Too close for comfort

Reviewing an early-summer production of This is Our Youth at Washington Studio Theatre in D.C., Web critic Rich See found the show so intimate it “[felt] more like … listening in on a neighbor’s conversation” than viewing a play.

See went on to lament, “It’s a shame Youth wasn’t [staged] in one of Studio’s larger theaters with more comfortable seating.”

But for Peter Carver — former Executive Director of Asheville Community Theatre and current director of a September showing of Youth at the Artists Resource Center’s Area: 45 venue — comfort is beside the point. He believes that Area: 45’s black-box format will enhance the local production.

“We’re staging [the play] so that the audience is on two sides,” Carver explains, adding, “you’ve got to keep [the action] moving when you’re staging it like that. The audience — two rows on either side — is on the floor of the apartment,” which serves as the setting for the play. “It’s a small theater,” he emphasizes. “… I think that’s where Asheville is heading. But that’s cool … immediate theater is the best theater.”

If you say you’re going to see a play in Asheville these days, people no longer assume you’re headed for Thomas Wolfe Auditorium or Diana Wortham Theatre. You could just as easily be patronizing one of the area’s three new black-box theaters: Besides ARC’s Area: 45, N.C. Stage Company and Asheville Community Theatre have also debuted black-box theaters within the past year. Given the opportunity to experience more — and more kinds — of stage productions, the local-theater audience has blossomed in kind.

ARC has already hosted David Mamet’s Oleanna and Patrick Marber’s Closer, two plays that, because of controversial content, might not appeal to mass audiences. This is Our Youth — a Pulitzer Prize nominee — also falls into this category due to language and simulated drug use by the characters.

“This play is a tale of growing up in a little bit different environment [upper West Side Manhattan] than most people do,” explains Carver. Playwright Kenneth Lonergan — the auteur behind 2000’s superlatively well-acted film You Can Count on Me — extracts a 48-hour slice from the lives of three privileged, aimless twenty-somethings in 1982. The three — Dennis, Warren and Jessica — have stolen $15,000 from their wealthy parents, and, in a fit of Yuppie abandon, set out to spend it all in two days. What lifts it out of Bret Easton Ellis territory is the complicated tangle of abuse — Warren is physically abused by his father and emotionally manipulated by Dennis, who also happens to be his hash supplier — shading the characters’ own self-destructive tendencies.

The three-person cast features Todd Weakley as Warren, the de facto protagonist; Willie Repoley as Dennis, the drug-dealing wise-ass; and Kate Lane as Jessica, the jaded girl/friend who pals around with them. All three actors are staking their claim in Asheville’s rapidly growing theater community. Repoley has appeared in productions by N.C. Stage and Highland Rep; Lane recently starred in ARC’s Oleanna and Weakley both directs and acts in the area.

“Although it’s an amateur production, everyone [in the cast] has worked professionally,” notes Carver, who says he’s quite happy with his actors, all of whom are Asheville residents. “They’ve really grasped these characters,” he says. “When you have a small show, it’s easier to do without a weak link [in the cast], and that’s the case here.”

Unlike some other local theater groups, ARC “[doesn’t] import talent from NYC or other locations,” points out ARC co-founder and Artistic Director Jeff Messer. “Asheville has a large number of talented people in search of a venue, so we don’t feel the need to go outside,” he explains.

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