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
Baz Luhrmann’s sensational and stylish spin on the man, the myth and the legend, “Elvis” restores the luster to the once fallen King of Rock ‘n Roll.

For those who may wonder why Elvis Aaron Presley is a cultural icon, this lovingly crafted film is the definitive exhibit A. There will be no doubt about how he became the rebel yell of a generation and shook up society’s norms in prim 1950s Eisenhower America. His raw, incandescent talent made such an impact as to forever change popular music.

Through Luhrmann’s trademark kinetic, frenetic method, he depicts a young Elvis (Chaydon Jay) as a church-going mama’s boy who grew up in poverty and how early black music influences shaped him into a soulful white singer.

That unique mix of rockabilly, country, Southern gospel, blues, and pop ballads that made Elvis stand out – and breakthrough racial barriers – is an aural delight, thanks to the massive teams of sound engineers and music technicians.

In a breathtaking and brilliant performance, Austin Butler scorches the screen as Elvis from teen heartthrob to red-hot superstar to Vegas comeback to drug-addled shell of his former self.

By bringing out Elvis’ humanity and how his identity was shaped, Butler puts an indelible stamp on one of the 20th century’s brightest supernovas. Dynamic in song, movement, and demeanor, the actor is mesmerizing in a classic “star is born” scenario.

Previously, he was Tex Watkins, one of the Manson family, in Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” and cast on a few television shows. It’s one of those magnetic star turns where everyone will now know who he is.

Welcome to the evolution. Luhrmann chronicles Elvis’ meteoric rise in vibrant vignettes as the singer’s sinewy sensuality electrified audiences. Oh, the scandals, the puritanical shock, and the excitement rippling through white middle-class America.

There isn’t much room for character development in the sprawling supporting cast, but the performers make the most of their brief screen time. Kelvin Harrison Jr. is memorable as a young B.B. King, hanging out with his white friend on Beale Street, while Kodi Smit-McPhee is under-used as singer Jimmie Rodgers, who helped introduce Elvis to the uninitiated.

Of significance is Sam Phillips (Josh McConville) of Sun Records, his smart receptionist Marion Keisker (Kate Mulvany) and DJ Dewey Phillips (Patrick Shearer), for without this power trio, there’d be no velvet Elvis.

Other music influences mentioned are David Wenham as country singer Hank Snow, Alton Mason as Little Richard, Gary Clark Jr. as Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup and Yola as Sister Rosetta Tharp.

The technical work dazzles, with cinematographer Mandy Walker giving each decade a particular retro look. Editors Matthew Villa and Jonathan Redmond, who previously worked together on Luhrmann’s 2013 “The Great Gatsby,” wove news clippings, music, videos, period details and classic recreations for the ultimate sizzle reel.

Luhrmann’s wife and frequent collaborator, Catherine Martin, did outstanding work as both the costume designer and production designer, spotlighting the signature looks, humble beginnings and lavish lifestyle..

Tom Hanks as Colonel Tom Parker

Luhrmann shows how Elvis, nicknamed “The Memphis Flash,” created a danger zone all by his lonesome. And how the naïve working-class ‘hillbilly’ and his unsophisticated parents Gladys (Helen Thomson) and Vernon (Richard Roxburgh) were taken advantage of by cagey con artist Colonel Tom Parker, who recognized a meal ticket and corralled the innocent young kid so he could pull the strings.

Part fraud, part genius promoter, Parker’s greed, power moves and deceptive practices are brought into sharper focus here, and for this sleazier damning portrait, a nearly unrecognizable Tom Hanks adopts a distinctive voice and dramatically changes his physical appearance. It’s rare to see Hanks as a villain, and takes some getting used to, as does the unusual vocal cadence.

As mastermind of the illusion, Parker is both credited and cursed in the screenplay co-written by Luhrmann, his longtime collaborator Craig Pearce (“Moulin Rouge,” “Romeo +Juliet” and “Strictly Ballroom”), Sam Bromell and Jeremy Doner, with story by Luhrmann and Doner.

Luhrmann’s hyper-visual flourishes eventually find its rhythm and yields to a more conventional narrative. Now in the Army in 1958 to cool down his controversial gyrations– those swiveling hips on national television! His ‘rubber legs’! – his fateful romance with Priscilla Beaulieu is sweetly told.

Butler and DeJonge

Australian actress Olivia DeJonge, recently seen in the HBO limited series “The Staircase,” is a stable influence as the love of Elvis’ life. She was 14, he was 24 when they met while he was stationed in Germany. After a seven-year courtship, they were married in 1967 and divorced in 1973. Butler and DeJonge make the coupling work as the calm eye in the hurricane.

The movie really takes flight when it tackles how the social upheaval of the 1960s affected art and became a catalyst for pop stars wanting to be relevant. Elvis was on the verge of has-been territory as his popularity waned after a string of movie flops. His entourage, aka The Memphis Mafia, had grown unwieldy. But his trusted asset, talent manager Jerry Schilling (Luke Bracey), is an integral part of the trailblazing.

