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REVIEW: "Strong Arm" — World Premiere, The Wayward Artist

Does greatness always come with a price?

SANTA ANA, CA—The Wayward Artist proudly presents the second offering in their 2019 season with the explosive World Premiere of “Strong Arm,” written by resident artist and playwright, Wyn Moreno (“Next to Normal,” “Ragtime”).

With a July 12th, grand opening gala celebration, which featured a loyal donor base, members of the press and a tightly-packed audience, this highly touted new play is directed by Mark Stevens, and scheduled to play through July 28th to anticipated crowds. The Wayward Artist is a nonprofit theater in the heart of Orange County that is a destination for exhilarating performances, inspiring new American plays and thrilling theatrical experiences.

Based on Anton Chekhov's play, "The Seagull," Marika Becz as Elaine and Daniel Keilbach as Marshall portray the two leads in the show — modern counterparts of mother and son, Arkadina and Treplev, from the 1895 Russian tragedy. In the Chekhov drama, the mother is a famous actress and the son a playwright.

Anton Chekhov was considered to be among the greatest writers of short fiction in history. Practicing as a medical doctor through most of his literary career: "Medicine is my lawful wife", he once said, "and literature is my mistress." Chekhov, however, renounced the theatre after the initial reception of "The Seagull," but the play was revived to wide acclaim three years later by the Moscow Art Theatre, which also proliferated his literary fame as a playwright. There are currently at least 20 films, three operas and nine other adaptations of Anton Chekhov’s plays, including “The Notebook of Trigorin,” which was adapted by Tennessee Williams.

Mr. Moreno’s paralleled "Strong Arm" also explores fame, parental love, sacrifice, and unfulfilled dreams, framed through the contemporary scope of the bombastic relationship between two athletes — a mother and her son. Following the lives of Elaine Maddox, a famous tennis player, her superstar of a son, and her professional baseball-playing boyfriend, Hank (Joe Dunham), “Strong Arm” examines the up-close and personal, life-changing consequences brought about by a complex web of professional sports and a mother’s love and sacrifice. The production takes on a frightening reality when it's overwhelmed by real emotion, especially in the second act.

The playing careers for tennis players are often short, with the average age of retirement around 27 years old, and retired hall-of-famer Elaine can do nothing but live vicariously now through Marshall’s new-found prospects for the MLB. Marshall is an all-star high school phenom baseball pitcher with a 90mph fast ball, and is being scouted as an MLB rookie, but still struggling to communicate, still trying to find himself and his purpose in life, amidst the influence of powerful interests.

Also featured is Allie, played by Autumn Paramore, a college sophomore studying journalism, and ACT tutor to Marshall. She’s 21 years old, a bit of a tease, and a true baseball fan, but has some ulterior motives that influence an unexpected chain of events later.

Phil (Craig Tyrl) is a hot shot sports agent for both Elaine and Marshall. He’s 50, easy-going and jovial, sometimes even hilarious, but also an alcoholic. Mara is a doctor in sports medicine. She’s an old friend of Elaine, and also Marshall’s physical conditioning coach. Around 45, she is much more compassionate and caring than some of the other principals.

The assertive Hank Felton recently retired as a baseball player, and is the long-time suitor to Elaine. He is considered over the hill at 42, and can’t seem to face that reality. Addicted to pain killers and in search of meaning after retirement, his actions play a strong, pivotal part in the play.

Mr. Moreno infuses the tale with a sense of palpable immediacy. The play is set primarily in the Maddox residence and lit almost entirely with practical lighting. What’s constant is the space — its rituals and the dynamics within it. What changes are the people. The matters of the heart that seemed light and trivial have devastating consequences in the second half. Director Stevens has assembled a spectacular cast and superbly maintains the balance and soul of the story, capturing both the joy and the darkness of life.

Mr. Moreno has written a play that’s very cunning, even magnificently off-center, in its presentation of the two primary characters. Eighteen year old Marshall, as with many teens around that age, is confused about life, knowing full well his skills on the baseball field, but, despite the insistence of family and friends, not quite ready to take the plunge into the sport as a lifelong career.

As a former sports star herself, his mother presses home the idea that you have to take the opportunity while you have it. Over and over again, she has recounted stories of her youth to him as a vibrant tennis star, describing ruthless, grueling matches that emphasized winning for the team no matter what the physical and emotional costs. Above all things, Elaine wants her son to be such a winner.

“The idea of a pageant mom, like Rose from the musical Gypsy, fascinated me,” says Mr. Moreno. “I wanted to turn it into a sports mom. The similarities between show business and pro sports is staggering. It’s all a big show, deep at its core. People come to the super bowl to see theatre. Athletes posture and perform for the audiences just as an actor does.”

The relationship between Marshall and Elaine’s boyfriend, Hank, is assumed to have always been somewhat strained, and when he arrives on the scene to take over a week of pre-training for Marshall before his audition with talent scouts, it becomes hard-handed and virulent, leading rapidly to a destructive course of events. Hank's preoccupation with drug-influenced stimulants seem to be a big factor:

Elaine: …”Don’t you think this is getting a little out of control?”

Hank: “I can handle it. You know I can kick this whenever I want, but I feel good. I still feel like I can play when I’m on this stuff.

Elaine: “At forty-two?”

Hank: “Yeah. I mean it, babe. I feel strong. I feel healthy. The minute I stop feeling that way, it’s gone. Trust me, OK?”

Elaine: “Just keep it away from Marshall.”

The astounding cast delivers a play in which the characters are rich, multi-dimensional and embroiled in competitive passions, often destructive but always recognizably human. As a stage piece, “Strong Arm” is a consummate winner and will undoubtedly last for generations.

The show stars Marika Becz, AEA, as Elaine Maddox, Daniel Keilbach as Marshall Maddox, Joe Dunham as Hank Felton, Autumn Paramore as Allie, Craig Tyrl as Phil and Kathi Gilmore as Mara.

The Director is Mark Stevens, Scenic Designer is Kristin Campbell, Lighting Design is by Colby Nordberg, Costume Design is by Rachael Lorenzetti, Sound Designer is Lauren Zuiderveld, and Prop Master is Paige Robitaille.

“Strong Arm,” is now playing through July 28th, with ticket prices ranging at $15 and $25. Tickets may be purchased online at The Wayward Artist is located at Grand Central Arts Center, 125 N. Broadway, Santa Ana. Performances are presented Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. with Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. This show is Highly Recommended!

Chris Daniels

Arts Reviewer

The Show Report

*Photos by Jordan Kubat Photography


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