This is not a theatre review. We clear on that? I will not, in this article, spill any spoilers, tell you how a play's cast was engaging or how its script was engrossing. I will not tell you how realistic the set looked or how impressive and natural the costuming was. I mean, I could, but...
Let's start over.
You see it all the time in the movies or on TV… Common, ordinary folks are witnesses to a mysterious event, only to be told to forget about it. They see something beautiful or terrible, something they will most likely never forget, and then some dark-suited operatives arrive and tell them, “You were never here. This never happened.”
That’s kind of how I feel. Kind of.
This past Wednesday, February 5th, I was one of only a handful of people to witness something pretty wonderful. Something not many people got the chance to see and perhaps no one else will ever see, not in the same way. I’m going to say there were about 50 of us, that night, sitting in an even more than usually compact version of the Studio Theatre at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. And what did we see there? What unusual happening did we experience?
We saw a brand-new play taking shape.
Now, we weren’t the first audience ever to witness this particular play, and we will most certainly not be the last. And by the time this play makes its way to its official debut (likely on or very near Broadway), it will probably not look or sound exactly the same as it did in Champaign-Urbana. But whatever transpires in the future, we few who attended the inaugural presentation of The Sullivan Project will carry the memory of the experience.
We know what we saw.
For those of you who might not know, The Sullivan Project is a new artistic endeavor of the University of Illinois’ Theatre Department—a platform for established playwrights to workshop new plays under the direction of the esteemed Daniel Sullivan (pictured, left), a Swanlund Chair and Professor of Theatre at UIUC. In addition to his faculty position, of course, Sullivan has a buffet table of Broadway directing credits, including Glengarry Glen Ross, Good People, The Merchant of Venice, Rabbit Hole, and Time Stands Still.
For the first entry in the Sullivan Project series, Sullivan selected (and directed) Lost Lake, a new play by Pulitzer Prize winner David Auburn (whose drama Proof earned Sullivan a Tony Award). The play, a 90-minute two-hander, finds Veronica, a single mother of two, renting a somewhat dubious summer cabin from the somewhat dubious Hogan, a hard-luck case who may or may not be on the grift. Over the course of half a dozen scenes spanning nearly a year, we see these characters meet, clash, connect, continue to clash, and ultimately reach an understanding of sorts. But not really. Perhaps, but perhaps not. It's hard to say.
I’m honestly not trying to be coy; it’s just that I am somewhat sworn to secrecy on the topic. And, as frustrating as that might be for the reviewer in me, it’s for good reason. In addition to the fact that Krannert Center specifically asked that the play not be officially reviewed, it’s also worth noting that the version of the play I saw on “opening night” was not necessarily the same version that held the stage the following Sunday. As I mentioned before, this series is designed to be a way for writers to get a new script on its feet in front of an audience. The play is not necessarily finished, and for that reason a proper critical review would be unfair to both the playwright (pictured, above right) and the process.
So what can I tell you? I can tell you that the mere prospect of this was thrilling to me. I’m a theatre nerd through and through, so to be presented with the chance to see a brand-new play by a Pulitzer Prize winning playwright? Fantastic. On top of that, it’s being directed by Daniel Sullivan, who frankly belongs on Director Mount Rushmore? Even better. I’m there. And sitting there, anonymous in an audience that included Auburn, Sullivan, some notable local guests, and Theatre Department Head Jeffrey Eric Jenkins, I could barely contain my Christmas Eve-like joy. I was shocked to see even one empty seat, thinking, “How could anyone not want to be a part of this?”
It’s extremely rare for me to see any play that I haven’t previously read and puzzled over, so to experience an unpublished narrative in real-time, watching talented actors breaking new ground with crisp new characters was indeed a privilege. A week later, I am still cycling through my memories of sharply delivered dialogue and lived-in characterization, courtesy of Opal Alladin (pictured, left) as Veronica and Jake Weber (pictured, below right) as Hogan. Each of these actors has stage, film, and television credits almost too numerous to list, but I can tell you briefly that Ms. Alladin appeared in the feature films United 93 and Brown Sugar and that Mr. Weber appeared in the remake of Dawn of the Dead as well as the television show Medium. Impressive work from both with a script that, while perhaps not quite ready for its final draft (perhaps), is alternately touching and funny throughout with a conclusion that is satisfying and resonant.
Not that this is a review.
If you were unable to see this first iteration of The Sullivan Project — or if you honestly had no idea the five-day, seven-performance run was even happening—I strongly encourage you to be on the lookout for the next installment. I might not be able to give you too many details about what happened that Wednesday night in February, but I can tell you that what happened was important.
I was there, and I know what I saw.