Tuesday, April 5, 2022

Women's Playwright Series' WHIPPOORWILL Elicits Laughter and Applause

By Jane Primerano
Guest Review

Under the direction of Catherine Rust, the Women’s Playwright Series has been a staple of Centenary University for 30 years.

Rust, the WPC program director, who retired from her full-time position at the Centenary Stage Company but not from her commitment to women playwrights, and Carl Wallnau, artistic director of CSC and chair of the Centenary fine arts department, founded the series and continue to work with playwrights to develop plays for readings and productions.

The 2022 production is Whippoorwill, a play by Pulitzer Prize-nominee Ruth Kirschner.

It opened on Thursday, March 31, to a surprisingly sparse audience who nonetheless made their appreciation known through enthusiastic laughter and applause.

There were plenty of opportunities for both during the run of this play about a single mother and her 9-year-old daughter who both learn a lot about the importance of telling the truth.

Much of the play rests on the small shoulders of Leilah St. Clair Marshall of Lake Hopatcong, a fifth grader and veteran of Centenary’s Young Performer’s Workshop under Michael Blevins, as well as local community theater.

It’s not only Leilah’s first professional role but also a role requiring her to start the play with a soliloquy. From her first comments about her belief in the Rainbow Bridge where she will be reunited with Arlo the Dog, she proves she is more than up to the task. Throughout the play, Leilah’s Bibi is the fulcrum on which the story turns, and she is totally believable in the role.

This takes nothing away from the rest of the cast. Laura Ekstrand as Bibi’s struggling mother convinces the audience she could be a blogger (“Parenting on Purpose”) who creates tales about Bibi’s father that are nice stories but far from the truth.

Clark Scott Carmichael is the father, Larry, in flashbacks delivering soliloquies or interacting with Ekstrand’s Francine. He seems natural as a wandering cowboy/auto mechanic/drifter.

In smaller roles, Becky Engborg is a neighbor with complaints tempered by compassion; Eddie Gouvela Blackman is an Uber driver with a secret, Centenary student James Brandes is a Wiccan morgue attendant and Jamir Freeman provides a dual role as a motel clerk and radio interviewer. All bring a professional touch to their roles, especially Blackman who proves to be a trusted advisor as well as a driver.

Heard but not seen are Evan Malavarca and Maxine Spann who provide voiceovers.

Seen and heard is Scarlet, a beagle/possibly boxer mix who plays Grace, Larry’s dog. Another dog, Clementine, provides Arlo’s barks.

Leilah also proves she is a competent canine handler in the play’s last scene.

The story takes a number of unexpected turns, masterfully handled by director Margot Whitcomb.

Generally, the scene design is a major factor in CSC plays, but Whippoorwill has a minimalist set, which works well with the complicated story.

Kirschner attended opening night and chatted with members of the audience after the show. She was nominated for a Pulitzer in drama for her play The Field, created from stories told by veterans who are incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison in California.

Whippoorwill is not to be missed for both the story and the opportunity to see the professional debut of a young actress with plenty of potential.

Performances will run through April 10. For more information, go to or call the Centenary Stage Company's box office at (908) 979-0900.