You can describe Elvis in many ways, but bland isn’t part of the vocabulary. The entertainer knew he needed a makeover, and he shrewdly enlisted record producer Bones Howe (Gareth Davies) and director Steve Binder (Dacre Montgomery) to recharge his image so he mattered again.

This is best demonstrated by the fascinating behind-the-scenes sequence of the “Singer Presents Elvis” TV special set for airing on Dec. 3, 1968. Can you imagine The King wearing a Christmas sweater and singing carols? That’s what the sponsor and Parker thought they were recording, but the hip cool people in charge pulled off a minor miracle – a thrilling combination of Elvis unplugged and off-the-charts charisma that cemented his live solo stature. Now known as the “Comeback” special, it was the highest rated show for NBC that year, and often imitated thereafter.

His back-on-top transformation reignited a fire within, and Elvis returned to live performances, establishing residency in Vegas.

But Elvis’ downward spiral in the 1970s can’t be avoided, and neither can what eventually led to his untimely death at age 42 on Aug. 16, 1977.

While Elvis’ remarkable life is more material that can be contained in one feature, this film delivers the key moments for a sympathetic, complex, yet tragic, portrait. With a singular vision, Luhrmann hits the sweet spot as he achieves a new appreciation for rock ‘n roll royalty. And that’s all right.

Austin Butler as Elvis Presley

“Elvis” is a 2022 biographical drama directed by Baz Luhrmann and starring Austin Butler, Tom Hanks, Olivia DeJonge and Kelvin Harrison Jr. It runs for 2 hours, 39 minutes, and is rated PG-13 for substance abuse, strong language, suggestive material and smoking. It is in theatres on June 24. Lynn’s Grade: A

By Lynn Venhaus

Dateline June 8, 2019 and now

A wonderful night that I only attended because the film school professors chose to name an award in memory of Tim that year.

Three years ago seems like a lifetime ago.

During a meeting they arranged with us in January 2019, when Charlie and I were up in Chicago to move Tim’s things out of his apartment, three professors from DePaul University’s School of Cinematic Arts told us they wanted to honor Tim in some way. Which really was incredible after knowing him such a short time — but he had made such an impact on them — so of course I had to be there when they gave out the Tim Venhaus MFA Thesis Feature Screenplay three years ago.

James Gosling, winner, and me, Tim’s proud mama

I was fortunate to meet the winner, James Gosling, and his lovely wife, Janna, and they could not have been nicer, indulging me with their time. I ask him to send me the script, and he has terrific potential. He earned his MFA, is living in Chicago, and has written several more screenplays. I’ll be paying attention.

As I sat in the audience at the Music Box, I watched all the student filmmakers celebrate the end of their school year with the annual festival. There is always so much passion, energy and camaraderie with creatives, and I wondered if I had been here for normal reasons, who would Tim have introduced me to, and if he would have had something in the running.

Those dreams died with him. but his classmates have moved on to pursue theirs. I was fortunate to meet some of them in January and at this event, and I hope they are pursuing their passions. They had to navigate the pandemic, so some have been delayed in finishing projects and degrees.

I enjoyed watching the student works, and even voted on the Audience Award.

I had never seen Tim as happy as the day he was accepted into the DePaul MFA Screenwriting Program in March 2018. He had painstakingly complied with all the requirements – submit an essay, a 3-page screenplay using “two strangers in a car, Fourth of July” and recommendation letters. And links to his previous work. He made the cut for a finalist interview, and after the Skype face-to-face, he was notified that afternoon. It was one of his life’s best moments.

When he had told me he was thinking about going back to school for an MFA in screenwriting, I had encouraged it. I didn’t think the coasts would work out for him, so I suggested DePaul, because I had heard good things — and it was Chicago. Bingo! It really was a perfect fit.

He moved there Labor Day Weekend, sharing an apartment with an old friend in Logan Square. When he was home on holiday break, he was on fire talking about the classes he was going to take the next trimester, which would start Jan. 5, 2019. He was looking for his grades online, talking about his professors and classmates in reverent tones. He was proud of his screenplay, “Dad Eat Dog,” which was the hit of the class table read and he knew he had received an A.

He had been hired by a performing arts high school in Naperville to teach filmmaking in an after-school program, to start in January. He was so very excited about what’s ahead. But he did not live past Dec. 9, 2018, a week after his 34th birthday.

Among the phone calls I had to make after Christmas was to let DePaul know he wasn’t coming back, and I notified those professors he had spoke so highly of — an outpouring of glowing tributes and touching words of comfort, and to reach the high school that had hired him. What might have been. It was hard to imagine the life he would have been living at that time. I can’t let myself wonder what might have been.

