They'll make you wear a nametag at Bryant Hall, set up like a hotel conference room for Second Thought Theatre's mixed-media production of Dallas playwright Eric Steele's The Midwest Trilogy. There's free coffee in Styrofoam cups and cheap cookies, fuel for an 80-minute production that includes two short films and a riveting live monologue by actor Barry Nash.
The connecting theme for the trilogy is perception: of situations, of people different from you, of life itself. Steele's first little film (he wrote and directed them both) is Cork's Cattlebaron, which finds a couple of traveling sales execs (Robert Longstreet, Frank Mosley) sitting down to 22-ounce steaks in a busy Kansas chop house. Longstreet's character, a blowhard with an ego the size of a side of beef, won't shut up. But the look on Mosley's face lets us know his talkative employee is about to be shut down. And out. It's a taut little study in economy of words and gesture. Funny, too.
In the second film, Topeka, a corporate dweeb (Hunter Wood) drops into a neighborhood coffee shop (Lower Skillman's Goldrush Café, doubling for a Midwestern location) to go over PowerPoints on his laptop. Only after he calls home on his cell do we learn he's Jewish. He's overheard by other patrons (Mike Schroeder, Clay Yocum and Marjorie Hayes) who cast some cold looks his way. Has he wandered into a religious cult meeting? Are they some kind of Westboro types who could do him harm? The film ends with a shaggy dog twist, but makes its point nicely. Then comes the one-act 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, who honored it with last year's best new play award from the DFW Critics Forum. After some reworking by Steele and director Lee Trull, it's grown clearer and more moving. Acted again by Barry Nash, it takes the audience on a 50-minute journey into one man's hell and through the other side to enlightenment.
The story Bob Birdnow shares is part motivational speech, part personal biography. He's a plainspoken man, with folksy turns of phrase such as "I wasn't born on the strawberry float." For 30 minutes or so he meanders through tales from his childhood and how he became a pilot, flying small-town cancer patients to big-city treatments. Gradually, he gets to the tale of the plane flight that didn't make it and how he alone survived the crash. It's spellbinding, with Nash drawing the audience closer the more personal his speech becomes.
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Bob ends his presentation with two questions for the audience to ponder. "Who is your greatest self?" he asks, after sharing the gory details of the ordeal that let him discover his own inner strength. It's something we all would do well to think about now and then. And finally, he says, "Any questions?"
Just one: Why aren't there more evenings of theater as great as this?
The Midwest Trilogy continues through April 7 at Second Thought Theatre, Bryant Hall. Call 866-811-4111.