“Leap Year” has its merits, but its flaws overwhelm its good intentions
Theatre Review by Gail M. Burns
It is hard to know where to begin writing about the train wreck that is Leap Year since I am not entirely sure what it is. I attended a press opening, so I assume it is not entirely an educational theatre collaboration between Shakespeare & Company and Bard College at Simon’s Rock because customarily such efforts are not open for review. But even if that is what it is, the production values are dismally low for Shakespeare & Company which routinely turns out top notch productions in school gymnasiums with kids as young as eight or nine. In the handsome McConnell Theatre and with all the combined resources of Simon’s Rock and ShakesCo, this is a visual/technical embarrassment.
The script is poor too. Playwright William Coe Bigelow is a successful writer for film and television, but this is his very first stage play and it shows. There was a staged reading of Leap Year during Shakespeare & Company’s 2009 Studio Festival of Plays, featuring Olympia Dukakis, and I noticed there was a larger cast involved, so some rewriting has taken place, but the play still badly needs the firm editing hand of a strong and experienced theatre director and/or producer. Shakespeare & Company Artistic Director Tony Simotes directed in 2009, but here he hands the directorial reins over to Stephen Rothman, who made his ShakesCo debut last season directing Parasite Drag [Review]. Both are experienced theatre professionals who ought to see the flaws in Bigelow’s script (not to mention the distractng hideousness of the set and costumes) and guide this production better.
The show deals with a semi-successful Hollywood couple (he’s a writer, she’s an up-and-coming producer) who welcome their second child on Leap Year Day 1988. The infant boy is quickly diagnosed with Down’s Syndrome.
The play does make some important points about the effects the birth of a special needs child has on a couple, and the options they have in dealing with it, but overall Coe’s tale is one of self-absorbed adults who monopolize the play. Act I is set in 1988 and Act II in 2008, purportedly showing the results of the decisions made in the two intervening decades.
Aside from the couple – Rob (David Demke) and Lisa (Caley Milliken) we meet their older son’s nanny, Betty (Joan Coombs), Rob’s mother, Dottie (Karen Beaumont), Grace (Peggy Pharr Wilson), a woman who works at a school for special needs children, and, finally, Johnnie (Theo Gabriel). The story is told primarily from Rob’s point of view, but all the characters except Betty break the fourth wall and address the audience directly from a downstage spotlight while the rest of the cast freezes in place. This gimmick is used way too often, and is particularly jarring when Johnnie’s turn comes.
Too much time is spent on Rob’s relationship with his mother, and the trauma of their father/husband’s suicide. Not nearly enough time is devoted to Lisa (where is her family in all this?) when surely the mother in such a situation bears tremendous burdens of sorrow and guilt. And while I understand the difficulties of casting a two-year old, I was bothered by the silence from Rob and Lisa’s older son. Not only did we never see or hear little Jake in Act I, we never heard about him, and in real life two-year-olds are hard to ignore. (In Act II we are told that he is brilliant and happy and doing graduate work at Columbia. Good for him.)
Unfathomably, Leap Year is a 2013 recipient of an Edgerton Foundation New American Plays Award. And it is based on Bigelow’s own life experience, although I am not at all clear to what extent. I understand that it is hard to say to someone “Your traumatic life experience is not good theatre, we need to make some changes” but that should have been said. When writing prose – fiction or nonfiction – its all about you. On stage you have to entertain an audience. I was not entertained by Leap Year, but I was frequently appalled and angered.
Beaumont is the Head of the Theatre Division at Simon’s Rock. She, Demke, and Milliken are all on the faculty of Shakespeare & Company’s Actor Training Program and are frequent performers with the Company. It is not their fault that they are playing unlikeable characters. Beaumont’s Dottie seems to have parachuted in from a 1970’s Neil Simon comedy, which is jarring given the serious nature of the subject mater.
Coombs and Wilson play the more sympathetic minor characters, although the fatal flaw in Wilson’s Grace is revealed way too late in the play, and, sweet though the character is and charming as Coombs’ performance is, Betty is unnecessary to the plot.
Gabriel, who may be a Simon’s Rock student, does an excellent job as the mentally challenged Johnnie. Again, Bigelow sabotages the character by having him break the fourth wall, but Gabriel makes the jolting transition as gracefully as possible.
The program credits long-time Shakespeare & Company costume designer Govane Lohbauer, but the press release lists Elliot Kang for costumes. Program and press release list Connell Gess for sets, but on the back side of the program ShakesCo’s resident set designer, Patrick Brennan, is listed as the Set Design Mentor. My guess is that Kang and Gess are Simon’s Rock students and that Lohbauer and Brennan were assigned to mentor or supervise their design work. Any young designer would be blessed and thrilled to work under the guidance of Lohbauer or Brennan, and it was their job, and certainly Rothman’s as director, to help these youngsters avoid making the very obvious beginners’ errors that they have made. I feel the Company failed them.
Ultimately, I am baffled that Shakespeare & Company would allow such a visually shabby production of an obviously imperfect script to be presented as a part of their regular season. Leap Year, like Kaufman’s Barber Shop [Review] and None But the Lonely Heart [Review] were late additions to the season line-up, and could easily have been presented as a workshop or educational program without the prying eyes of the press. Simotes needs to carefully vet every production to make sure each one attains the high quality that Shakespeare & Company is renowned for and that ticket-buyers have come to expect.
Shakespeare & Company presents Leap Year by William Coe Bigelow, Stage Manager – Maria Gray; Directed by Stephen Rothman, Set Design by Connell Gess, Costume Design by Govane Lohbauer, Lighting Design by Kieth Chapman, Composer/Sound Design by Joe Cerqua. Cast: Karen Beaumont – Dottie, Joan Coombs – Betty, Dave Demke – Rob, Theo Gabriel – Johnnie, Caley Milliken – Lisa, Peggy Phar Wilson – Grace. Two hours and fifteen minutes including one fifteen minute intermission. August 23 – September 1, 2013 in the McConnell Theater in the Daniel Art Center at Bard College at Simon’s Rock www.simons-rock.edu , 84 Alford Street, Great Barrington, MA. www.shakespeare.org Box Office: 413-637-3353.