Play Review | ‘Flu Season’ at Playhouse an Exercise for the Mind

By J.E. Ballantyne Jr.

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – A suggestion of the ancient Greek Theater is part and parcel of “The Flu Season,” which opened Friday night at The Youngstown Playhouse.

Written by Will Eno, the audience is greeted by a character named Prologue, played by Matthew Mazuroski, soon to be followed by another character named Epilogue, in the person of Eric Kibler. As the names of those characters suggest, the audience is meeting both the beginning and the end, quite frankly, at the beginning. Both of these characters serve as narrators by setting scenes and asking profound questions to the audience.

They are really the only two characters who address the audience directly. Mazuroski presents a very energetic, upbeat (for the most part) Prologue as he breezes on and off pontificating about seasons of the year, life, death and everything in between. Mazuroski gives a spirited performance and acts as a breath of fresh air in Act I in many instances. His character markedly changes in Act II as he becomes frazzled and somewhat out of touch with his own thoughts. Mazuroski is fun to watch as he molds the character between these two diverse traits.

Meanwhile, Kibler, as Epilogue always follows Prologue’s exit with what is essentially a more down-to- earth explanation of what Prologue has just said previously. He lays things out in more basic terms than does Prologue. Kibler plays Epilogue with a much more cynical bend which makes his take on the proceedings less flowery and more hard-nosed than the more eloquent Prologue. One eventually wonders if Prologue and Epilogue are essentially the same person or character; but then who knows? Kibler provides a natural delivery and character that makes Epilogue seem much more down-to-earth and human than Prologue. Although the character lacks the zest and excitement of Prologue, Kibler makes him more relatable to the audience.

Both Prologue and Epilogue explain that “The Flu Season” is a sort of play with in a play. At least, it seems that the play is being constructed right in front of the audience.

The location for this play within a play is the Crossroads Psychiatric Retreat Center.

It is at this point that the audience meets the rest of the characters. Simply stated they are referred to as Man, Woman, Nurse, and Doctor. As stated in the play, names are meaningless.

Man, played by Adam Dominick, has just arrived as a new patient at the Retreat. He seems somewhat detached, paranoid and living in some other dimension as we meet him. Dominick gives a wonderful performance as the audience watches his character struggle with whatever condition Man has.
He develops the character stealthily as we see him go through numerous character changes, from child-like enthusiasm to confrontational moments with Woman.

Nailah Thomas plays Woman. Woman seems free from many of the emotional problems plaguing Man and makes the audience wander why she is even there. Woman actually seems more stable than anyone else at the Retreat. According to her, her family placed her there. But as we learn from Nurse, family is just a group of people. And all of them at the Retreat are also a group of people.

It soon becomes obvious, after an awkward first meeting between Man and Woman, that they are forming a much closer relationship. Thomas is first rate in her portrayal of Woman. She presents a character that on the surface, at least, isn’t really much different than anybody watching the show. Or are we all crazy?

The scenes with Man and Woman are developed with grace and wit. And although the show is only two hours, it seems like their relationship takes much longer to come together. A statement about the smoothness with which both Dominick and Thomas approach their characters. It doesn’t seem like an overnight thing. And both Dominick and Thomas execute the adversity in their relationship with an honesty that makes the audience feel for both of them.

Doctor, played by James Hain, is at first glance the stereotypical psychiatric doctor. His first scene with the new patients finds him asking the new arrivals background questions in a style that neither can quite get a grip on. Hain twists the Doctor character well as the audience begins to wonder if maybe he shouldn’t be a patient instead of being the Doctor. He goes into ramblings about who knows what and then jumps to something else.

His cohort at the Retreat is Nurse, played by veteran actress Jeanine Rees. Rees provides most of the laughs in this script as a way over-dramatic and over-the-top Nurse who spews out romantic thoughts and flowery descriptions of everything from flowers to her past romantic entanglements.

Rees has the ability to pull the audience into the mind of this somewhat dippy character. When she goes off on one of her little mind journeys, she has the audience in the palm of her hand. As with Man and Woman, a relationship tugs at both the Nurse and the Doctor. Both Hain and Rees provide splendid performances throughout.

Eno’s script is well crafted with the audience being unsure as the show develops just who is running the Retreat and just who should be the patients. And if someone were to ask you what the show is about? Well, can anybody really tell you? Is it about life, death, relationships, seasons or, in fact, anything at all? Take your pick.

Director Pat Foltz gets multiple kudos for attacking this script. This is not an easy one to mount. But she made her job easier with excellent casting choices. A job well done.

Foltz and Mazuroski designed the creative but simple set. Designed in black and white, four benches serve as basically the entire set (painted black and white) with an upside down umbrella (black and white turning over center stage). The floor conjures of reminders of “The Twilight Zone” with a square black and white design reminiscent of the spiraling effect at the beginning of each “Twilight Zone” episode. Perhaps that is where Eno got his inspiration. Did this show really happen? Many probably asked themselves as they left, “What did I just see.”?

Leslie Brown’s lighting design adds greatly to the evening with moody blue pools of light and lighting which makes a statement in several scenes.

Costume design by Pat Foltz presents a time period (but not specific) and carries out the black and white theme along with shades of gray.

“The Flu Season” is not your typical comedy, drama or typical anything. It is a real exercise of the mind as you follow these characters through all of the seasons they pass through. I would guess that each person in the opening night audience had a different take on what the show was actually about. But that is the fun of this show. It’s different, it’s funny, it’s dramatic, and it takes different turns – but isn’t that what happens in life? Judge for yourself.

“The Flu Season” will continue Nov. 11, 17, 18 at 7:30 p.m. and Nov. 12, 19 at 2:30 p.m.

Pictured at top: The cast of “The Flu Season” includes Jeanine Rees, James Hain, Adam Dominick and Nailah Thomas.

Copyright 2023 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.