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Theatre Review: The Promised Land explores unemployment in an exceptionally human way

Lisa Much Lisa Much Theatre Review: The Promised Land explores unemployment in an exceptionally human way
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Recently, I joked with a friend about the idea of staging a tragedy as a comedy, a sort of Anti-Chekovian theater, if you will. Willy Loman serves as a literal punchline; the audience tears up because they laugh so hard. Though we thought it absurd and unworkable, A&B Theatricals’s world premiere The Promised Land nearly performs this feat.

The Promised Land cast members are longtime Columbus actors Jeff Horst (Various Characters), Nick Baldasare, (Simon), and Josie Merkle (Grace). (l to r).

Written by local playwright and Columbus State professor, Bill Cook, The Promised Land tells the tale of 55 year old Simon, a recently laid-off financial analyst, his wife, Grace, and their journey to cope with sudden unemployment in a volatile economy. A fairly common story in recent years, Cook offers an escape from the misery and depression by creating a dream-like environment. Visions of Grace as a cocktail waitress, foreclosure, and auctions dance through Simon’s head as he struggles to remain the breadwinner while proving his worth as an old dog in a new dog’s society.

Nick Baldasare anchors the show as Simon. Taking the news of his unemployment in a shocked stride, he immediately takes gratification in his six month severance, but begins a detailed job search. Baldasare masters the rapid shifts from optimistic job-seeker to despairing middle-aged man while making sense of a world and self Simon never before realized. The nuances of Baldasare’s performance tell a story by themselves.

Josie Merkle plays the sometimes supportive, other-times overbearing wife Grace, yet delivers a performance that makes the audience cackle. Jeff Horst plays a myriad of other characters: Simon’s former boss, therapist, a detective—nine in total. These brief glimpses of additional characters contribute to the reality based on hyperbole and many leave the audience in hysterics, particularly as the show progresses. Horst’s unique depiction of these additional roles is his finest I have seen.

Director Joe Bishara adeptly handles the new script and appreciates the subtleties of some comedy while highlighting the more ridiculous scenarios that emerge as the play develops. Reading the text alone, one can easily twist the script, warping it into a tragedy, but Bishara balances the unrealistic adventures with the search for self, making this an exceptionally human play.

Some scenes are silly in a guaranteed laugh-out-loud way. Sprinkled among these scenes lie the poignant points in a relationship and a man’s search for meaning. When Simon speaks to his former employer, one feels the incalculable burden of a broken desolation emanating from the stage. Ten seconds later, the audience guffaws. Cook and Bishara concoct a production that bounces between these two elements in such raw yet hilarious ways.

Wrangling in the many individual scenes, Bishara weaves the story as a dance with a flowing arch. Russell Boiarsky makes a wonderful theatrical debut as a composer and sound designer, keeping the transitions dream-like, yet sad, reminding the audience of the underlying issue of Simon’s search. Debbie Hamrick’s costumes add flair and variety to the show, and Clay Eads dynamic lighting is the best in Columbus.

The Promised Land delves deeper than dealing with the current economy and unemployment. Cook poses striking questions in a brilliant way about purpose and respect. Repeatedly, Simon declares, “I’m a financial analyst!” to which his wife once exclaims in a clarified drunken haze, “No, you’re not—you’re unemployed!” Shaking the idea that a position one held for twenty-five years (whether a career or a relationship) does not define them, challenges an individual to their core.

A new play by a relatively new company in an off-the-beaten-track space, it seems easy to let The Promised Land perform without watching it. Don’t let the show pass by. It promises much and delivers in droves.

The Promised Land runs until March 30, at Columbus Performing Arts Center in the Van Fleet Theatre, 549 Franklin Ave. Thurs-Sat. at 8 pm; Sun. at 2 pm. Tickets $12; Students $8. More information can be found online at www.ab-theatrical.com. Tickets can be purchased at the door or at brownpapertickets.com.

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