Projecting mental illness on stage is about as difficult a task as any director or troupe of actors may face, but when done effectively, it can produce a mesmerizing evening of theater.
In “Development,” Vanguard University’s world premiere of a new drama by Warren Doody, an English professor at the Costa Mesa college, schizophrenia is an inherited condition, passed down from a woman to her son and on to his son. It’s a truly frightening premise, triggering a pair of unforgettable portrayals.
Strained familial relationships are a byproduct of this maddening disease, and director Susan K. Berkompas — who requested a play on this subject from Doody — has elicited some electrifying performances from her mostly student cast. The only nonstudent is a mature actor whose age is an additional stamp of credibility on an electrifying production.
Doody’s drama is not a perfect play — situations often appear contrived, and the ending is somewhat nebulous — but interpretations at its core are delivered with a vitriolic passion seldom encountered on a collegiate stage.
The action, set in 2011 and 2012, opens with an aging and demented vagabond wandering drunkenly and blabbering in the Mojave Desert. This is guest artist Tony Sutera, who imbues his psychotic character with wide-eyed mysticism as his ravings land him in a local hospital.
Visiting him, although the old man walked out on them some 15 years ago, are his two sons — one a would-be Hollywood player (Jordan Laemmlen), the other an aimless loser (Michael Fidalgo), although their roles will virtually reverse within a year as the former’s mind begins to crumble much like his father’s.
Laemmlen delivers a performance of intense, visceral power, beginning as a driven movie promoter attempting to sell a screenplay concept of Custer’s last stand with Leonardo DiCaprio attached, then descending the ladder of sanity to a paranoid figure much like his father. It’s an interpretation of immense depth, though the character’s abrupt mood switch (within a year’s time) may seem difficult to accept.
Matching this intensity is Kimberly Monks as Laemmlen’s fiancee (in Act I) and wife (in Act II), who battles unsuccessfully to keep her man grounded in reality. Monks renders a richly believable character whose truly caring nature is thwarted by his increasing madness.
The brain drain on Sutera’s character is further amplified by the appearance of his late wife (Kelley Weeks) and mother (Madilyn Cooper), both as they were at age 30. Ian Jenkins doubles as two imaginary figures, a shadowy government agent in the first act and Gen. Custer in the second.
Contributing less-showy, reality-based figures are Jessica Mogi as the dedicated doctor attending to Sutera and Troy Iwata as a loopy Greyhound station agent known as “Buddha.” Both add substance in their brief stage time.
Set designer Paul Eggington has created multiple fragmentary backdrops, which are moved in and out of position for the play’s various scenes. Zach Simons’ subdued lighting effects and Lia Hansen’s costumes provide additional atmosphere.
While “Development” may, in fact, be “in development” as a play, it projects a visceral strength seldom encountered in such new material, and Berkompas’ actors attack the drama with exceptional gusto in this brief world premiere (closing this weekend) in Vanguard University’s Lyceum Theater.
“Development” isn’t the only world premiere on the local theater scene. Golden West College audiences will see the results of director Tom Amen’s quest — following in the footsteps of Herman Melville’s Captain Ahab in search of the great white whale — this weekend and next when Golden West mounts Amen’s version of “Moby Dick.”
Amen recently took a sabbatical to retrace Melville’s route on the high seas with the goal of writing a stage version freely based on the classic novel. He reports that he has “sought to strip away some of the excessive blubber so that Moby Dick may swim freely and buoyantly on the stage.”
Ahab will be played by veteran Golden West actor Lawrence Hemingway, heading a huge cast of what Amen calls “old salts” (experienced performers) and “greenhorns” (those with limited stage time). “They are a committed crew, top to bottom,” he says.
“Moby Dick” will be presented at 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through March 17 in the college’s Mainstage Theater, and is intended for mature audiences. Call (714) 895-8150 for ticket information.
TOM TITUS reviews local theater for the Daily Pilot.
If You GoWhat: “Development”
Where: Vanguard University Lyceum Theater, 55 Fair Drive, Costa Mesa
When: Closing performances at 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday
Cost: $14 to $17
Information: (714) 668-6145 or https://www.vanguard.edu/calendar/events/category/theatre