It is rare that a theater’s opening night also doubles as breaking news, unless Lin-Manuel Miranda is involved.
And yet, Tom Mitchell’s tender, lyrical adaptation of unknown stories by Tennessee Williams managed to do just that. (Full disclosure: Mitchell and I have been colleagues at the University of Illinois since 2012.)
Hours before the first performance of “Amor Perdido/Lost Love,” which draws on adapter-director Mitchell’s years of research into the early development of the great American playwright, The News-Gazette was informed that two announced actors (Jordan Coughtry and Nisi Sturgis) would not be allowed to perform.
Actors’ Equity, the union of actors and stage managers, blocked those actors from performing in the community-based production at Station Theatre in Urbana.
It is not unusual for the union to prevent its members from working in theaters that do not pay wages to scale or do not have waiver contracts that allow for other types of compensation.
While the loss of two fine actors surely made Mitchell’s creation into another thing, it is difficult to imagine how it might have been better. Actor Charlie Bauer joined the cast at the last minute and performed with grace and aplomb.
Mitchell’s research over the past two decades has led to the director unearthing lesser-known plays by Williams that he has staged for Illinois Theatre at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts and elsewhere. Blending the talents of students and faculty, the director has become a frequent presenter at conferences on Williams, where he mixes literary analysis with performed examples of hidden gems from the playwright’s early years.
In “Amor Perdido,” a type of “Reader’s Theater” performance in which actors often hold scripts to better focus the process of telling a story, five tales form the skeleton for which Mitchell’s talented cast provides the heart, muscle and sinew.
Chloe Cosgrove beguiles the male characters of the stories as a young woman who trades pleasure for pleasure until such enjoyment turns into her life’s grueling work. Bauer and Scott Knier take turns finding their way to the charms of Cosgrove’s characters, only to watch helplessly as life and love steal away.
Director Mitchell’s light touch allows the young actors to move effortlessly, almost in ritualistic fashion as the more mature actors, Joi Hoffsommer and Gary Ambler, narrate poetical subtext while providing additional characterizations that give the stories humor and enhanced depth.
The tales of pain suffered in young (and not-so-young) love are highlights of the performance. Aficionados of Williams will surely find dialogue and themes that echo in later works such as “The Glass Menagerie” and “A Streetcar Named Desire.”
Knier, who is a talented triple-threat as actor, composer and singer, interweaves his own lovely compositions with a song that is referenced in the text. The musical numbers provide helpful segues from one story to the next, some with poignance, others with humor.
During a brief preshow announcement, Mitchell noted that the production had been partially funded by the College of Fine and Applied Arts at the University of Illinois through its Project Completion Grant program, with additional assistance from Illinois Theatre and Krannert Center.
At a time when the university is focused on growing its public engagement, this is heartening news that local theatergoers hope will continue to build. (And, perhaps, get an ongoing agreement with the actors’ union.)
Although there is no scenic designer mentioned in the program, the production uses an evocative melange of doors as backdrop — more than a few with the louvers we associate with southern climes in Mexico or New Orleans.
The doors come in a range of sizes and styles. They hang from the overhead, from the middle of the wall, or are fastened to the floor.
The effect is a ghostly presence consistently reminding us of the possibility — or the finality — that doors represent. Just like love that dances into our lives before vanishing, unnoticed in the early dark.
Before “Amor Perdido” slips away this weekend, make sure you try to catch it.