Of that period of putting his life in the past, I spoke to many people and received touching notes. in the But it makes my heart happy to hear from Tim’s fellow filmmakers on what they’re up to, and their kind words. One SIUC grad sent me some of his student films that Tim had acted in, and it was like he was so present. Another DePaul student told me “he was a real gift to that class.”

Never underestimate the kindness of strangers in tough times — it’s like a ‘god wink.’

I must look up what some of those kids who won that night three years ago are up to — and DePaul was such a great program, I can’t speak highly enough.

Life goes on, and art is forever.

By Lynn Venhaus
The sixth and final installment of the “Jurassic” series is ridiculous, weird, and messy.

 In a new era, dinosaurs now live and hunt alongside humans all over the world. Four years after Isla Nublar was destroyed and this fragile balance has reshaped people’s lives, there’s another threat. The original trio starring in the movie that started it all in 1993 joins the cast of “Jurassic World” for “Dominion.”

Far too long at 2 hours and 26 minutes, two plots struggle to make sense with little connection, chemistry, and concern. Boring and repetitive, not only does the story not grab hold, but loses steam quickly.

Bad ideas abound in this screenplay co-written by Emily Carmichael and director Colin Trevorrow, with story by Derek Connolly and Trevorrow. He also helmed the overstuffed and head-scratching “Jurassic World” in 2015. He did not return for the second instalment, “Fallen Kingdom,” for J.A. Bayona was at the helm in 2018. That story set up this sequel – involving governments capturing the dinosaurs, the evil black market and big bad Biosyn.

Oscillating in tone because of sprawling set pieces that take us to the Sierra Mountains in Nevada, the dusty farmland of west Texas, an exotic Malta location where it briefly resembles a James Bond spy thriller, and the Dolemite Mountains in Italy, the film sputters in giving us too many characters in what quickly becomes a convoluted and dense storyline trying to tie the two trilogies together.

Chris Pratt as Owen Grady

Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard, the manufactured couple who survived the previous two “Jurassic World” movies, are protecting the cloned granddaughter of “Jurassic Park” owner John Hammond – but evil dudes lurk in the shadows ready to pounce. They have formed a de facto family out in the wilderness — but Maisie (Isabella Sermon) is 14 and rebellious. You know what’s going to happen before you see the cartoonish Bond-like thugs appear.

Meanwhile, it is a welcome sight to reunite paleontologists Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern) and Alan Grant (Sam Neill) with chaos theorist Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) 29 years after the sensational original “Jurassic Park.”

While all fine actors and apparent good sports, they can only do so much saddled with this everything and the kitchen sink plot – let’s add megalomaniac mastermind Lewis Dodgson, played by Campbell Scott, in the cookie-cutter mold of Steve Jobs, which is now a villain requirement of every blockbuster-comic book movie.

Dodgson’s nefarious Biosyn Genetics, which won the contract to shelter the dinosaurs at their compound in the Dolemite Mountains, is the source of impending doom because their genetically engineered locusts are creating a plague that will ruin the world’s eco-system. Enter his partner in crime, mad scientist Dr. Henry Wu (B.D. Wong,) a character in several installments, who has a new twist to reveal.

So, it becomes a race against time as the three old-school science nerds gather evidence to take the corporate behemoth down all the while raptor handler Owen Grady and his lady love Claire Dearing, former manager of the Jurassic World theme park, try to rescue their daughter.

Oh, wait – there are dinosaurs in this movie! You might be curious about these hulking prehistoric genetically engineered beasts that now roam the earth again, but don’t exactly live in harmony with the humans.

The fact that they attempt to convince you this rather alarming occurrence is a good thing defies logic. Seriously, I already questioned the sanity of returning over and over to that island – I mean, it’s like the cast of “Lost” going back. Do you not remember what happened the last time? Of course they’re going to wreak havoc, and it’s even more ludicrous.

What started out as director Steven Spielberg’s dazzling, magnificent achievement of landmark computer-generated images, Oscar-winning visual effects and a genuinely frightening science-fiction disaster story from Michael Crichton’s bestselling novel “Jurassic Park” in 1993 has been reduced to repetitive gimmicks in the successive ones..

Trevorrow, in another example of lazy filmmaking, gives us more shots of sharp-toothed dinosaurs nipping at the heels of our escaping heroes over and over and over again.

Remember how good Owen was at training raptors? They go to that well again, adding more for multiple chase scenes and concocting a preposterous pet-like story thread home on the range.

Bryce Dallas Howard as Claire Dearing

However, one of the earlier set pieces is a high-octane thrill as “thoroughbred” atrociraptors are unleashed and in hot pursuit of Owen on a motor-scooter.

“Dominion” is not going to let us go without a big apex predator battle reminiscent of Godzilla vs. King Kong.

But this method of throwing every conceivable obstacle in the paths of the righteous gang turns dull and butt-numbing. Snow, ice, oceans, lakes, mountains, planes, trains, jeeps, helicopters, parachutes, science laboratories and amber mines – what could go wrong?

