We see very little from local playwrights, a rare breed whose work is usually relegated to workshop productions before being tucked away forever. Richard Warren is one among a very few exceptions, at least lately. Last season, a staged reading of Warren's Revocable Trust received a lot of attention. His adaptation of theater legend Dale Wasserman's memoirs, Burning in the Night: A Hobo's Song, will be performed in two local playhouses next month. And now onstage at Theater Works in Peoria, Warren's Shifting Gears is treading the boards in the black box McMillin Theater. It's a full rewrite of Pollywogs, a two-act Warren wrote back in 1999.
"It was the first play I ever wrote," he recalls, "and it was just dreadful. I loved the story and the people, but I really listened when people told me what was awful about it. And then I went back and rewrote it."
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The improved and retitled version received a pair of workshop productions at Phoenix Theatre, followed by a full production at Sedona's Canyon Moon Theater. Theater Works' executive director Daniel Schay, who directed the current production, signed the play last year. The result is a small, talky story that ponders a recent world in transition, circa 1961.
Warren's tale of a family in flux is not, he insists, "about any kind of dysfunction. These people are functioning to the best of their ability; there's no abuse or bad behavior." Indeed. Henry (Frank Gaxiola), a World War II vet who owns a sheet metal concern, believes in all the post-war propaganda he's been fed about mom (Veronica Carmack-Gasper) staying home and keeping house, dad heading off to work, and kids being seen and not heard.
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Those kids are now grown; Junior (Sky Donovan) is a young corporate climber, while his sister, Baby (Katie Czajkowski), is a college deb who's ready to leave the nest. They convene every summer at the family cabin, these days to quibble about politics and race relations and gender roles. Henry's an archetypal post-WWII dad, a Central Casting father spilling over with right wing, anti-corporate rhetoric, venting his spleen against anything New American. He's just about to lose our sympathy before a moving monologue about doing battle in the war -- the mortar rounds, seeing his comrades shot to pieces, soldiers crushing their own to death with tanks. Equal parts pathos and a terrifying glimpse into post-traumatic stress disorder, the speech is the best piece of writing in the play.
The comedy and commentary are equally subtle, recalling an especially drowsy episode of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, although in this case, Ozzie is channeling Archie Bunker and Harriet is sexier than the Family Hour might have allowed. Warren captures the meter of disparate voices and the concerns of two warring generations. His use of casual language gives the illusion that we are eavesdropping on neighbors who have a lot to say about corporate America, politics, gender roles, and that myth about the importance of the nuclear family. Shifting Gears isn't meant to wow us; it's a bromide that makes broad points with gentle humor. Harriet Nelson would be thrilled.