In the Moment: ‘Midwestern Gothic’ at Signature Theatre

The premise seems full of possibilities. With its moody Twin Peaks-like, arched eyebrow attitude, Midwestern Gothic tackles wasted lives, a randy adolescent woman who is questioning the “why” of her life, and always at-the-ready testosterone-fueled male obsessions. All this plus some “good old boys” as a Greek Chorus all planted down in a no-exit, dead-end, rural town.

As concocted by book writer Royce Vavrek and Josh Schmidt’s music heavy with minor bluesy piano key cords and percussive oomph, Midwestern Gothic seems a combustible mix ready to flare-up. Even the dangerous sounding song titles by Vavrek and Schmidt seem ready to burn hot. Song titles included the likes of “Gonna Get Us in Trouble,” “Whiskey Courage,” “Saint Sebastian,” “In the Shame of My Loving You,” and “Mama Cries into Her Tea,” to name just a few of the 17 musical numbers that populate Midwestern Gothic.

Timothy J. Alex and Morgan Keene in Midwestern Gothic. Photo by Margot Schulman.

My appetite was further whet with expectations for Signature’s Midwestern Gothic since the director was the always resourceful Matthew Gardiner.

But, like my DCMetroTheaterArts colleague Nicole Hertvik, I found Midwestern Gothic wanting.

But, for all its heavy breathing and trash-talk and bad decisions made over too many beers, Midwestern Gothic has little real heat or spark. It was a late night soft-core bro’ talk-a-thon. The hardworking cast and creative team worked their butts off, but couldn’t stiffen up into a visibly excited state what they had to work with.

As the center of attention, Morgan Keene as Stina, an adolescent learning her full powers was a wonderful Lolita-like presence. She was a flirting tease clad in a yellow bathing suit. But her Stina character was way too thinly constructed to provide a long-term impact even as her character’s hysteria was amped up over time. Stina is an unlikely hypnotist over men, unless I took her character as meant to be sly camp told with a straight face.

Stina’s step-dad, named Red, of course has his eyes on his step daughter. There is the expected trajectory of lust of an older, sexually frustrated man for the budding girl in his home. Timothy J. Alex does well breathing life into his character both as a leering step-dad with hots for his step daughter while also being a rejected husband.

Sherri Edelen has a fun time playing Deb, Stina’s mother and Red’s wife. Edelen just blasts through the craziness of her character with a thankfully brash physical presence, a belting voice, and a no-nonsense portrayal of a woman who doesn’t take shit from anyone.

Timothy J. Alex and Rachel Zampelli in Midwestern Gothic. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Other actors who caught my eye included Sam Ludwig as a boy “in puppy love” with Stina who will do anything for her attention. His portrayal as the image of that famous Renaissance painting of St. Sebastian was one of the high points of the production, so thank you Matthew Gardiner for that. Rachel Zampelli gives enormous poignancy to her role as a woman wanting some intimacy where ever she can fine it. Bobby Smith (as Sheriff Dwayne) and Evan Casey, JP Sisneros, Chris Sizemore and Stephen Gregory Smith as “Good Old Boys” add plenty of well needed zip and happy charm to the show.

And let me provide a big, long, tip-of-the-hat to musicians Timothy Splain (conductor/piano), Jacob Kidder (accordion), Ken Hall (guitar), Mark Carson (drums) and Scott Ninmer (tuba) for their lively work at propelling Midwestern Gothic along swimmingly.

Tart tongues and cute poses only can go so far, at least to me. There seems little beneath the surface of the current Midwestern Gothic. With what felt like a surface mash-up with allusions to old movies, old literature and some hot air blown at Jesus, Midwestern Gothic fell flat for me. Worse; it seemed soft and lazy. It needed some kind of pumping up. Maybe that will be in store so we can revisit it.

Running Time: One hour and 40 minutes, with no intermission.

Midwestern Gothic plays through April 30, 2017 at Signature Theatre – 4200 Campbell Avenue, in Arlington, VA. For tickets, call (703) 820-9771, or go online.

Note: Midwestern Gothic contains material that is only suitable for mature audiences.

Review: ‘Midwestern Gothic’ at Signature Theatre by Nicole Hertvik


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