By nature of green screen acting, the cast is on the run most of the film, but the women do fare better than expected. At least Howard is no longer running in heels and Dern has sensible athletic shoes on throughout.

Supporting players DeWanda Wise as fearless pilot Kayla Watts and Mamoudou Athie as brilliant scientist Ramsay Cole, Dodgson’s right-hand man, are appealing additions.

“Jurassic World: Dominion” is unfortunately being released after worldwide panic during the coronavirus pandemic, and let’s just acknowledge it’s a strange juncture in history, With the rough navigation of the past two years, do I really want to be worried about dinosaurs in my backyard? No thank you to another source of nightmares.

How even more chaotic could the world be? Turns out a lot. Not sure I want to go there, for it isn’t the escape most summer tentpoles position themselves to be.

The legacy characters work, but the centerpiece second trilogy headliners struggle to find footing. Pratt and Howard have little chemistry, but genuinely convey parental concern for Maisie. Likeable Pratt seems to be there merely to stare but Howard has more heavy-lifting to do, wiggling out of jams that require great physical prowess.

Do not think too hard about the mind-boggling lapses in judgment here. Crichton was right to end his journey with “The Lost World.”

“Jurassic World: Dominion” is cinematic junk, a tired cash grab that will go down as the worst in the six-movie franchise. And please refrain from visiting that well again, for it has dried up like the DNA in the fossils.

“Jurassic World Dominion” is a 2022 action, adventure, science fiction, thriller directed by Colin Trevorrow and starring Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Jeff Goldblum, Laura Dern and Sam Neill. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of action, some violence and language, it runs 2 hours, 26 minutes. In theaters June 10. Lynn’s Grade: D

Blue and Beta

By Lynn Venhaus
An uneasy feeling of dread grows and intensifies during the creepy “Watcher,” a competent thriller whose elements, while not exactly original, come together as a believable modern-day psychological horror show.

When her husband Francis (Karl Glusman) gets a job promotion that requires a move to Romania, Julia (Maika Monroe) accompanies him on the adventure – and plans to be supportive. A former actress, she walks around the streets of Bucharest, a stranger in a strange land, and attempts to keep busy to relieve her crushing boredom.

Only she has this uneasy feeling that she is being watched. There’s a guy (Burn Gorman) peeking outside nightly from an adjacent building. Is she imaging things or is she being stalked?

Shades of Hitchcock’s “Rear Window” and the proverbial female protagonist doubting herself – while men wonder if it’s her imagination or other stress triggers causing the hysteria.

Those condescending, patronizing looks that women know all too well.

Watcher with Maika Monroe

But we wouldn’t have 95 tension-filled minutes if everyone believed her, right? Maika Monroe, who effortlessly slips into the horror-genre as the pretty and smart blonde, toggles the fine line of sanity. We feel her nagging ‘What is wrong with me?’ just as we experience the unsettling surroundings from her point of view.

As an odd, lonely janitor named Weber, the versatile character actor Burn Gorman is able to project both sadness and strangeness at the same time. He does more with the thinly drawn part than likely was on paper.

In a stereotypical preoccupied husband role, Karl Glusman is nondescript as Francis, going through the motions of becoming increasingly perplexed, and alarmed, by Julia’s behavior.

It doesn’t help that the nightly news features a grisly neighborhood murder that may be the work of a serial killer. Nor that Julia doesn’t understand the language – she is taking lessons but feels even more lost when she’s surrounded by natives blithely chatting away. It all adds up to a few heebie-jeebies moments.

An interesting turn by Madalina Anea as the alluring, sophisticated neighbor Irina is a terrific addition to the claustrophobic setting.

Director Chloe Okuno, who wrote the story for the screen based on Zack Ford’s screenplay, gives a stylish, contemporary female spin on a classic old-school thriller, and it gets under your skin with her methodical approach.

Okuno employs a steady, deliberate pace and wisely chooses to play up the shadows and vary the lighting to make Julia’s solitary moments even more unsettling. Along with cinematographer Benjamin Kirk Nielsen, they frame the angular hallways, windows, staircases, and doors to build an eerie tone.

Shrewd editing by Michael Block provides well-earned jump scares and some jolting surprises just in case you were lulled into a ‘nothing’s wrong here’ feeling. Composer Nathan Halpern capitalizes and effectively adds to the spooky vibe with his memorable score.

Costume designer Claudia Bunea has made smart choices, especially for Julia, whom we can see change through her fashion choices as her misery grows. The walls seem to close in on her, and production designer Nora Dumitrescu’s selections help that with a drab Old-World setting.

But it all rests on Monroe’s shoulders to convince us of her out-of-kilter life, trying to adapt to a foreign country but feeling more isolated and alone than ever, and she splendidly comes through.

