By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
All of Bryant Hall has been converted into a hotel conference room setting — straight-backed chairs, coffee and cookies, "Hello my name is" stick-ons — to enhance the atmosphere of the third part of The Midwest Trilogy, the one-man play Bob Birdnow's Remarkable Tale of Human Survival and the Transcendence of Self. First performed at last summer's Festival of Independent Theatres, Birdnow wowed audiences and critics then and should now too. After some reworking by Steele and director Lee Trull, it's grown into a stunning piece of theater. Acted again by Barry Nash, it's a mini-masterpiece that takes the audience on a 50-minute journey into one man's hell and through the other side to enlightenment.
Nash begins Bob's monologue with congenial humility, pausing for trips to the coffee pot at the back of the room and shouts to "Jerry" in the booth to see how he's doing on time. He drops phrases such as "I wasn't born on the strawberry float" and paints word pictures about a childhood spent among the sunny Iowa cornfields.
As the lighting (designed by Madeleine Lynch) subtly dims to focus on Bob, we are drawn into his riveting story of a plane flight to Colorado, with him as pilot, with his friends as passengers, that ends in tragedy. Steele has Bob deconstruct his physical reactions to fear and explore the decision process involved in going from victim to survivor in a life-threatening ordeal. We're with Bob every step down an icy mountain and back into a life where he's the guy responsible for the deaths of five good men. "Who is your greatest self?" asks Bob as he winds up his speech. That's the question we take home with us.
Nash, his forehead knitted into five deep furrows, does the hard work of playing strength and vulnerability simultaneously. As Bob Birdnow, he is flawless, giving a performance that takes flight and soars up and up into the stratosphere.