Tuesday, September 10, 2013


By Ruth Ross

The ancient Greek plays had it. Shakespeare's tragedies and comedies had it. Ibsen's dramas had it. Even Gilbert and Sullivan operettas had it. What is "it?" you ask. Why, it is the magic ingredient, oh, so important to the theater: conflict. Without it, there's no tension; without it, there's no dramatic arc; without it, there is nothing to be resolved. Without it, there is no successful play!

The Beautiful Dark - Premiere Stages, Kean UniversityWell, I am pleased to report that the world premiere production of Erik Gernand's drama The Beautiful Dark, now onstage at Premiere Stages at Kean University has conflict in spades. The winner of the company's 2013 Play Festival competition, Gernand's play beat out 400 submissions to be workshopped and given a full production on the stage of the Zella Fry Theatre. The result is a family drama that fulfills Premiere Stages' mission to present topical subjects that inspire people to talk after the stage lights go down.

Topical, indeed. Gernand said at the Talk Back following last Sunday's matinee that he was inspired to write The Beautiful Dark by the shooting of Rep. Gabby Giffords by a mentally ill young man. An article he read asked the question: What would you do if it were your son who committed such a heinous crime?

In this powerful and thought-provoking play, a woman's life is turned topsy-turvy when she suspects that her troubled teenage son is possibly planning a violent attack on a school. Is he capable of committing such an act, she wonders? If she turns him in to the authorities—on the basis of some rather sketchy evidence—could she ruin his chance for a normal life forever?

The Beautiful Dark - Premiere Stages, Kean UniversityThat is the conundrum facing Dr. Nancy Weller, single mother, recovering alcoholic and high school principal (at the school she attended as a teen), beautifully played with obvious angst, the best of intentions, simmering doubts and great nuance by Diana Benningfield (left). We truly feel for this conflicted woman as she gradually learns that what she has previously thought—about her son and, concomitantly, about a long-time colleague—does not match reality. Her troubled college student son, Jacob, is a simmering pot of discontent, hatred (and self-hatred), arrogance and superior intelligence; unshaven, slovenly, Daniel Pellicano (in photo above to the right) inhabits the character like a second skin, alternating between flashes of brilliance, dark moodiness and downright scariness. From the opening scene wherein he talks about the power of a hurricane to cleanse the ills of society to his reading/recital of a fable he wrote about a blackbird who leaves the "oblivion of the beautiful dark" to attempt to fly through a window, only to fall to the ground, dead, Pellicano's Jacob is a child in despair, a child issuing a cry for help, only people hear what they want to hear.

The Beautiful Dark - Premiere Stages, Kean UniversityHis younger brother Charlie, played by a talented Logan Riley Bruner (in photo to left with Diana Benningfield), alternately worships and fears his older brother. On Sunday, Bruner spoke a tad too fast in his opening appearance, but he settled into the role and gave a sympathetic and touching performance. His tenderness was an antidote to Steven Rishard's portrayal of the boys' police chief father Tom (below), quick to anger, impatient to do something as his ex-wife wants to give Jacob "time" and to The Beautiful Dark - Premiere Stages, Kean Universitytreat him gently. The conflict between the two parents is electrifying.

Rounding out the cast is Mitch Greenberg as creative writing teacher Jim Marsh who, it appears, has used Nancy's school credit card (without permission) to rent pornography at a local sex shop. Greenberg's Jim is the epitome of righteous indignation and smarminess as he goes above Nancy's head to the superintendent of schools, thus undermining her authority and making her feel foolish. The scene where she confronts him with a signed receipt is fraught with palpable tension. This subplot, which some theatergoers questioned in the talk with the playwright after the play, is important because it shows that Nancy has a life outside of the home and faces a problem with a colleague similar to the one with Jacob. And the fact that Jim taught Jacob as a freshman and senior gives him a connection to the boy's writings that prove to be so problematical to his intentions. Cara Ganski has a brief but pivotal turn as Sydney, the girlfriend Jacob dumped, who alerted the college authorities to his tortured and scary writings.

Once again, Artistic Director John Wooten's directorial hand is firm and steady, which is especially evident in the ease with which a great number of scene changes are accomplished. He manages his actors so well that they never descend into histrionics or bathos; they appear to be real people having real conversations with one another (kudos to Gernand for writing such realistic dialogue), expressing real feelings, agonizing over real conflicts. Joseph Gourley's set is spot-on for a modest suburban living room and kitchen and the bare bones of a school office, and Dori Strober's costumes fit each character's character very well. Janie Bullard's sound design incorporates loud heavy metal music, the cacophony of which must match the turmoil in Jacob's head and Nancy's heart. Nadine Charlsen's lighting is atmospheric (especially the stormy weather visible outside the living room windows).

Selecting a play from a large number of submissions is a tricky business, for the judges have to ascertain which one is the most producible, would profit from a workshop and would involve the audience the best. This year, they hit the jackpot. The Beautiful Dark is a dark play, a beautiful play, a topical play—the work of a passionate and talented playwright and a worthy production for the esteemed Premiere Stages to present. The house was full on Sunday, September 10, so call for tickets so you won't miss this important work.

The Beautiful Dark will be performed at the Zella Fry Theatre in the Vaughn Eames Building on the Kean University campus in Union through September 22. There are various Talk Backs on Friday, September 13 at 8 PM; Saturday, September 14, at 3 PM; and Sunday, September 22, at 3 PM. Various professionals will lead these sessions.

For information and tickets, call the Kean Stage Box Office at 908.737.SHOW (7469) or visit  

Photos by Mike Peters.