By Lynn Venhaus
At once an urgent call to action, historical political drama, and heart-wrenching story of love and friendship, “The Normal Heart” captures a specific time and place while resonating as a cautionary tale.

With an ensemble cast devoted to making every emotional beat authentic, Stray Dog Theatre’s brave and fearless production chronicles the growing AIDS crisis in New York City from 1981 through 1984, and how badly it was bungled.

It was a harrowing time, and gay activist Larry Kramer’s 1985 mostly autobiographical play is haunting as it conveys the confusion and chaos.

This work is a gripping account of how leaders in the gay community fought an indifferent, inefficient, and ineffective political system that ignored their plight until they couldn’t, as deaths were escalating in alarming way.

With a keen eye on the bigger picture, the company’s artistic director, Gary F. Bell, shrewdly directed principal character Ned Weeks’ journey from angry protestor to frustrated and furious advocate demanding change. It’s not just history, it’s personal.

During the early 1980s, Bell lived in New York City as the acquired immunodeficiency syndrome began decimating a terrified gay population. With the early years of another global pandemic not yet in the rearview mirror, Bell builds on that lack of knowledge and awareness to be relatable.

Many homosexuals were forced to live a closeted life, for fear of retaliation and being ostracized, or fired at work, or target of hate crimes. It was a very different time. And then, as the HIV/AIDS outbreak spread, so much fear and ignorance added fuel to the misunderstandings.

For those who remember living in the shadows 40 years ago, the pain of being unseen, unheard and dismissed during a growing public health crisis is palpable. Others who have been marginalized can identify, too.

Sarjane Alverson and Joey Saunders. Photo by John Lamb

Bell’s lean, cut-to-the-chase presentation focuses on perspective for the look back while being mindful of current parallels so that it feels contemporary and fresh.

In his best work to date, Peirick, a Stray Dog regular, brings an in-your-face intensity to Ned’s mission to make sense of what is happening while confusion reigns in the medical, political, and social circles in his orbit.

He shows how frightened Ned is for those around him, and how his laser-beam attention isn’t immediately shared by peers, much to his dismay. He pushes, he’s abrasive, he’s relentless – and eventually, he rattles the right cages and rallies others to see how the clock is ticking.

Newcomer Joey Saunders plays Felix Turner, a New York Times fashion writer who becomes involved in a serious relationship with Ned. When he is diagnosed with AIDS, how he deals with the decline from symptoms to the illness taking over his life is gut-wrenching and makes it deeply personal.

The other guys view their roles as important vessels, a duty they take seriously, as they all “go there,” daring to plumb emotions for a stunning depth of feeling.

In a dramatic turn as banker Bruce Niles, Jeffrey Wright pours out his anguish to tell how his lover died and the humiliation that followed, while Jon Hey melts down as the overwhelmed Mickey Marcus, frustrated by the lack of results.

It’s impossible not to be moved or not care about these people, to get into their heads and hearts as they confront the biggest health crisis of their time.

Stephen Henley, Jeremy Goldmeier, Stephen Peirick and Jon Hey. Photo by John Lamb

Characters get sick and die. Their lovers, co-workers, friends and family show symptoms and it doesn’t end well. Or those people refuse to accept and believe what is really happening.

Stephen Henley brings compassion to the Southern-style Tommy Boatright and Michael Hodges plays the dual roles of Craig Donner and Grady.

Three portray outsiders that are integral to the story.

A perfectly cast Sarajane Alverson is strong as Dr. Emma Brookner, who is in a wheelchair from childhood polio – a powerful visual. She is a crucial character who delivers the medical findings and sounds alarm bells

Jeremy Goldmeier has the thankless task of being the hard-edged municipal assistant Hiram Keebler and David Wassilak is buttoned-up Ben Weeks, Ned’s distant lawyer brother.

The austere set optimizes a growing set of file boxes as the HIV/AIDS cases surge and death toll mounts. Justin Been handled the scenic design and the sound work, punctuating the heightened emotions with dramatic instrumental music.

Kramer, always demanding, wanted to move the needle on tolerance and acceptance, which is why, 40 years later, this play has a far-reaching impact.

It is always hard to see so much time and energy spent on hate, even in historical context, but through art, there is also a glimmer of hope.