A nominee for the Grand Jury Prize at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, “Watcher” takes a story with familiar beats and with fresh eyes, collaborators made it their own. Above all, it delivers what it promises – and is frightening in the process.

Maika Monroe

“Watcher” is a 2022 horror-thriller directed by Chloe Okuno and starring Maika Monroe, Karl Glusman, Burn Gorman, Madalina Anea. It is rated R for some bloody violence, language and some sexual material/nudity, and runs 1 hour, 31 minutes. It is in local theaters on June 3 and available for rental on June 21. Lynn’s Grade: B+

By Lynn Venhaus

Bright before me the signs implore me
To help the needy and show them the way
Human kindness is overflowing
And I think it’s going to rain today

  • Randy Newman, “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today,” 1968

As the gap between the haves and the have-nots keeps widening in America, August Wilson’s “Jitney,” the first play of his 10-play cycle in 10 decades of history, couldn’t be timelier.

The play, which is set in the 1970s in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, has lost none of its bite, and in the loving hands of The Black Rep, it is spellbinding. A richly textured tale of economic struggles, racial tensions, fathers, sons, hope, dreams, loss, strength, and the need for and meaning of community.

A jitney refers to an independently owned unlicensed car for hire. Because regular cab drivers did not service the Hill District, Wilson presented this urban renewal scenario for a makeshift gypsy cab service.

The city has decided to condemn the building, which threatens to eliminate Becker’s Car Service, and the owner frets about finances as the other characters have worries of their own. This lyrical production is powerful storytelling at its finest.

Wilson introduces us to the men who make a living driving these cabs as they sit around a dingy office waiting for the phone to ring – as well as the relatives and passengers who stop by.

The era vibrantly portrayed is after the Civil Rights Amendment, but segregation still exists, and the characters deal with those issues. Could home ownership even be possible? The soldiers who fought in Vietnam returned home (or not) with their own stories to tell.

These passionate souls have bonded – or avoided it – through their lives’ triumphs and travails. No one’s had it easy, and the world-weariness shows. But the hope for second chances is palpable.

Featuring a superb ensemble of actors who bring out distinctive characteristics that you won’t soon forget, “Jitney” is a powder-keg of emotions and the evergreen need for connection and kindness in a cold, cruel world.

As the former mill worker who has his share of problems, Kevin Brown gives a powerhouse performance, equal parts fire and compassion.

Becker is grappling with his shame over his son’s prison time for murder. Clarence “Booster” Becker was convicted for killing a white college girlfriend, who had accused him of rape after her father found out about their relationship. As the wayward son, Phillip Dixon offers a complex performance as he seeks to patch up his rift with his dad and a fresh start.

Another standout young actor, Olajuwon Davis, plays Vietnam veteran Darnell Williams, aka Youngblood, and you can feel his desire to realize the American Dream for his family as he works two jobs.

Alex Jay is memorable as Rena, his spunky pregnant girlfriend, and brings out the yearning to be part of middle-class society as they’re starting out, their lives in front of them, dreaming of bright futures.

The cast is enlivened by the dynamic of ace performers J. Samuel Davis, who plays Fielding, and Ron Himes, the director who was called to fill in as Turnbo a few days before the show began its run. Both titans in the local theater community, they are multiple winners and nominees of the St. Louis Theater Circle Awards, and their ease slipping into these roles is one of the joys of seeing them at work.

Fielding is a driver whose life has been marred by alcoholism and Turnbo, a cranky guy who knows it all, likes to stir up trouble.

Another bright spot is Edward Hill as Doub, a Korean War veteran who keeps it all together at the service.

Rounding out the cast is Robert A. Mitchell as Shealy, a local bookie who does not drive but spends his time there using the pay phone to run his numbers game, and Richard Harris as Philmore, as a hotel doorman who gets rides from the guys.

Director Himes capitalizes on Wilson’s ability to draw us into his world that is so vivid. The production is enhanced by spot-on music choices reflecting that era, an impeccably designed set by Harlan D. Penn, the always exquisite lighting design of Joseph W. Clapper and sharp sound design from Justin Schmitz. Jamie Bullins’ costume design shrewdly reflects the characters.

As Wilson chronicled African American life during the 20th century, we learned about specific journeys in a way that resonated universally. Call them ordinary people, but on stage, they create a stunning portrait of America – and they make a beautiful noise. All but one of his 10 plays are set in his hometown.

Because of the Black Rep’s unwavering commitment to Wilson’s plays, we St. Louisans have been fortunate to experience his Pittsburgh plays, or Century Cycle, in the highest quality possible.

These productions, now in the company’s second go-round, have enriched not only my theater-going but also my understanding of humanity. I look forward to the rest I have not seen.

Whether you have seen any or none, engage a ride with “Jitney” May 4-May 29.

