A Festival of World Premiers Written by First Responders
A Festival of One-Act World Premieres by First Responders
A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis
At: The Firehouse 1609 West Broad St., Richmond, RVA 23220
Performances: March 23 – April 15, 2023
Ticket Prices: $35 general admission, $20 students
Info: (804) 355-2001 or firehousetheatre.org.
Following the model set by War in Pieces, the 2021 festival of one-act plays written by military veterans, the focus of FIRST RESPONSES is the real-life front line experiences of four first responders. Kathryn Kahlson is a retired Captain from Chesterfield Fire & Emergency Services; Captain Anthony Jackson is Commander of the Richmond Police Department’s First Precinct; Benjamin Toderico served 18 years with the Richmond Police Department in uniform, as a Detective, and on the SWAT team; and Betty Migliaccio has been a firefighter for the past 10 years. Migliaccio and Jackson are founding members of the Frontline Writers group, a non-profit organization founded in 2020 “to provide those who serve our community — firefighters, police officers, and emergency medical technicians — intensive instruction in the art and craft of the narrative so that their experiences may be known, shared, and archived.” Classes are taught by founding board member and New York Times best-selling author David L. Robbins. The stories that are developed into plays are edited and reworked and brought to life onstage with minimal production elements – a few simple cubes, costumes, and lighting.
Mother at Work, written by Kathryn Kahlson and directed by Amy Berlin, is a tale of two mothers – a first responder and the young mother she encounters on an emergency call. How do you tell someone their baby is dead – and how do you deny them the opportunity to hold their baby one last time? Kahlson shared that first responders talk it out with their coworkers, sometimes for a week or longer, but this particular call hit so close to home it took her 10 years to process the encounter. To help actor Lindsey June get into the role of Kahlson, the author allowed June to wear her work boots.
Something So Small, by Anthony Jackson, pulls the audience along into an eerie portal of time travel where a crime scene investigation at a drug house allows the victims to be witnesses to their own demise. I only fully understood this cool plot twist by staying for the post-show talk-back. I’m not sure if it was my own lack of imagination or if the play could have made this less ambiguous – or perhaps a bit of both.
In Pillar Benjamin Toderico takes up to the top of a bridge where a young man contemplates suicide. For this, the actors took a field trip to the site, where they experienced the climb, the swaying, the wind, and the cold.
Finally, in Eight Buttons, Betty Migliaccio paid homage to her colleague, Richmond firefighter Lt. Ashley Berry who was killed on Thanksgiving Day 2019 while shielding one of her children from gunfire – the result of a drive-by shooting. For me, this was the most touching story, not just because it was a familiar news story, but because of the tenderness embodied in the simple act of Amanda Spellman (as Betty) sitting and sewing the gold buttons signifying her newly earned rank that Lt. Berry had not yet had time to sew on before her untimely death. That, and the respectful salute that ended the scene and the show encapsulated the unspoken and unspeakable that these writers have been able to express through their stories.
A diverse ensemble of familiar and new faces portrayed all the roles in these four one-act plays, directed by four different directors. The actors – Briana Creque, Dwayne Daniels II, Keydron Dunn, Enrique J.. Gonzales, Lindsey June, Jimmy Mello, Lorin Mello, David Rogozenski, and Amanda Spellman – seemed to step into the shoes of some of their characters more easily than others. One female officer, played by Creque, for example, seemed to move with an unnatural stiffness (but take note that she only recently completed her first role at VCU where she is a student in the drama department) while Jimmy Mello’s portrayal of the bridge jumper was uncannily authentic. Lorin Mello, with key roles in Mother at Work, Something So Small, and Pillar appeared to have mastered some of the most stressful of roles and high-strung characters with precision. I look forward to seeing more of June and Spellman, both of whom made their RVA debuts in First Responses. Anthony Jackson personally commended Dwayne Daniels II, commenting that Daniels played the role of Jackson in Something So Small better than he plays himself.
Producing four one-act plays by four novice playwrights – even with minimal production elements – is no mean feat. I believe in his pre-show curtain speech Producing Artistic Director Joel Bassin said there were no less than 27 artists involved in the making of this show, running approximately two hours, with one intermission. So, kudos to the four directors – Amy Berlin (Mother at Work), Mark J. Lerman (Something So Small), Andrew Gall (Pillar), and Lian-Marie Holmes Munro (Eight Buttons), as well as Anna Bialkowski (Costumes), Andrew Bonniwell (Lighting), Kate Statelman (Composer), Todd Labelle (Production Design), and the rest of the creative team for another interesting and insightful production of new and (mostly) compelling theater.
Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.
FIRST RESPONSES Festival
new plays by Anthony Jackson, Kathryn Kahlson, Betty Migliaccio, and Ben Toderico
March 23-April 15, 2023
Dwayne Daniels II
Enrique J. Gonzalez
Amy Berlin, Andrew Gall, Mark Lerman, Lian-Marie Holmes Munro – Directors
David Robbins – Dramaturg/Co-Producer
Emily Vial – Festival Coordinator
Todd LaBelle – Production Designer
Kate Statelman – Composer
Andrew Bonniwell – Lighting Designer
Anna Bialkowski – Costume Designer
Colin Lowrey II – Costume Assistant
Jake Buccella – Dramaturg/Assistant Director
Jae Austin, Dennis Bowe, Aleta Findlay, Emily Vial – Stage Managers
ALL 4 PLAYS ARE PERFORMED EVERY PERFORMANCE
THERE WILL BE A TALKBACK AFTER EVERY PERFORMANCE
Wed March 22 @ 7:30pm (preview)
Thu March 23 @ 7:30pm (preview)
Fri March 24 @ 7:30pm (preview)
Sat March 25 @ 7:30pm (opening)
Thu March 30 @ 7:30pm
Fri March 31 @ 7:30pm
Sat April 1 @ 7:30pm
Sun April 2 @ 3pm
Thu April 6 @ 7:30pm
Fri April 7 @ 7:30pm
Sat April 8 @ 7:30pm
Thu April 13 @ 7:30pm
Fri April 14 @ 7:30pm
Sat April 15 @ 7:30pm
Sun April 16 @ 7:30pm
Tickets: $35 general admission
Photos by Bill Sigafoos
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