Elsinore Players is a small, new theatrical company composed of Thomas Neumann, Jamie Ewing, and Lori Rohr.
The group kicked off its existence last year with a brilliant production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, with Neumann directing and Ewing and Rohr starring. It was an epic undertaking, with the cast rehearsing for six months before taking the stage and culminated with Ewing earning Most Meaningful Performance in a Male Leading Role in a Play in the 2022 Heartstrings Awards.
THREE OF A KIND
For their newest venture, the trio has again selected a small, one location script to bring to life: Frankie & Johnny in the Clair de Lune. For this venture, Neumann again handles the directorial chores and Ewing and Rohr play the show’s two title characters. Amber Wuttke of Violent Delights provides violence and intimacy direction as well.
The play puts the relationship of two middle aged co-workers under the microscope after they embark on a first date.
Frankie is a waitress who once dreamed of being an actress. Johnny is the new short-order cook at the restaurant. As far as first dates go, this one seems to have been a good one as the two end up in bed together. That’s where the story begins.
In fact, at the very top of the show, the audience is thrown right into the mix of Frankie and Johnny’s passion. The afterglow of their physical love making is the spotlight in which the drama (and comedy) or the evening unfolds.
The play takes place in 1987, so the subject of casual sex has interesting connotations. At one point in the late 1970s and early 1980s, casual sex was all the rage. A Saturday night out almost always had a focus of getting lucky – often with a stranger. Then came AIDS.
THE JOYS OF SEX
The AIDS epidemic had its first known case in 1981. It went on to kill over 100,000 people in the country between 1981 and 1990. There are now more than 1.2 million people living with AIDS in the U.S.
But Frankie and Johnny are not strangers who met in a singles bar. They are co-workers, who we learn, have been noticing each other at work since Johnny recently started there.
Both Frankie and Johnny have had more than their fair share of disappointments in life, ranging from their mothers leaving them at early ages to their failed efforts at finding long-term romantic love as adults. How they are affected by those similar life disappointments demonstrates just how vividly different Frankie and Johnny are.
Ewing’s Johnny is a hopeless romantic. As far as he is concerned, the fact that they ended up in bed together means that he and Frankie are now in a relationship. Rohr’s Frankie, on the other hand, felt it was a nice time but would prefer if Johnny went home so she could get back to her routine.
SEARCHING FOR CONNECTION
What unfolds over the next two hours is two people who know each other physically, getting to know each other personally – the likes, the loves, the hates, the successes, the failures, and the future ambitions.
The New York Times called playwright Terrence McNally “the bard of American theatre”. He won Tony awards for Love! Valour! Compassion!, Master Class, Kiss of the Spider Woman, and Ragtime. He also received a lifetime achievement Tony Award in 2019. He was also inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame and the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His work often centers on the need for emotional and physical connection between people, and the ways those two types of connections intersect.
The role of Frankie is complex. As played with passion, angst, regret, and self-loathing by Rohr, Frankie is a woman who has faced numerous disappointments in life and has come to accept her role in life – at least that’s what she tells herself and the rest of the world.
At heart, though, Rohr’s Frankie does have secret ambitions. She has aspirations to be more than just a waitress, to not always be single, to one day have a well-rounded life.
Ewing’s Johnny is a quirky fellow without much of a filter. He has an odd sense of humor and says whatever pops into his head. In truth, though, not everything he says is really ideal for conversation – especially with someone he barely knows. But that’s the rub for Johnny; he embraces the emotional intimacy that is assumed after the physical act of making love.
Rohr and Ewing are both very capable actors, and Neumann has grown dramatically as a director over the past few years. Their preparation building up to this production is evident.
The set for Frankie & Johnny by Doug Neumann is impressive. The play is being staged at Side Street Studio Arts in downtown Elgin, and while the unique space has some minor noise challenges from neighboring businesses, it allows the actors to have a real working kitchen to play in. This really helps in Elsinore Players’ pursuit of realism – which is a commitment shared by all three of the company’s principals.
Frankie & Johnny in the Clair de Lune is a script that features some really great moments of dialogue. It’s always fun to watch good dialogue in the hands of strong actors.
The play was first produced Off-Broadway in 1987 featuring Kathy Bates as Frankie and F. Murray Abraham as Johnny. Frankie & Johnny had its first Broadway mounting in 2002 with Edie Falco and Stanley Tucci in the lead roles – receiving multiple Tony nominations. It was again revived on Broadway in 2019 with Audra McDonald and Michael Shannon.
To see Lori Rohr and Jamie Ewing put their unique twists on these two memorable characters under Thomas Neumann’s direction, make plans to see Elsinore Player’s Frankie & Johnny in the Clair de Lune at Elgin’s Side Street Studio Arts’ Backspace Theater at 15 ½ Zeigler Court.
Opening night featured the talents of the cutest usher any audience has ever seen. While I don’t know the young man’s name, his enthusiasm and infectious smile added to an enjoyable night of theater. It’s great to see a new generation of theater lovers being developed.
Frankie & Johnny plays Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays through March 18th. Friday and Saturday performances are at 8 PM; Sunday performances are at 3 PM. For tickets information visit the Elsinore Players Facebook Page at: https://www.facebook.com/ElsinorePlayers/
Peace. Love. Trust.
Rikki Lee Travolta
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