerving love. Her ex-husband, the small town's police chief Tom (Steven Rishard) is convinced stronger measures are necessary. Only after she is made aware of a horrific act committed by Jacob does she realize that he may be capable of the unthinkable.
Director John Wooten, Premiere's Artistic Director, has delivered an impressive production, nicely paced with a superior cast. Dana Benningfield, making her Premiere debut, is perfect as the sympathetic mother who has to deal with choices that no mother should have to make. Playing her ex-husband, the Police Chief, is Steven Rishard who delivers a particularly powerful performance in a largely unsympahetic role as the father who believes his bully-like actions are the only path to helping Jacob. He believes the time for a loving, caring approach is long past. Young Logan Riley Bruner, as Charlie gives a fine sensitive performance-particularly when he relates to his mother the brutal actions of Jacob. Now we get to Jacob. Daniel Pellicano is brilliant as Jacob. He is spot-on in projecting the darkness of Jacob. His Jacob is clearly a danger to himself and everyone around him. Pellicano, an understudy in the recent production of Clybourne Park and the only lead not an Equity member, has earned his place with the professionals with this powerful performance.
Also in the fine cast are the veteran Broadway and film actor Mitch Greenberg as Mr. Marsh a school teacher and Cara Ganski, a Kean University theatre major, as Sydney, Jacob's college girlfriend. The highly talented Greenberg's scenes, all confined to Nancy's office, are gems.
Director Wooten's production staff are deserving of recognition: Dale Smallwood production stage manager, Joseph Gourley scenic design, Dori Stober costume design, Nadine Charlsen lighting design, Carol Hanzel casting, and J. Allen Suddeth fight director. The play is performed in one 90 minute act.
The Beautiful Dark runs September 5 – 22, Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 3 p.m. Standard tickets are $30, with discounted rates of $20 for seniors, and $15 for students and patrons with disabilities. Significant discounts for groups of 10 or more apply. All performances take place in the Zella Fry Theatre in Vaughn Eames Hall, located on the Kean University campus at 1000 Morris Avenue. To purchase tickets or request a season brochure, please call the Kean Stage Box Office at 908-737-SHOW (7469) or visit Premiere Stages online at www.kean.edu/premierestages.
A special benefit performance of The Beautiful Dark is scheduled for Sunday, September 15, beginning with a pre-show reception at Kean University’s Human Rights Institute at 1 p.m. The performance, scheduled for 3 p.m., will be followed by dessert and champagne with the cast. Tickets are $100 ($70 of which is tax-deductible), with proceeds to benefit Premiere Stages programming which supports emerging artists by developing and producing new plays. To purchase tickets to the benefit, or request more information, please call 908-737-4092.
Premiere Stages offers air-conditioned facilities and free parking close to the fully accessible spaces. Free or discounted tickets for patrons with disabilities are available. Please call for a list of sign-interpreted, audio-described, or open-captioned performances. Assistive listening devices and large print programs are available upon request. Publications in alternate forms are available with advanced notice.
Premiere Stages will offer four free interactive discussions (or “talk-backs”) with the audience, affiliated artists, and guest speakers directly following the performances on Sunday, September 8 at 3 p.m.; Friday, September 13 at 8 p.m.; Saturday, September 14 at 3 p.m.; and Sunday, September 22 at 3 p.m. All talk-backs will be moderated by resident dramaturg, Clare Drobot.
Reviewed by Rick Busciglio Saturday September 7, 2013