A play this pertinent has expanded its purpose at a time when we need to pay attention, for we must never forget. The organizers of today stand on the shoulders of giants, and Stray Dog is providing an important service to a new generation.

Stray Dog Theatre presents “The Normal Heart” from June 9 to 25, Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m., with a Sunday, June 19, matinee at 2 p.m., at The Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee, in Tower Grove East. Tickets are only offered in physically distanced groups of two or four. For more information: www.straydogtheatre.org

Stephen Peirick and Joey Saunders. Photo by John Lamb

By Lynn Venhaus

Our turfs and our tribes. It’s what defines us.

Well, we like to think that, but maybe it’s our choices that shape us. David Lindsay-Abaire’s “Good People,” a brilliant examination of class, good fortune, and the struggles of those left behind, is getting a stimulating treatment at Stray Dog Theatre.

Talk about a conversation starter! With a superb cast led by the incomparable Lavonne Byers, the gritty “Good People” bluntly spells out the wide divide between the haves and have-nots, and not just financially, but in word, thoughts, and deeds.

Margie Walsh is a Southie, for she lives in South Boston’s Lower End, a primarily working-class Irish American neighborhood where the playwright grew up. So, he wrote with deep understanding and connection.

Byers conveys Margie’s toughness and anxiety, with an undercurrent of desperation that she tries not to show. Her weapon is sarcasm. Hardened by a hardscrabble life, she has fought, clawed, and scratched in a dog-eat-dog world. Stubborn and proud, sometimes she has made life more difficult for herself because she will not rely on anyone, but she is loyal to a fault.

After high school, she became a caretaker. It’s a lifetime ago, and that’s when her dreams died, if she had any. As the single working mother of a developmentally disabled adult daughter, she plugs away at minimum-wage jobs. After being late too many times waiting for her daughter’s sitter to show up, she is fired from working as a cashier at the dollar store.

Friends and neighbors gather at the church hall for Bingo in hopes of winning the jackpot and to socialize. Stephanie Merritt is amusing as ballsy Jean, mouthy but well-meaning; Liz Mischel is defensive as the indifferent landlady Dottie, who is also Joyce’s unreliable sitter; and Stephen Henley projects a sweetness as the decent, practical Stevie, her compassionate ex-manager.

The Southie accent is a difficult one, so the dialect work is to be commended, because it’s evident that the ensemble worked on getting it right.

Stephen Peirick and Lavonne Byers. Photo by John Lamb.

About to be evicted, Margie is hanging by a thread. She is not “lace curtain Irish.” Jean knows she needs a break and mentions that she ran into Margie’s old high school flame, Mike, now a doctor. Why doesn’t she ask him for a job, or his help in finding one?

“Mikey” is now a fertility specialist, and he lives with his elegant African American wife Kate and their daughter in Chestnut Hill, an affluent village six miles from downtown Boston. He doesn’t have any office openings. Caught off-guard by the visit 30 years after he last saw her, he prefers not to be reminded of his rough-and-tumble upbringing. She forces an invitation to his wife’s party. Maybe someone else can help with employment.

It’s cancelled, their daughter is sick, but Margie thinks he is blowing her off, and shows up anyway at the door, and Kate mistakes her for the caterer.

Stephen Peirick is Mike, now “Michael,” and Laurell Stevenson is Kate, who live comfortably, although see a couples’ therapist. Their nouveau riche lifestyle is worlds apart from his humble formative years in South Boston. Humble, he’s not.

There is more to the story, but it’s best the audience discover the developments on their own. Just know that pleasant social graces disappear when a confrontation gets ugly. Initial warmth gives way to a chilling coldness.

Under Gary F. Bell’s savvy direction, the trio nimbly escalates emotions that lead to a cruel climax. Peirick, not often playing a jerk, indicates “Michael” is increasingly uncomfortable to be confronted with his past with Margie’s presence.

With her customary confidence, Byers shows how Margie, while agitating, has more integrity in her pinkie finger than the arrogant Michael does. Although Kate is civil at first, and a liberal, she lives in a bubble. And who is ‘self-made’ here, anyway?

Bell heightens the tension while emphasizing “the sides,” and the actors maintain the on-edge feeling throughout the second act, especially in their body language.

