New Works at Theater Works in Peoria: Push Delivers Laughs, Tears, Respect

The setup: Peoria's Theater Works is right in the middle of their first annual presentation of New Works, so we can't complain there's almost nothing to see this month. (Phoenix Theatre has moved its Hormel New Works Festival up to March for 2014, so we didn't get to enjoy the vicarious torture of 24-Hour Theatre Project, etc., this spring and summer.)

Most of TW's current series is being presented in staged-reading format, which can still be pretty gripping when solid actors and directors are involved. One play was selected for a full black-box production (so the performers aren't holding scripts, and there are specific costumes and set pieces, a lighting design, etc.). That's Mike Duhame's Push, a one-person show that presents vignettes of about 20 characters based on interviews with real people. It promotes itself as being about conception, pregnancy, and delivery.

See also: Under the Gun at Phoenix Theatre's 24-Hour Theatre Project Curtains: Powerful and Engaging, Actors Theatre's No Child Hits Home -- and School Lynch Burg: Actors interviewed the people of Laramie, Wyoming, where a gay student was killed, and then became them

We've gotten to see quite a bit of really good documentary and ethnographic theater in the Valley over the years, but I'd never really thought about these shows, which are all based on documented events and/or verbatim first-hand accounts, as a distinct social or political force. But they are -- audience members are much more prone to engage and discuss after something they believe was fundamentally true.

It takes more craft than it appears to stitch the multiple sources of such work together. Sometimes there's no action or plot running through the script, while sometimes there's a chronology one can, ideally, follow, and often there is just one powerhouse performer onstage, or a handful who typically play 15 to 20 people each. Making it all make sense is quite an achievement.

Anna Deavere Smith, who visited Phoenix to create a play about local women's relationships to the justice system that she presented here in 2008, is a renowned practitioner of documentary theater, but back when I was in college, Smith was still playing Hazel the shampoo girl on All My Children. So I still had no idea, at the time, why everyone was so excited about her visit. I missed out.

No one knows whether Push, which Duhame self-published last year, is going to be a big thing or whether the rest of his theater career will carry on in a similar vein. But this production is your opportunity to check it out now and get in on the ground floor.

The execution: Though Duhame plays only two men in the show, he portrays women in a straightforward manner, not trying to impersonate them or act like he has something to prove as a performer. This seems to make the audience comfortable and keep the focus on the stories the characters have to share.

Though there are plenty of vignettes about getting pregnant and a few that involve labor and delivery (and those latter are, for the most part, not the horror stories people tend to feel compelled to tell pregnant women), the theme that ties the play together seems to be more like the diversity of parenthood: how children come into people's lives (and, sometimes, depart). The families and individuals depicted are from a variety of generations and cultures, and we get to see same-sex parents, surrogacy, teenage pregnancy, adoption, people with disabilities, stories of choosing abortion and not choosing abortion, a midwife's fascinating work gossip, and a quirky fellow who appears to be teaching what's now called "human development." After the first three or four stories, you might begin to get the feeling that Duhame's leisurely transitions from one character to another are going to become tiresome, especially when you remember that there will be two acts and a total of 20 stories before it's all over. But charming, fresh local music (and a few fun standards such as "Let's Get It On"), coupled with stage manager/stagehand Joshua Vern's engagement with the audience -- he smiles, makes eye contact, and occasionally dances as he rearranges furniture and helps Duhame add and remove minor costume pieces -- help keep things moving.

Duhame says he interviewed more than 50 people to put Push together. Having children is not a particularly controversial subject, so that may be why there don't seem to be any inherently unlikable characters in the lineup. But this quality also makes the show feel more educational than it is thought-provoking.

It's definitely enjoyable, though -- the company's managed to bring together production elements that, in general, support this young man with a soul patch who's portraying a lot of moms, mostly, with sensitivity and insight. (Some choices are a bit abrupt, confusing, or overdesigned, but they come and go quickly.)

Director Jennifer E. Rio undoubtedly had a lot to do with helping Duhame hit the most important points and keeping everything flowing. There are plenty of funny moments (but not at anyone's expense), as well as moving and relatable ones, and the crowd was eager to chitchat with Duhame afterward.

The verdict: It's probably totally normal to look at the premise for Push and think of all the ways it could be just awful -- and not just because new things are scary. But the pitfalls of a one-person show (let alone the potential missteps inherent in playing the opposite sex or addressing the experiences of Women with a capital W) have been avoided here. It's a welcome surprise and an unusual, but absorbing experience.

Push continues through Sunday, August 18, at 8355 West Peoria Avenue. Tickets are $10; order here or call 623-815-7930. The following two weekends in August will feature four different New Works shows in staged readings.

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