Festival of Independent Theatres roars in its opening weekend


WingSpan’s latest play by Edward Albee, ‘Finding the Sun,’ is an absurdist success.

We’ve seen plenty of plays and movies in which a beautiful, healthy female actor pretends to have a serious illness. Think Cynthia Nixon as the cancer patient in Wit, Diane Keaton as a leukemia sufferer in Marvin’s Room or Mary Tyler Moore as the quadriplegic in Whose Life Is It Anyway? It is a rare and startling thing then to watch Dallas theater star Sherry Jo Ward act the saga of her own ongoing struggling with Stiff Person Syndrome in her dazzling new one-woman show titled Stiff at the Festival of Independent Theatres at the Bath House Cultural Center.

Stiff was one of four short plays leading off the first weekend of the four-week fest, and it was by far the standout. Ward, 40, delivers her one-hour monologue from a big orange armchair, her long legs stretched onto a matching ottoman. Only a few years ago, audiences saw her in the leading role in WaterTower Theatre’s production of August: Osage County, bounding up and down a three-story set. Now because of the stiffening of her muscles, just one of the symptoms of the incurable autoimmune disease she was diagnosed with, Ward is unsteady on her feet. She has tremors. Her speech is slowed and sometimes slurred.

In her play, Ward doesn’t ask for pity — she demands it, wondering why pity has gotten such a bad rap. Pity helps, she tells us, as does medical marijuana, crying with her physical therapist and figuring out new sex positions with her husband of 18 years. “When you don’t feel good, you do whatever you can to feel better,” she says.

Stiff is hilarious, bold, informative, fanciful (she practices an imagined interview with Diane Sawyer) and never, ever too heavy. Exquisitely written and performed by Ward (who was directed by Marianne Galloway for Risk Theatre Initiative), it is an hour you won’t soon forget. The standing ovations it’s earning at the Bath House are a reminder to all of us that sometimes just standing up is a victory. Performed July 22 at 2 p.m., July 27 and Aug. 5 at 8 p.m.

An audience fave from FIT 2007, Matt Lyle’s silent-film-onstage The Boxer is back with its original cast of Bootstraps Comedy Theater darlings, including onstage keyboard whiz B. Wolf and percussion/banjo/mandolin/sound-effects master Johnny Sequenzia. Like a live-action Buster Keaton comedy, this hour of light pantomimed-to-music storytelling finds a Depression-era down-and-outer (Kim Lyle) pretending to be a man so she can fight-coach a bantamweight pugilist (Jeff Swearingen) in his face-off with a brute (Ben Bryant). Punctuated with perfectly timed physical shtick and black-and-white “training montage” bits (from a decade ago but the actors haven’t changed much, darn them), The Boxer is still a comedy knockout. Performed July 20 at 8 p.m., July 28 at 8 p.m. and Aug. 3 at 8 p.m.

WingSpan Theatre Co. director Susan Sargeant has a thing for Edward Albee. She just gets his plays and insists that we should, too. With Finding the Sun, a rarely-produced 1983 Albee one-act set on the beach, we’re almost convinced there’s something to love about obtuse, interwoven conversations among four troubled couples. Two of the women (Robin Clayton, Catherine DuBoard, both excellent) are married to gay men (Matthew Stepanek, Ian Mead Moore) who’d rather be with each other. An older couple (Ethel Stephens, Jerry Crow) are facing mortality with bitter resignation. A mother (Charlotte Akin) contends with a sexually precocious teenage son (the terrific David Helms). Back and forth they go, playing verbal beach ball (sometimes with a real beach ball) full of Albee’s dark wit on the topics of love and aging, illuminated in the yellow glow of the searing summer sun. Performed July 20 at 8 p.m., July 29 and July 30 at 5 p.m. and Aug. 4 at 8 p.m.

Echo Theatre was the odd one out on FIT’s first weekend with its absurdist, impenetrable Trace of Arc by Ali Smith (adapted and directed by Kateri Cale). Two shopworkers (Natalia Borja, Abigail Palmgreen) carry out mundane tasks as their boss (Octavia Y. Thomas) barks orders. A shopper (Allyn Carrell) speaks only in TV ad slogans — “Everything’s better with Bluebonnet on it.” And now and then a woman named “Conscience” (the marvelously animated Pam Myers-Morgan) interrupts to announce that “a terrible play is going on!” She’s not lyin’. Performed July 22 at 5p.m., July 23 at 2 p.m., July 29 at 8 p.m., and Aug. 5 at 5 p.m.

  — Elaine Liner

Bath House Cultural Center, 521 E. Lawther Drive. Through Aug. 5. FestivalOfIndependentTheatres.com.            

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition July 21, 2017.