At first unassuming but then richly textured, “Good People” is an outstanding production that accentuates that character matters. Your opinion may shift about who is ‘good people.’

Margie, with a hard “g,” clings to her dignity, hoping for a fresh new start, but realizing the dead end is likely where she will stay. She is at once hard to figure out but also completely recognizable.

Scenic designer Josh Smith’s economical set takes a back seat to the human drama unfolding, although there are certain props that are meaningful, such as googly-eyed bright pink bunnies that Dottie makes as her side hustle, and a very expensive vase in Dillon’s upscale home.

Justin Been’s sound design and Tyler Duenow’s lighting design are first-rate.

Lindsay-Abaire, who won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2007 for “Rabbit Hole,” draws his characters well, especially women, for Frances McDormand won a Tony for Lead Actress as Margie in “Good People” in 2011 and Cynthia Nixon won as Becca in “Rabbit Hole.”

In the 11 years since the play was produced on Broadway, the gulf seems wider, and the play, which was excellently produced at The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis in January 2013, seems more pertinent than ever about struggles in hard times.

This is a cast that meets the challenge, and Stray Dog meets the moment in a tautly constructed drama of uncomfortable truths.

Lavonne Byers, Laurell Stephenson, Stephen Peirick. Photo by John Lamb

Stray Dog Theatre is presenting “Good People” Feb. 10-26 at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and an additional 2 p.m. matinee on Sunday, Feb. 20, in the Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Avenue, St. Louis, Mo. 63104. For tickets or more information, visit. www.straydogtheatre.org

Special guidelines are in place for the health and safety of guests, actors and staff: Masks are required of all guests, regardless of vaccination status. They still encourage physical distancing throughout the theater. They recommend, but do not require, that all guests be vaccinated.

By Lynn Venhaus

If you are seeking a sugar-coated Hallmark Christmas movie, “Who’s Holiday” is not that kind of warm-and-fuzzy. Nevertheless, the amusing one-woman show is an engaging cup o’ cheer – unless your heart is two sizes too small.

If you are familiar with past holiday season productions at Stray Dog Theatre, then you are aware of their penchant for a non-traditional offering, and this suits that M.O.

The R-rated merriment runs Dec. 2 – 18, Thursday through Sunday, with a Sunday matinee Dec. 12, at the Tower Grove Abbey – only all performances are sold out, but one can get on their in-person waiting list before each show. –

An irreverent, bawdy post-childhood spin on Dr. Suess’ “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” is a festive communal experience, which could get you in the mood for the holidays – especially when you sing along to an evergreen sentimental song.

Laced with adult humor, this sweet and salty 2017 work by Matthew Lombardo is a natural vehicle for spirited comic actress Sarah Polizzi, who portrays the grown-up Cindy Lou Who. The character is both naughty and nice, and the effervescent performer revels in that aspect.  

Cindy Lou was the adorable 2-year-old Who caught the famous green ogre stealing all the Christmas presents, the Christmas tree and the feast because he did not want anyone to enjoy the holiday. To carry out his nefarious deed, he was dressed as Santa Claus and his dog Max accompanied him. That did not deter the Whos from celebrating, however.

The grouchy Grinch became Dr. Seuss’ legendary storybook villain in 1957, and then immortalized in an animated TV special in 1966, narrated by Boris Karloff. In the years since, it has been adapted several times, including a live-action film starring Jim Carrey that came out in 2000, then a musical followed in 2007, and then a computer-animated feature with Benedict Cumberbatch in 2018 and a live television musical adaptation starring Matthew Morrison last year.

So, it helps to have some sort of working knowledge of the Dr. Seuss book and his first villain.

No longer an innocent, Cindy has returned to living on Mount Crumpit, north of Whoville, and ostracized by her people. Her fall from grace included an illicit romance with the big green beast, teen pregnancy, drug addiction and a prison term. Does not sound very jolly, does it?

So, she engages the audience in cocktails and conversation while sharing her shocking tale of woe.

Despite her hard times, the irrepressible Cindy Lou shows an indomitable spirit – with a beaming smile and a cheery demeanor, although she can get as sour as that grumpy guy – and get a little testy with the neighborhood hooligans. She is ready to put the sordid past behind her and start anew. In a convivial mood, she has invited guests over. But no one shows, much to her dismay. What’s a Party Girl to do? She just wants to have fun.