The Black Repertory Theatre of St. Louis presents August Wilson’s “Jitney” May through May 29 at the Edison Theatre on the campus of Washington University in St. Louis. For tickets, visit
For more information, visit
www.theblackrep.org

By Lynn Venhaus
No parent should have to bury a child.

The anguish of these Uvalde parents is heartbreaking and we must do whatever we can to support them. We can’t let it be other people’s problems.

Columbine, Buffalo, Sandy Hook, Parkland, Virginia Tech, Las Vegas, the church in southern California and Texas and Charleston and Jewish synagogues, the high school kid in Michigan whose parents did nothing, and on and on…where is the next “it couldn’t happen here”?

The pain of the Uvalde parents and community at large is palpable. We can feel it? What parent hasn’t had a chill go down their spine? How many parents slept with their youngsters last night? Holding them close, however, does not protect them from evil.

The 21 victims’ parents are now in the same club I am in – and no one wants to be in this club.

The day you bury your son or daughter is the saddest day of your life. Everything is before and after. Nothing is the same Nor will it ever be. The depth of sorrow is unfathomable. The only thing that helps get you through it is the outpouring of kindness and comfort from others.

We can only imagine what it is like to drop your kids off at school and then they don’t come home.

Waiting…and waiting for word if they are safe. A community is shattered and a nation mourns. Why aren’t our kids or our loved ones safe? We should use this anger and grief to unite for change.

I have seen during the past couple weeks joyous photos on Facebook of parents celebrating their school children’s achievements and graduations. Happy, smiling families. Can you imagine if a gunman intruded on your special day? Something so innocent marred forever by tragedy.

Malls, grocery stores, concerts, movie theatres, schools, churches — why are we not safe?

Those who think firearms are not an issue? I would like to see the amount of money lawmakers receive from NRA and gun lobbyists.

Arm teachers? Make harsher laws on crimes involving guns AFTER people are dead while doing nothing to tighten how people get these weapons?

And you bear no responsibility? What about preventative measures.

Action. Stand up. No time to sit back and shrug our shoulders. Sure, I feel helpless and hopeless because NOTHING changes by legislators who let the gun lobby rule their conscience. No 18 year old needs an assault rifle.

Guns are now the number one cause of children’s deaths, surpassing car accidents.

Most of America is outraged and agree on assault weapons, background checks, etc. but we need to hold feet to the fire — to those speaking hollow condolences without any kind of reform. Ruled by partisan gridlock, when will we see change in Washington DC? You do not need an AR-15 to hunt deer.

You can’t deflect to mental health – you hold some responsibility by your cowardice to not do what is right regarding reform.

The second amendment was written in 1791 and wasn’t meant to be blanket permission for citizens to own weapons of war. What kind of sport is that exactly? Why does an 18 need nearly $4,000 worth of gums and ammunition.

We must demand change. Vote. Keep the conversation going. Do not let it fade away…and then the next time.

I thought things would change after kids were killed in the high profile cases. Apparently not.

What will it take? What is the tipping point? Why are we letting these things go on?

How many more parents have to suffer until something is done?

Aren’t we tired of these repeated scenarios?

Do more, America.

And PS Texas Deputy Governor Dan Patrick is a horrible human being.

Where to Help?

Uvalde Strong Relief Fund

The Community Foundation of Texas Hill Country, a nonprofit just northwest of San Antonio, started a relief fund for Uvalde victims and their families, as well as others affected by the shooting.

Crowdfunding platform GoFundMe set up a page with verified fundraisers put together by family members of shooting victims and nonprofit organizations.

The Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District created a bank account at First State Bank of Uvalde where people can send funds directly to shooting victims and their families. Funds can be sent electronically through Zelle using the email [email protected] or through the mail at the address 200 East Nopal St., Uvalde, Texas 78801. Make checks payable to the “Robb School Memorial Fund.”


By Lynn Venhau

The truth is out there, “The X Files” told us during 11 seasons on television. For believers of any paranormal or extra-terrestrial phenomena, some sort of proof helps build a convincing case. “Anomalous Experience” earnestly scratches the surface but is only a piece of an ever-evolving puzzle for truth-seekers.

Inspired by true events, Joe Hanrahan’s original play is a serious-minded drama taking a clinical approach as a public lecture by a psychiatrist who has endured ridicule about his studies into alien abductions and features two patients sharing their experiences.

The Midnight Company’s world premiere production opens its 25th season and runs at the .Zack May 5 – 21.

A key component of science fiction during the last half of the 20th century – the so-called ‘Atomic Age’ — has been stories centered on aliens, whether Unidentified Flying Objects, abductions, or exploratory visits from extra-terrestrials.

But now, with the government acknowledging UFOs and recent sightings of unknown aircraft by military pilots, which are being investigated (even if Area 51 folklore remains shrouded in mystery), tales this century are more accepted and not viewed as merely the rantings of kooks.

