By Stana Milanovich
It takes a bit to find the Stella Adler Lab Theater. Hollywood Boulevard is noisy and bright, and the Lab is tucked in a dim gap, set back from the street. Someone will lead you past the opacity of locked doors, up the stairs (there's an elevator if you like) and down the hall to where five short plays attempt to shine attention on a subject much more opaque and difficult to reach: suicide.
A Light in Dark Places: A Collection of Plays for Hope, is in its third year under the helm of producer Kelly O'Malley, who was inspired to start the project after the suicide of her father. The plays are chosen to give voice and hope to the subject, and the play's run, from Sept 7th through the 16th, is designed to coincide with National Suicide Prevention Week.
The intimate space is well-handled with tight staging overall, and a crew that manages with a twist and turn of a box or chair to quickly sketch any one of a number of locales throughout the five short plays, creating a ceaseless flow of story. Lighting is kept fairly simple, with only a few dramatic flares between plays to, say, outline a key prop, like a large orchid in a hospital room.
"The Orchid" is the first play, and, thanks to the efforts of Benny Wayne Sully in the character of Jake, the most humorous and hopeful of the bunch. This is an actor who knows how to manage "business" and he brings a cringing delight to his portrayal of a best friend's awkward first hospital visit, post the suicide attempt of Ryan, given tortured depth by Andrew Morra. The interplay between the two actors feels very genuine and as a whole still carries the lightness and possibility of youth and building again.
"The Last Day" sees friends and a teacher tormented as they run through a list of possible places their friend and student Cody could have spent his last day. Rick Peters brings the pain of Mr. Burnham to life as he questions why he missed whatever sign was there, while Jon and Young Nikki, portrayed by Ryan Rickard Jessica Dowdeswell, give realistic ebb and flow to kids feeling hurt and lost and left behind but still teenagers with so much ahead. However, it is the older version of Nikki, played by Meg Hyeronimus, who really stands out in her memories of a pain that never leaves and what she wished she could say. Her monologue is very powerful and delivered with surety. While more clarity between the eras would be helpful, and perhaps further use of the strong silent presence of Mitchell Peters, onstage throughout as Cody, his character still remains a devastating echo.
This echo is practically a shotgun blast in the 3rd play, "Ellen". The titular Ellen, played brilliantly by Bonnie McNeil, paints a portrait of a woman who has never 'recovered' from the loss of her daughter to suicide. Her surviving daughter, Lisa, arrives to celebrate the birthday of her sister with her mother. Marina Zoreva as Lisa gives an aching portrayal of a daughter begging for her mother's present attention, when Ellen has never removed her gaze from looking into the past for answers. Their interplay is beautiful, despite a mismatch of accent, and the final moment of knowledge and desperate, wistful desire at the end is perhaps the strongest of the series. In addition to the cast, Timothy McNeil, the author, may be congratulated on bringing this so authentically to life.
"I'll Tell You At Sunrise" is another well-written contender, but it's the portrayal of the Vagabond by Chris Doubek that really sings. The reactions of Doubek's formerly suicidal and currently homeless Vagabond feel very genuine in the shock of being asked to do the morally dubious task of burying the suicidal Man, played by Roderick McCarthey. Doubek manages the role without much of the twitchiness that so often defines stage portrayals of the homeless, and his conviction in his speeches carries the story. The strength of Doubek's portrayal shows up McCarthey's occasional lack of center in his character. While a very solid performance, McCarthey relies too heavily on outbursts of anger, which, while realistic, feel less specifically motivated, and he tends to fall away without sufficient reaction during Doubek's speeches. Still, their interplay is very strong, particularly as survivor to one looking to attempt, and it closes on the perfect note of uncertain hope.
It's always interesting when shorts in a series seem to talk to each other, commenting back and forth, each revealing a different aspect of a subject, but it is ruinous when one story in the series doesn't seem to listen. While the audience can be reassured that the other four plays display current best practices for speaking about suicide, "Good Radio", the final play in this series, fails on multiple counts, which is most disappointing given that better choices would have led to better drama. For instance, when longtime listener Bill, played with a wonderful grace and sweetness by Robert Sprayberry, calls into the show and explains that he's about to commit suicide, then the producer Rachel, and here we have Carolina Mollinedo Puleo doing the best she can with little, could have been frantically calling in the background, trying to gather clues as to Bill's whereabouts. Now she has little to do except be the butt of casual misogynistic jokes, and hold up the one true failure of prop in the most prop heavy play -- an unreadable sign, which could have been fixed by using a heavy marker. Mitchell Holden plays the bitter and burnt out shock-jock Seamus with accuracy, and Bruno Oliver does a very good turn as the seemingly simple Dick, a man of hidden depths. However, the play is written to resolve the tension of a potential suicide with a magic wand that undercuts so much of the good work of the previous plays. If only someone had been there to remind the other suicidal characters in the proceeding plays about how much it would hurt their families, clearly that would have solved everything. It's insulting and delivered in a bro-toughen-up patter that exacerbates the problem. If thoughts of one's family could keep people from suicide, this series would not be needed. It is, in fact, the guilt over the likely reaction of loved ones that can often keep those feeling suicidal in a dark place.
So in this last instance, I recommend heading to the light and maybe taking a walk just outside the theater to the hall where the wonderful American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has set up an information booth. They're delightful people with plentiful informative pamphlets, buttons, and Lifesaver candy, pun intended. Should you feel like continuing to walk, they sponsor Out of Darkness Walks in various parts of the city which parallel and continue to message of information, understanding and hope so well done in much of this series. Keep the message going, and get your tickets soon.
A Light in Dark Places plays through September 16th at the Stella Adler Theatre.
Friday and Saturday performances begin at 8pm, and Sunday performances start at 7pm. The Adler Theater is located at located at 6773 Hollywood Blvd. in Hollywood. Tickets are available in the form a donation, with a suggested price of $15. To purchase tickets, please visit