Polizzi also has the difficult task of speaking in rhyme, the kind that Dr. Seuss was known for in his 60 books, without it sounding sing-song-y, and she accomplishes that.

In a one-person play, the solo character always has a heavy weight to carry an entire show, but it’s only an hour – and she feeds off the audience’s energy with ad libs and being as sparkly as the festive vintage set.

Scenic designer Josh Smith festooned Cindy Lou’s tiny trailer with enough colored lights and kitschy seasonal decorations to make the yuletide bright – and it is delicious eye candy, with lighting designer Tyler Duenow’s effective touches.

Megan Bates’ playful costume design is simple but fetching – retro housewife turned into a livelier vixen.

The twisted tale benefits from Artistic Director Gary F. Bell’s light-hearted direction and it is a very smooth, well-rehearsed production. And Justin Been’s sound design always elevates a show – and his music choices are very smart.

Playwright Lombardo isn’t mean-spirited, just having fun with a parody that’s not unlike a Hollywood child actor’s downfall that makes tabloid fodder – only he exaggerates it to cartoonish proportions.

This isn’t his first production in St. Louis – he wrote the intense heavy drama “High,” which ran as a world premiere-pre-Broadway tryout at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis in 2010 and starred Kathleen Turner as a nun who was an addiction counselor.

“Who’s Holiday” has both a peppery girls-gone-wild vibe and an affectionate nostalgia for Christmases past. It is certain to leave you feeling merry and bright.

Photos by John Lamb

“Who’s Holiday” is a solo show that runs slightly more than an hour and is presented Dec. 2, 3, 9, 10, 11, 16, 17, 18 at 8 p.m., with a 2 p.m. matinee on Sunday, Dec. 12. The show is sold out, but you may get on a waitlist at the door each performance and must be there in person. Call 314-865-1995 for more information. Visit the website www.straydogtheatre.org

Those with tickets should be aware that seats will only be held until 10 minutes prior to curtain.

Masks are required to be worn by all guests, regardless of vaccination status, at all times while inside the theater and while in the lobby unless actively drinking. They still maintain social distancing throughout the theater. Stray Dog Theatre recommends, but does not require, that all guests be vaccinated.

By Lynn Venhaus

Three actors deliver brilliantly nuanced performances in “Blue/Orange,” a multi-layered satirical comedy-drama that focuses on madness, health care and race within a framework of frustrating bureaucracy and power struggles.

William Humphrey, Ben Ritchie, and Jason Meyers turn in some of their best work by grasping every shifting thought, trigger and changing attitude in conversations that blur lines on mental health.

The discourse is hefty and the roles demanding, for the characters are opaque. Allegiances switch as reasoning seems plausible – but one can’t ever be certain in these fiery exchanges.

Stray Dog Theatre is presenting this intellectually stimulating material as its first indoor show inside the Tower Grove Abbey, their longtime home, in 2021. With a contemporary focus that is more tragic than comic, that tone suits the production’s interpretation of this thorny material.

Shrewdly written by British playwright Joe Penhall, known primarily for several “fringe” works, and set in a UK institution, the play, first staged by the National Theatre in 2000, went on to win the Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Play, with Bill Nighy, as Robert, and Chiwetel Ejiofor as Christopher, nominated for several acting awards.

(More fun facts: Andrew Lincoln played Bruce and the three moved on to the London West End in 2001. The next year, the show opened off-Broadway, with Harold Perrineau Jr. as Christopher, and an acclaimed British revival in 2016 starred Daniel Kaluuya as the patient.)

Stray Dog has wisely decided to forego British accents, so that we are not distracted from the dense amount of dialogue that rapidly volleys back and forth.

The day before Christopher (William Humphrey) is supposed to be discharged from a psychiatric ward, his doctor (Jason Meyers) begins to have reservations that he shouldn’t be released. He shares his concerns with a senior colleague (Ben Ritchie).

Practically jumping for joy as the hyper Christopher, Humphrey is gleefully ready to go – and already packed. He still insists his father is former Ugandan dictator Idi Amin Dada Oumee and sees the pulp inside an orange as blue. In his mind, is this real or delusional? Thus begins a bureaucratic battle.