However, a heavy dose of skepticism exists about alien abductions. That’s the focus of actor-playwright Hanrahan, who based his character on a real professor who forged ahead in his research despite the nay-sayers.

Joe Hanrahan. Photo by Joey Rumpell

Hanrahan won a St. Louis Theater Circle Award in March for his original play “Tinsel Town,” which is three showbiz vignettes taking place over a 24-hour period in Los Angeles, presented in 2021, and was nominated for his nostalgic one-man show “Now Playing Third Base for the St. Louis Cardinals…Bond…James Bond.”  This is a different direction, and he has meticulously researched the subject to present it in a matter of fact, not preachy or fearful, way.

The sobering material touches on such familiar cases as Roswell, N.M., and goes back to ancient times (Chariots of the Gods) through production designer Kevin Bowman’s impressive slide show.

Given Midnight’s penchant for small character studies, the show is simply yet effectively staged, with Kevin Bowman’s minimal set.

Director Morgan Maul-Smith strips it down to maintain an air of gravitas through the actors – Hanrahan as James Collins and Joseph Garner and Payton Gillam as the two patients Scott and Virginia who believe they were abducted by aliens.

Anxious and apprehensive about their reception, but steadfast in their beliefs that something profound happened to them, Virginia and Scott share their harrowing experiences and re-enact hypnotic regression in a natural progression. 

Photo by Joey Rumpell

Both performers are engaging in conversations with Hanrahan, and Garner looks directly at the audience with his compelling experience. He is particularly haunting in his graphic descriptions of a breeding incident, and his struggles to cope with what has taken place. Gillam is effective in her recount of how her life changed, including her marriage.

That eerie uncertainty is carried through Ellie Schwetye’s masterful sound design and Tony Anselmo’s lighting design.

After their recount, it’s anti-climactic when the 80-minute play ends, because we don’t go farther in their lives. It would be interesting to see how their lives changed in the years since their encounters, if they felt they were being observed or studied.

This uncommon tale benefits from the strong actors, but the play is more sensible than sensational – just in case you were looking for escalating melodrama and shifting behaviors. As we’ve become accustomed to in fictional narratives on aliens, this is just the beginning.

“Anomalous Experience” is a thought-provoking look into unexplained abnormal events that make for a modern ghost story, although light on thrills and chills.

Photo by Joey Rumpell

The Midnight Company presents “Anomalous Experience” May 5 – 21, with performances Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m., although the final show is Saturday, May 21 at 8 p.m., at the .Zack, 3224 Locust in the Grand Center Arts District of St. Louis. For tickets, visit www.metrotix.com. For more information, visit www.midnightcompany.com

The .Zack is a Kranzberg Arts Foundation space. Follow the COVID-19 guidelines currently in place. Masks are currently optional for patrons.

By Lynn Venhaus
This beautifully filmed sequel is as welcome as seeing old friends again now that we’ve been through a global pandemic. And as a merry follow-up film, “Downton Abbey – A New Era” couldn’t be more charming and delightful – and provide satisfactory story arcs for all major and minor characters.

Half the Crawley clan heads to the south of France to investigate the Dowager Countess’ (Maggie Smith) newest inheritance while the family’s new matriarch, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) stays home to oversee a movie being shot there (they need a new roof).

Only, it’s impossible to divulge plot points because of the big reveals throughout its two-hour runtime. The entire historical period drama, tinged with warm humor and trademark zingers from creator and writer Julian Fellowes, is one big spoiler alert.

That said, the two overlapping plots are deliciously engaging – a sojourn to the south of France to stay at a grand villa that has its own jaw-dropping backstory, and a glamorous Hollywood film crew taking over the august estate. It’s 1929, and they will roar headfirst into a new decade.

For fans, this is as enjoyable as opening presents on Christmas morning. And dare I say, even better than the first film, which continued where the series left off, updating the lives of the downstairs servants and the heirs of the Earl of Grantham.

Three years after the first film dealt with a royal visit from King George V and Queen Mary in 1927, and seven years after the hit TV drama ended its sixth season (2011-2015), award-winning run, the family and the servants are still in a flutter – only this time have a gift horse to speculate about, and stars in their eyes from the intrusion of movie people.

The melodrama gives the characters plenty to fret about and deal with, making them relatable to us commoners as power shifts and romances begin and deepen. Director Simon Curtis, who made the captivating “My Week with Marilyn,” nimbly weaves both plots together for a satisfactory narrative.

The addition of the film crew, who starts off producing a silent picture but must accommodate the growing popularity of ‘talkies,’ provides comical encounters and an engaging subplot for Lady Mary, with Michelle Dockery in classy form.

Hugh Dancy is earnest as smitten film director Jack Barber and a jaunty Dominic West is dashing as movie star Guy Dexter, while Laura Haddock does her best Jean Hagen as the Tinsel Town beauty Myrna Dalgleish whose crass voice needs an overhaul as does her uppity attitude. Shades of “Singin’ in the Rain”!

