Jared Eberlein of Northfield, Massachusetts received top honors at the 29th annual Dayton Playhouse FutureFest of new works for his historical drama Fall with Me, the story of an African-American World War I veteran facing a crossroads.
Set in 1930s Baltimore and inspired by the true story of the 1932 “Bonus Army” who met in Washington D.C. to demand cash-payment redemption of their service certificates, Fall with Me scored highest among six plays showcased at the July 19-21 all-volunteer festival. Five professional adjudicators judged each play (chosen from over 350 submissions) based on criteria including characters/language, plot, story/dramatic concept, page-to-stage, and the next stage.
Presented as a staged reading July 21 and directed by Dawn Roth Smith, who helmed last year’s winner Of Men and Cars, Fall with Me featured Justin Lampkins as Jasper (JJ) Johnston, Bryana Bentley as Bithiah Johnston, Tia Seay as Delia Reddy, Franklin Johnson as Harry Thompkins, Sean Mayo as Lenny Leventhal, and Sadie Hornick as the voice of Bessie Johnston.
“Truth be told, I was kind of in shock,” said Eberlein, who received $1,000 for his play but declined to give an acceptance speech. “You learn as a playwright to minimize expectations because there are so many of us trying to find places for our work and there’s no mathematic equation that says one piece should be done over another. There were six wonderful and unique pieces in the festival year. I was also taken aback because the entire weekend felt so familial, community-driven, passionate for new works and supportive of us as a collective of playwrights that it was almost weird that for two-and-a-half minutes it became a competition. Winning was truly a bonus. I was grateful to have my work included in the festival at all. I suppose it’s a lesson to always have a speech in my back pocket or at least have a joke about not having a prepared speech. If I were to do the moment over, with less shock and awe, I, of course, would mention that I owe the play’s director, Dawn Roth Smith, a huge debt of gratitude along with a stellar cast for their work: Bryana Bentley, Franklin Johnson, Justin Lampkins, Sean Mayo, and Tia Seay.”
As Eberlein continues to develop Fall with Me, he looks forward to taking into account the generous feedback he received. The enlightening panel of adjudicators, consisting of theatre critics/writers/dramaturgs, consisted of longtime returning judges David Finkle, Helen Sneed and Eleanore Speert as well as newcomers Stephanie Cowan and Arthur M. Jolly.
“I was encouraged both by the response from the adjudicators and the audience,” he said. “There was some really insightful feedback I’m considering as I make the next round of rewrites on the piece. I think as a whole the piece is getting close to where I want it as playwright. Then it really comes down to who produces it and the actors who are embodying the roles. Actors are amazing beings and they teach you so much about what your piece is (and) can be. And through them, and a wonderful director, what started as ‘my creation’ becomes ‘our creation,’ a collaboration. A primary goal for any play that I write is to provide a strong foundation on which a variety of artists can construct their own unique energy and motivations. Based on the reading of ‘Fall with Me’ that happened prior to FutureFest and then hearing the one this past weekend, I think the play is doing that. And that makes me happy and very excited for whatever comes next.”
North Wales, Pennsylvania playwright Shelli Pentimall Bookler’s historical drama On the Horizon, an engaging, tense look at the crew of the SS Californian that watched Titanic sink the evening of April 14, 1912 even though they were only within 10 miles from them, was named Audience Favorite. Directed by Annie Pesch and strikingly scenic designed by Chris “Red” Newman, On the Horizon featured Playhouse Board Chairman Matthew Lindsay as Captain Stanley Lord, Brian Buttrey as George Stewart, Brandon Shockney as Herbert Stone, Will Taylor as Charlie Groves, Jefferson Smith as Cyril “Sparks” Evans, and Samuel Hamilton as Jimmy Gibson. The imposing Buttrey, remarkable in a rare stage appearance, and the vibrant, humorous Hamilton delivered breakthrough performances.
Other contenders included Commerce, Michigan playwright Linda Ramsay-Detherage’s historical drama The Princess at Midnight (directed by Dorothy Michalski), New York City playwright Norman Mathews’ contemporary military drama Drone (directed by Craig Smith), Westlake Village, California playwright Robert Weibezahl’s gentle, nostalgic friendship dramedy Which Way the Wind Blows (directed by Abe J. Bassett), and New York City playwright Rich Orloff’s contemporary generational family dramedy Men Overboard (directed by Janet Powell). Ramsay-Detherage notably won the 2011 FutureFest for Sugarhill. Orloff was a 1993 finalist for Veronica’s Position. Bookler, Ramsay-Detherage, Weibezahl, and Orloff received $100.
Due to a family medical emergency, Mathews was unable to attend the festival and disqualified from the competition. However, Drone, a relevant, riveting examination of family, culture and prejudice concerning a Nevada drone pilot surveilling a Pakistani suspected of being a Taliban insurgent, was performed nonetheless. The cast featured Fran Pesch as Farishta Khan, Brendan Milligan as Arman Kahn, Shanna Camacho as Diwa Kahn, Karan Singh as Salar Kahn, Ray Geiger as Lieutenant Mike Powell, Lynn Vanderpool as Sergeant Tonya Spanger, Jefferson Smith as Robbie Powell, Elise Laskowski as Kristen Powell, Mike Taint as Colonel Andrews, and Becky Howard as TV Announcer. Drone and On the Horizon greatly benefitted from terrific dialect coaching by Fran and Annie Pesch.
Additionally, the cast of Which Way the Wind Blows featured Charles Larkowski as Marty O’Neill, Krissy McKim-Barker as Thalia Whetstone, Michael Markus as Gerald Freeman, Cynthia Karns as Carol O’Neill, Benjamin Jones as Paul Travis (age 11) and Peter Freeman (age 11), Chavin Medina as Marty O’Neill (age 11), Spencer Berta as Paul Travis (age 18), and Jennifer Lockwood as Peggy O’Neill; the cast of The Princess at Midnight featured Jamison Meyer as Jacob Simon, Tamar Fishbein as Rachel Simon, Spencer Berta as Benjamin, Ryan Shannon as Michael, Treonte King as William, and Carrin Ragland as Princess; and the cast of Men Overboard featured David Nickel as Ernie Silver, Michael Schumacher as Doug Silver, Steve Voris as Jay Silver, Sean Mayo as Robert Silver, Ana Ryan Kennedy as Eva Fuzesi, and Connor Egloff as Abraham Silver.
Furthermore, on July 18 at the Playhouse, Annie Pesch delivered a stellar performance in Desiree York’s one-woman show Fractured, a fascinating psychological mystery/drama centered on a woman coping with the loss of her father through the escapism of video games. The Los Angeles-based York was a 2017 FutureFest finalist for her outstanding African-American-themed generational drama “The Puppeteer,” which will have its world premiere Jan. 9-Mar. 15, 2020 at Detroit Repertory Theatre.
Mark your calendars: FutureFest’s 30th anniversary will be held July 17-19, 2020.
My FutureFest rankings:
1. On the Horizon
3. Which Way the Wind Blows
4. Fall with Me
5. Men Overboard
6. The Princess at Midnight