As the now confused patient becomes increasingly agitated, is he having an acute psychotic episode or is he being unduly provoked? What must happen to prevent him from leaving?

Christopher was diagnosed with a borderline personality order, and on day 28 at the London National Health Service mental hospital, he is due for release – unless a diagnosis changes.

As Dr. Bruce Flaherty, Meyers sees red flags and makes a convincing case that Christopher could be a paranoid schizophrenic. His superior, Dr. Robert Smith, doesn’t detect it. Exuding authority and clinical acumen. Ritchie recites reasons why psychiatry can fail black men like Christopher. After all, Dr. Smith is writing a book – interesting! – on the cultural and ethnocentrism factors that come into play in these situations.

Perhaps drum beating and seeing himself as a “white savior,” the imperious Robert thinks Christopher should return to his neighborhood for the cultural support – even though he lives alone and doesn’t know that many people. Sure, his behavior is odd, but is it cause for alarm?

Smith is worried that if Christopher stays longer, he could get worse and thus begin a never-ending cycle — or is that more of a reflection on the lack of beds and prevalent bottom-line thinking?

Christopher would really like to return to Africa, where he says he has a job, but will settle for his diverse London borough neighborhood if it means his freedom. And there is a probable threat of being attacked by racist thugs, so his fear seems real, but is it indicative of instability – and is pompous Robert being patronizing?

England’s cultural population includes Caribbean and African expatriates, and there are statistics that more black people, percentage wise, are in mental and penal institutions.

And what exactly causes seemingly stable Bruce’s third-act meltdown – and earlier blurting out the “N” word, which could fill an entire act with discussion. This really complicates the narrative, not just exposing an ugly prejudice and stereotypical thinking.

However, the roots of the problems are in the eye of the beholder. As the two professionals argue, drawing Christopher, pawn-like, into a tug of war of damaging rhetoric – clearly emotional scars are being inflicted.

Is this in any way beneficial and do the doctors think this will advance their careers?  

Penhall’s incendiary words, written more than two decades ago, seems as urgent now as they were relevant then. This is a living, breathing work that changes direction throughout its two acts, and the verbal dexterity required is admirable.

In a bracing portrayal, Humphrey straddles the line of helpless vulnerability and angry advocate for getting his life back on track. Both instinctive, Ritchie and Meyers convincingly earn and lose their characters’ credibility.

Associate Artistic Director Justin Been deftly moves the actors around so that we are caught off-guard as characters reveal their positions, transferring the ‘edge’ around – and the performers never get ahead of the script, not tipping their hand about what’s next.

The cast has smartly constructed their roles. It’s an exemplary showcase of control, and lack of, as perceptions differ and speeches flow.

“Blue/Orange” could have easily turned preachy but keeps its intensity, although the second act gets weighed down somewhat with repetitive opinions. And while it’s not predictable, the ending may not satisfy those who have become invested in Christopher’s well-being.

Besides directing, Been also designed the claustrophobic set and the sound, and both he and Artistic Director Gary F. Bell gathered the props. Lighting designer Tyler Duenow maintained the setting’s institutional glare.

The hell that is the ever-present boondoggle for those suffering from mental illness shows no sign of improvement in today’s uncertain world. As this riveting production demonstrates, it’s a difficult subject to ponder, and “Blue/Orange” daringly takes a stand.

Jason Meyers, William Humphrey and Ben Ritchie in “Blue/Orange.” Photo by John Lamb.

“Blue/Orange” is presented Thursday through Saturday, Oct. 7-9, 14-16 and 21-23 at 8 p.m., with a 2 p.m. matinee on Sunday, Oct. 17, at the Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Avenue, St. Louis, 63104.

Limited tickets are available because of physical distancing throughout the theater. For more information or tickets, visit www.straydogtheatre.org, or call 314-865-1995.

Safety precautions because of the COVID-19 public health crisis are in place for guests, actors, and staff. Masks are required to be worn by all guests, regardless of vaccination status. Stray Dog Theatre recommends, but does not require, that all guests be vaccinated. The up-to-date guidelines can be found on their website.