Maggie Smith, the two-time Oscar winner, owns the film as quipmeister Violet Crawley, effortlessly delivering her customary putdowns.

Just as the first film, “A New Era” is opulently crafted, with exquisite costume design by Anna Robbins and Maja Meschede and production design again by Donal Woods befitting a regal world of aristocratic wealth and position.

Andrew Dunn’s sumptuous cinematography keys in on the scenic splendor of the Mediterranean coast as well as effective shadows and light in the indoor movie making scenes. Composer John Lunn returns to accentuate every mood with swelling strings.

The real Highclere Castle in north Hampshire stands in for the Downton Abbey homestead, and still makes one swoon.

I’m ready for a third chapter, but if this is the end, what a fine swan song it is.

“Downtown Abbey: A New Era” is a 2022 historical drama directed by Simon Curtis and starring Maggie Smith, Hugh Bonneville, Michelle Dockery, Elizabeth McGovern, Hugh Dancy, Dominic West, Laura Haddock, Penelope Wilton and Imelda Stanton. It’s rated PG for some suggestive references, language,  and thematic elements and its runtime is 2 hours, 4 minutes. It is in theatres May 20. Lynn’s Grade A.

May 10 is National Fentanyl Awareness DayLet’s Do Something Before More People Die

By Lynn Venhaus
Today, May 10, is National Fentanyl Awareness Day. The use of illegally-made fentanyl is fueling a national health crisis — it is an epidemic affecting all Americans, and we need to do more.

Sunday, many mothers were unable to mark their special day with their dear sons and daughters who lost their lives because of fentanyl. This is personal to so many of your friends, relatives and neighbors. It is a tragedy for families, ripped apart, ruined, broken.
More than 500,000 Americans have died from overdoses the past 20 years. Fentanyl is a factor in more half of overdose deaths. Less than 0.007% of an ounce of fentanyl causes certain death. Statistics indicate 42,700 fentanyl overdose deaths occurred in 2020.

Start with education — it is key. Fentanyl is a potent lab-made opioid, and a cheap and addictive filler getting added to illegally-made drugs at alarming rates.

People are using it unintentionally and dying from overdoses as a result. Even if you don’t use non-prescribed drugs, chances are that you know someone who has been impacted by the current crisis.

On this #NationalFentanylAwarenessDay, please learn more about the risks associated with fentanyl, and what you can do to prevent, recognize, and reverse overdoses.

From US Senator Maggie Hassan from New Hampshire:
Granite Staters know all too well the devastating effects of the substance misuse epidemic, and as fentanyl continues to harm families and communities, we must keep raising awareness about this deadly substance. We are increasingly seeing fentanyl-laced drugs disguised as prescription drugs, which means that many Americans are unknowingly ingesting fentanyl with dire health consequences. Fentanyl Awareness Day is crucial to keeping people informed about these types of risks, and also to reduce the stigma to seeking help.

“I am heartened that addressing this crisis is not a partisan issue: I’ve worked with colleagues on both sides of the aisle to crack down on illegal drug trafficking of fentanyl and support those struggling with substance misuses. I will continue to work across the aisle to help communities stay safe in the face of this serious threat.”

Senator Hassan has led efforts to target illicit fentanyl trafficking, and the most recent annual defense bill included Senator Hassan’s bipartisan bill with Senator Pat Toomey (R-PA) to hold accountable countries such as China that are facilitating America’s fentanyl-fueled opioid crisis. The Senator recently joined a bipartisan group of colleagues in introducing legislation to implement new penalties for counterfeit pill production.

Write to DEA Administrator Anne Milgram to combat the rise of dangerous drugs such as fentanyl and methamphetamine disguised as prescription drugs.

We need to do more. We need to pressure lawmakers to do something. We must crack down on international drug trafficking and provide more resources to law enforcement to help stop the flow of illegal drugs into communities.

And if you need a Call to Action, watch the documentary “The Crime of the Century,” which is in two parts. First one is oxycontin, second one is fentanyl. Trailer:https://youtu.be/SkU75sBdjdU

More lives will be lost if people continue to look the other way.

Here are signs of overdoses:
Loss of consciousness
Unresponsive to outside stimulus
Awake, but unable to talk
Breathing is very slow and shallow, erratic, or has stopped
For lighter skinned people, the skin tone turns bluish purple, for darker skinned people, it turns grayish or ashen
Choking sounds, or a snore-like gurgling noise (sometimes called the “death rattle”)
Vomiting
Body is very limp
Face is very pale or clammy
Fingernails and lips turn blue or purplish black
Pulse (heartbeat) is slow, erratic, or not there at all

National help is also available at findtreatment.gov
Partnership to End Addiction: https://drugfree.org/get-support/
More information: https://www.hhs.gov/opioids/about-the-epidemic/index.html

Let’s help each other save some lives.