Hurts so good

Even if adults aren’t entitled to summer vacation, movie producers and book publishers do their best not to tax overheated intellects from June to August, instead churning out blockbusters and bestsellers intended to entertain, rather than — heaven forbid — educate consumers who still associate the season with “no more reading, no more books.”

Theater has generally been immune to the trend, defiantly sticking to “big issues,” no matter what the weather. But with Jack and Diane, Moon Brought Blue Productions may very well have created the stage equivalent of summer beach reading.

A romantic farce written by Western North Carolina native David Ostergaard, Jack and Diane is one of seven entries in North Carolina Stage Company’s Catalyst Series. The curated performance program, now in its second year, showcases local grassroots theater productions for two weekends apiece. According to publicity reports from NC Stage, three of last year’s participating companies were invited to perform at the Stoneleaf Theatre Festival earlier this year.

Ostergaard envisions similar success for his play. In his marquee-ready words, “it’s the funniest show people will see this summer.”

Jack and Diane is the story of two long-lost high school sweethearts who re-meet cute when Jack stumbles across a costumed Diane peddling cheese at the local Bi-Lo. The pair is smitten all over again, and both agree to give love another go. But as the two emerge from their respective apartments on the big night, they discover they’re next-door neighbors. It’s the first of many surprises in a play with more twists than a Chubby Checker concert, none of which reporters who don’t want a reputation as spoilsports are permitted to reveal.

Ostergaard maintains that while the script’s initial set-up might be familiar, the production distinguishes itself from most mindless mass-media fare. “It’s a lot better than Bringing Down the House,” he says in perhaps an overly modest reference to Steve Martin and Queen Latifah’s universally panned race-and-romance comedy from 2003.

The playwright says he strove not to cross the murky line separating very funny from downright silly.

“I think the script does have wit, if I may be so bold to say that about something I wrote. It’s not just tomfoolery. It’s about character connections.”

There are five characters in the play, all to be played by two actors. Michael Cheek, who appears frequently in local productions, stars opposite Karri L. Brantley, an alumnus of Detroit’s Second City Conservatory.

“I’m a huge physical-comedy person,” reveals Brantley. “I love slapstick. So I fell for this script hook, line and sinker.”

Ostergaard wrote the script specifically for Brantley, his partner in Moon Brought Blue Productions. Their personal relationship is somewhat stickier than their professional one: “We’re getting married one day,” Brantley exuberantly insists, drawing a sigh from Ostergaard.

“Someone sees diamonds, someone sees patience,” he quips.

Ostergaard and Brantley met at an audition in Memphis, where there wasn’t a cheese cube in sight. Both say there’s very little of their lives in Jack and Diane, though Brantley helped develop the storyline. “She had a lot of input,” Ostergaard says. “She really used her improv background.”

But her flair for spontaneity doesn’t make learning lines any easier: Brantley admits that both she and Cheek are racing to memorize the script. “He’s an incredible talent,” Brantley says of Cheek, who also called upon his improv skills to tweak parts of the play.

“It kind of manifested as us working as an ensemble,” she explains.

Consciously absent from the contributing ensemble is John Cougar Mellencamp, who in 1982 enjoyed his first and only number-one song, the poignant puppy-love ballad “Jack and Diane.” Ostergaard says the names of his characters were plucked from his family tree, and are only coincidentally identical to Mellencamp’s famous teenaged lovers.

“But there are a lot of similarities,” he concedes, pointing out that both pairs are high school sweethearts from small towns. “It definitely piques people’s interest.”

In deference to the unavoidable association, the play will end with Mellencamp’s song playing. The idea is to “make people think,” Ostergaard.

And maybe in the muggy days of summer, musing on Mellencamp is thinking enough.

[Contributing writer Hanna Miller is based in Asheville.]

Moon Brought Blue Productions presents Jack and Diane at North Carolina Stage Company (33 Haywood St.; enter on Walnut Street across from Zambra’s). The show opens Wednesday, July 6, and runs through Sunday, July 17, with performances Wednesdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and on Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets are $12; opening-night performance is pay-what-you-can. Call 350-9090 for more information.


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