People Along the Way, Shears

‘People…’ at Playhouse Right on Target

By J.E.Ballantyne Jr.
YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – The lights dimmed and in walked actor Terry Shears playing the role of Joe at the start of “People Along the Way,” also written by Shears, at the Youngstown Playhouse on Friday night.

Joe, or “Average Joe,” starts by explaining that his name could actually be anybody’s name from the audience and that anyone in the audience could be where he was portraying Joe.

Thus began an entertaining evening at the Playhouse with “People Along the Way,” which Shears admits is autobiographical. Joe explains that he is a product of the many people who have come in and out of his life through the years, just as we all are. The play enables some of those people to re-visit Joe in the present and gives Joe the opportunity to reflect on his past and on those who made him who he is.

Some of those moments are funny, some heartwarming, and some sad. But all serve to illustrate how those who travel through our lives make us who we are and what we are.

Shears is aided in his journey by a superb cast of fellow actors. The cast of five portrays 17 different characters beginning with Brian Suchora as Dr. Zeigler who brought Joe into the world and then saved his life five years later during the rampage of the polio epidemic. Suchora seems to feel right at home in the doctor role as he goes from talking about the epidemic and how it tore through Joe’s family, all the way to his golf swing.

Suchora returns as Coach D., a multi-talented football coach and teacher, who provides a hilarious blackboard description of the Battle of Gettysburg. His final appearance is a heartwarming visit from Grandpa Charles. Suchora shows considerable versatility in all of these roles.

Now that Joe’s entrance into the world has been chronicled, we meet his first family member. Great-Grandmother (Denise Sculli) spews pearls of wisdom such as, “Life is like a cup of tea. It’s all in how you make it.” Sculli is the near blind lovable grandmother that all of us can remember. With every line she takes every audience member along with her on the journey.

Sculli also returns as Joe’s baseball bat-swinging sister (with slight reminiscences to Lucy pulling the football away from a charging Charlie Brown). She shows up again as Gert, Joe’s New Years partying grandmother. But her strongest turn is as Martha, Joe’s boss when he worked in a department store while attending college. Sculli pulls all the stops out on this role and provides one of the best comedy scenes of the evening. Her energy and total role involvement make this a classic Playhouse moment.

Brandon Donaldson gives a moving portrayal of Dad who is confined to a wheelchair due to polio. But his influence on Joe is boundless as we discover during the show. Donaldson returns as Bobby, the school tough kid, who wants to grow up to be the Elvis Presley for Stupid People.

Donaldson does well with these two vastly different characters but his second return as Dad provides for one of the most poignant scenes of the evening.

Connie Cassidy made her return to the Playhouse with her first appearance as Mom, the comforting element that helped Joe’s family weather the polio that disrupted their lives. We see her again as Dr. Fitzpatrick, an English literature professor during Joe’s college years, and then later as a cold-hearted lady on South Broadway. But Cassidy’s true talent and versatility show through in the character Mary Ella, an elementary school child who is bullied because of her last name. Clinging to her doll, Annie, is her only comfort as she laments that Annie is the only friend she has. It is truly a moving scene and is done exceedingly well by Cassidy.

Jason Green turns in three very divergent roles. Mr. Stafford, one of Joe’s early teachers who motivates his students with jokes all the while dealing with the complexities of simple instructions to his students. Green takes a dramatic turn with Cornish John, a miner and distant relative of Joe’s. Green conveys John’s character well as he describes the years he spent working in the mines hastening his death from lung damage. He finishes off his appearances as Ralph, a hillbilly who describes himself as the poster boy for staying in school beyond the 8th grade. Green has fun with this character and his comic timing provides some great laughs.

Pulling all of this together is director Maria Petrella-Ackley. A great cast is half the battle for any show but the director must mold it all and pull it together. And this show is an added challenge since there really isn’t any plot, per se. It is reminiscent of the old TV show, “This Is Your Life,” with characters coming and going all night. But Petrella-Ackley has brought everything together so it all makes sense and keeps the pace moving with no lulls.

Shears’s concept for the show is most intriguing. From his first opening lines he captures the audience, not only as Joe, but with the whole idea of how all of us are molded by the people we encounter along the way. It is easy to see that Joe is Shears, and many of these scenes reflect the joy or sorrow he experienced “along the way.” But the true art is in the fact that the audience accepts Shears as the character Joe and not as someone up there just narrating a story.

Set design is by Leslie Brown and is very simple with simply a tree up center, It serves the show well without cluttering up the action. It also serves as a place where Joe keeps the numerous props handed to him by each actor. By show’s end the characters are gone but they are still with him via these mementos. Brown also designed the lighting.

This show is very easy to relate to. We all know these people in our own lives. These are real people, real characters both good and not so good. But regardless of what they are or who they are, they are all part of us and they make up what we have become.

“People Along the Way” will continue April 23, 29, 30 at 7:30 pm; April 24, May 1 at 2:30 pm

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