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.

By Lynn Venhaus
Managing Editor
With its lush, unusual score and seductive setting, “The Light in the Piazza” is swoon-worthy in many aspects.
Regarded as demanding to present because of its music and dramatic complexities, this intricate musical heightens realism and challenges the most confident vocalist.
Its Tony-winning neoromantic score and orchestrations by Adam Guettel, grandson of icon Richard Rodgers, have more in common with opera and classical music than traditional showtunes, without any pop references.
Nevertheless, the cast of R-S Theatrics’ production rises to master the harmonies and embrace la dolce vita. Guided by music director Sarah Nelson, whose work is exceptional, with assured stage direction from Christine Rios, they project a confident grasp of the material.

Some of the lyrics are in Italian, and silky-smooth voiced Tielere Cheatem, as Fabrizio, is impressive, particularly in his fluid renditions of “Il Mondo Era Vuoto” and “Passeggiata.” His family, the Naccarellis, speak impeccable Italian and deliver richly textured vocals – Kent Coffel as Signor, Jodi Stockton as Signora, Stephanie Merritt as Franca and Micheal Lowe as Giuseppe.
Special mention must go to Italian language coach Myriam Columbo, for it feels organic.
It’s the summer of 1953, and the well-to-do Southern matron Margaret (Kay Love) returns to Florence, Italy, where she spent her honeymoon. With her innocent 26-year-old daughter in tow, her joy is tempered by the special needs of the developmentally delayed Clara (Macia Noorman), who was hit in the head by a Shetland pony at age 10. She matured physically but not emotionally/mentally. It is more subtle than obvious, but when Clara gets upset, she behaves like a petulant child.
The melodramatic story is adapted from a novella by Elizabeth Spencer, which became a turgid 1962 movie starring Olivia de Havilland, Rossano Brazzi, Yvette Mimieux and George Hamilton (?!? as Fabrizio). The 2005 Broadway show was nominated for 11 Tony Awards and won five. It had both fans and detractors, and I was one of its sharpest critics, particularly of the book by Craig Lucas.
Not a fan of the 2007 touring production, which was swallowed in the Fox, was devoid of sympathy for the mother and did not have an ounce of nuance in what I considered a duplicitous transaction.
Not so here – surprise! – because of the performances and the interpretation, although they can’t help that the book has some issues.
Several key elements soothed my misgivings, but mainly it was because of Kay Love’s splendid performance as the Southern matron Margaret, which is the lynchpin to the whole show.
Love earns our sympathy right away – it is a virtuoso performance that highlights her outstanding vocal talent while giving her a juicy role in which to shine. You feel her dilemma, and the emotional rollercoaster she endures. Her North Carolina accent is refreshingly soft and does not overpower her character,  thanks to dialect coach Mark Kelley.
All that guilt Margaret carries is shown on Love’s face, along with the regrets of a lackluster marriage, and a life, though comfortable, spent in service to others. She’s exasperated keeping tabs on an excited Clara, who encounters a young Florentine, Fabrizio. It’s love at first sight for both.
As Clara, Macia Noorman’s accent weaves in and out. Noorman and Cheatem work well together, but she seems more tentative in the duets and went sharp or flat more often in her vocals, particularly when paired with someone. However, her “Clara’s Interlude” is quite lovely.
Rios does not make this entanglement of two star-crossed families overwrought, rather keeps focus on the complicated romance and culture clash. As Margaret wrestles with the couple’s wedding plans, she must decide if she believes in love and her daughter’s happiness. Her husband Roy (Robert Doyle) is of no help, or empathy.
In addition to their superb vocals, the actors playing the Naccarelli family stand out. Kent Coffel plays the haberdasher father with such authority that you believe he is a Florentine of stature while a winsome Jodi Stockton has a nice motherly moment explaining the proceedings to the audience.
Stephanie Merritt gives considerable oomph to the tempestuous Franca so that she is not just a caricature, and soars in her number, “The Joy You Feel.”
While Love imbues her numbers with emotion, her rendition of the finale “Fable” is stunning, all the more remarkable because it follows a fabulous “Love to Me” sung by Cheatem. Love has a sweet duet with Coffel, “Let’s Walk,” before two families join together.
The power of the cast’s voices match the character demands, and Nelson’s musical work must be recognized, for the level of difficulty is understood.
The expressive orchestra adds so much, with Terri Langerak playing a glorious harp, Emily Lane on cello, Kelly LaRussa on violin, Jacob Stergos on bass and Nelson on piano. Their expert skill provided a luxurious sound that elevated this show.
The location also prominently figures into the presentation. Florence is an alluring city of Renaissance masterpieces in the Tuscany region of Italy, with its postcard Mediterranean landscapes, ancient history, and extraordinary art, culture and cuisine. It’s also a character.
The look and feel of this show combines tantalizing adventure with a traveler’s awestruck sense of wonder, providing atmosphere along with sense of time and place.
The piazza, a town square, is where we meet a very tight ensemble, crisp in purposeful movements and welcoming in demeanor. Chris Kernan, Jason Meyers, Louisa Wimmer, Robert Doyle, Melissa Christine, Lindy Elliot, Ann Hier and Anthony Randle are a compelling chorus.
Keller Ryan’s scenic design allows for this tableau to come alive with a captivating vibrancy while Nathan Schroeder’s lighting design provides a burnished glow.
They all look marvelous, too — chic fashion choices by costume designer by Ashley Bauman enhanced the characters’ personalities.
Margaret can’t help but be swept away by the scenic views and the teeming crowd, and neither could I. The intimate staging, the strong creative aspects and the level of talent add up to a must-see production.
R-S Theatrics opens its eighth season – The Season of the Not-so-Perfect Past — with the St. Louis premiere of “The Light in the Piazza” Aug. 10 – 26, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 7 p.m., at the Marcelle Theatre, 3310 Samuel Shepard Drive, St. Louis, 63103. Tickets can be purchased through Metrotix.com. For more information, visit r-stheatrics.org.