Sunday, October 20, 2013


Sheila and OreoBy Sheila Abrams

It would be hard to find a better venue for Bruce Graham’s play, Moon Over The Brewery, than the Chester Theatre Group’s Black River Playhouse. The intimacy of the theater-in-the-round brings the audience virtually into the pleasantly cluttered living room in which the characters are living their lives. You are close enough to hear them breathing.

Moon Over The Brewery, which comes from Pennsylvania without any New York pedigree, is ideal for this setting. It has four characters, all startlingly familiar (although one of them, you learn very quickly, is not real), and they are living through a series of events that are quite believable. These folks might well live next door. Except, that is, for the one who is not real.

In a modest house in a Pennsylvania coal town live Miriam, a waitress by trade and an artist by inclination, and her intellectually gifted, troubled teen-aged daughter, Amanda. Also in residence—sort of—is Randolph, who is Amanda’s imaginary friend. Amanda can see him and so can the audience, but Miriam can’t. Neither can the fourth character, Warren, Miriam’s most recent admirer.

Isolated from her contemporaries by her 160 IQ and her acerbic personality, Amanda is determined to keep Miriam from what she sees as inappropriate relationships with men, which really means any relationships with men. With Randolph bringing out the worst in her, the sharp-tongued Amanda is an expert at humiliating interlopers.

When Warren comes along, however, she is faced with something new. Warren is a genuinely nice person. And he is a lot smarter than she gives him credit for. The unfolding of the personalities of Amanda, Warren and Miriam and the way they influence each other is warm-hearted and mildly funny.

It is, however, Randolph who keeps this domestic comedy-drama from becoming the stuff of sitcoms. Being a figment of Amanda’s lively imagination, he takes on the physical aspects of characters in books she is reading. He begins as Jay Gatsby and then transitions, with costume changes, into characters from the book, Shogun. He is even more caustic than Amanda is on her own. However, his invisibility makes him surprisingly vulnerable. He gets stepped on, knocked aside and subjected to similar indignities, which, given his built-in swagger, is pretty funny!

The Chester production, directed with an accomplished subtlety by Jay Mills, boasts terrific performances. First of all, as Randolph, Lewis L. Decker’s physicality provides much of the humor, while his share of the dialogue with Amanda lends the play its sharp edge.

Casting Amanda could be a nightmare. Chester was fortunate to find Kristin Bennett, an adult actress who, with her schoolgirl clothing and her Alice-in-Wonderland hairstyle, manages to persuade you that she is 14. Decker’s height makes Bennett look appropriately tiny, but Amanda’s giant intellect is evident in Bennett’s portrayal.

As the two characters who are what you might call “normal,” Laura MacMillan as Miriam and especially Jeff Knapp as Warren are absolutely wonderful. They are totally persuasive. MacMillan’s Miriam is a perfect portrayal of tentative optimism battling long-standing low self-esteem. Knapp makes Warren somebody you wish you had for a friend.

In the case of this production of Moon Over The Brewery (which is also the title of one of Miriam’s paintings), the surroundings do a lot to enhance the play’s strong sense of reality. Ellen Fraker Glasscock deserves plaudits for the set and lighting design.