Ohio, specifically Dayton, is regarded as the birthplace of aviation so it isn’t surprising that “Jinxed,” a 1930s account chronicling pioneering colleagues Amelia Earhart and Jackie Cochran written by Stacey Luftig of New York City, received top honors at the Dayton Playhouse’s 21st annual FutureFest of new works, held July 29-31.
Luftig’s historically engaging if considerably cinematic and conceptually conventional tale – which challenged pre-conceived notions of Earhart’s legacy while shedding intriguing light on the relatively forgotten Cochran – garnered the highest scores based on criteria such as dialogue, plot, dramatic concept/theme and page-to-stage. The play’s enjoyable staged reading presentation, fluidly directed by Richard Brock, was marvelously heightened by a fierce, strikingly full-fledged performance by Kate Smith as the abrasive, tough-talking, determined, troubled and unabashedly self-absorbed Cochran, the first woman to break the sound barrier and an influential component in Earhart’s celebrated yet shaky career. Brock’s strong cast included Wendi Michael (an appealing Earhart), Michael Taint, Matt Turner, Franklin Johnson, Cynthia Karns and Mike Rousculp.
Longtime adjudicator Helen Sneed praised the material for its “great exposition” and “magnificent language.” “(‘Jinxed’) has elements of Greek tragedy and history combined,” echoed Eleanore Speert, founder and president of Speert Publishing who returned for her 10th FutureFest. “This play is about fame and what happens to the famous,” added David Finkle, senior theater critic for Theatermania.com. “(Luftig) should sell it to Lifetime.” The panel included 2002 FutureFest finalist Robert Koon of Chicago Dramatists as well as Dayton Theatre Hall of Fame member Dr. Robert W. MacClennan, professor emeritus of Sinclair Community College.
“So many things about FutureFest blow me away,” Luftig reflected. “So much generosity from so many people in such a short time. The planning and coordination that go into putting up three staged readings and three productions in one weekend – each for a single performance – it’s staggering. But you know what’s most amazing to me? An inspired director and a group of seven talented actors rehearse my play for six weeks, three nights a week. They read biographies of the real people my characters are based on. They stop rehearsals and debate, 10 or 15 minutes at a time, about this line or that line and what it means to the play. They devote the energy to create real relationships so that I could see my play not only live, but breathe. The designers give me lighting, a simple, elegant set, and sound effects – the sound of airplanes and radio announcers so critical to realizing my story. As if this weren’t enough, smart, sophisticated theater professionals – five of them! – give me constructive criticism, analysis and encouragement. And then the audience challenges me with their questions and their honest reactions. All these people, this fabulous community, do all these things because they love theater and to help me, a playwright they had never heard of, hear and see my work. And instead of getting an award, they give one to me. I am overwhelmed.”
The remaining contenders, selected from over 240 submissions, were: “Drawing Room,” an introspective examination of art and artists by Mark Eisman of New York City; “Roosevelt’s Ghost,” a politically charged drama by Dayton native and 2009 FutureFest winner Michael Feely of Woodland Hills, California; “The Haven,” a wonderfully contemporary, intimate, witty, relationship-driven character study by Richard Etchison of Los Angeles, California that could be a refreshing addition to the Chicago, New York or L.A. theater scene; “Allegro Con Brio,” a farce by Dayton resident Nelson Sheeley of Sinclair Community College; and “A Woman on the Cusp,” a mental illness-themed drama by two-time FutureFest finalist Carl L. Williams of Houston, Texas.
In addition to the cast of “Jinxed,” standout performers in the festival, which remained entertaining despite the lack of air conditioning, included: Mark Jeffers, Annie Pesch and Rachel Wilson of “Drawing Room”; Debra Kent, Charles Larkowski, David Shough and Michael Stockstill of “Roosevelt’s Ghost”; Megan Cooper, Danny Lipps, Deirdre Bray Root and Richard Young of “The Haven”; Cheryl Mellen of “Allegro Con Brio”; and Cher Collins, Lynn Kesson, Scott Knisley and K.L. Storer of “A Woman on the Cusp.” Also, Drawing Room” was terrifically accented by Terry K. Hitt, Patrick Hayes, Wendi Michael and Jacqui Theobald’s illustrations as well as Kirk Sheppard’s photography.
In a rare turn of events, according to FutureFest program director Fran Pesch, determining the audience’s favorite play has become problematic. “With approximately 75 percent of passholders returning ballots, it is impossible to name a definite audience favorite this year,” she said. “Three plays came within four votes of each other: ‘Jinxed,’ “The Haven’ and ‘Roosevelt’s Ghost.’”
My FutureFest rankings:
1. “The Haven”
2. “Roosevelt’s Ghost”
4. “Drawing Room”
5. “A Woman on the Cusp”
6. “Allegro Con Brio”
For additional information, call the Dayton Playhouse at (937) 424-8477 or visit www.daytonplayhouse.com.