There is currently a fascinating process on display at Madison Street Theater. The Concordia Theater Collective has mounted a production of playwright Aline Lathrop's evolving new work, The Benefit Committee. This production showcases a work-in-progress, so this is not a review but an explanation of the development of new dramatic material.
Lathrop has done work at numerous theaters in Chicago and around the country. Merchild and The Hero's Wife are two of her recent significant hits at 16th Street Theater in Berwyn, where Lathrop is an artistic associate. The Benefit Committee is a collaboration between Concordia and Chicago Dramatists, where Lathrop is a resident playwright alumna.
It takes place in the cafeteria of an elite private school, focusing on an ensemble of mothers who have now, or once had, children in the school. These women begin folding thousands or paper origami butterflies while they plan how to meet a hefty financial goal for the construction of an organic kitchen garden and a butterfly conservatory. The six women love their children intensely but much of their behavior is also fueled by cut-throat competition. One member of their group is missing.
There is more talking than working. A lot of the women are "helicopters" who seem to hoverly monitor their children's lives. Some use "apps" so they can read their older kids' texts. A few seem to excessively pursue their kids' romantic secrets.
"I was engaged with the subject matter right away and thought our students would grow with the development of this workshop," said Stephanie Stroud, Concordia Theater Collective director. "I have watched this play develop since last year and have facilitated readings and staged readings prior to this production. We look forward to its new journey, and hope to see it premiere sometime soon, hopefully in Chicago. It has been a blessing for the students to work on such a fantastic piece."
Joshua Christ designed the school cafeteria set, the lighting, and the sound. He is also the tech director. Although the script is a work-in-progress, this is a very professional-looking production.
Senior theater major Alexandra Daigle, who plays Minnie, a nurse with no advanced degree whose daughter attends the school on scholarship, said, "This experience has been challenging but also really fun to be able to work on a new piece and sort of build the characters from the group up. Every rehearsal we discovered something new about a plot piece or a character's background. It made the process really exciting. I was able to base some of my character on a school nurse I know with young kids."
Freshman Faith Koenig, who plays Rose, added, "The play was changing through our entire process. In fact, we got new lines the day before we opened. But the playwright was there through the entire process. She helped us develop our characters and understand the conflicts. And although it was stressful at times, it has been incredible to see a play evolve and be a part of that process."
"Working with these student actors helps me to identify some parts of the script that were confusing, and even some plot points that were inconsistent," explained Lathrop, whose original idea for the play began percolating 10 years ago. "As the rehearsal process was coming to an end, I became more bothered by the play's ending, and a switch that came too fast. I didn't figure it out until the day of dress rehearsal when I gave them a whole new page of dialogue."
The play is funny at times and caustic at others. It's a strong piece that at this point runs about 80 minutes with no intermission.
"I am still thinking about character development, and the character arcs," said Lathrop. 'I'll be returning to watch the show a lot, and especially to take in the audience's reactions — when they laugh, when they gasp. The play unfolds a bit as a mystery, so I need to make sure I'm taking the audience on the journey I intended."
See "The Benefit Committee," Friday and Saturday, Feb. 22 and 23 at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, Feb. 24 at 3 p.m. at Madison Street Theater, 1010 Madison St., Oak Park. $15, $10, students/seniors/CUC alumni. Tickets: CUCBenefit.brownpapertickets.com.
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