Theater review: ‘Better Strangers’ at The Magnetic Theatre

HELLO AGAIN: Andrew Gall, left, and Emily Tynan McDaniel star in the dark drama 'Better Strangers.' Photo by Rodney Smith/Tempus Fugit Design

A bitter, burned out college professor is accused of destroying the life of an innocent former student in the bleak, brilliant, dark drama Better Strangers. The production premiered at The Magnetic Theater last weekend. It’s onstage through Saturday, Oct. 7.

Maybe the college professor did as he was charged. Perhaps the damage was unintentional. Or maybe it never happened at all. These are the questions that arise in Better Strangers, masterfully written by playwright Lucia Del Vecchio. This story keeps twisting and turning in unexpected ways. The viewer is never sure who is the victim and who is the manipulator.

Director Callan White draws some stunning performances from the cast, moving the sympathy from one character to another. This show marks White’s directorial debut at the Magnetic.

Veteran actor Andrew Gall, who spent many years at Parkway Playhouse before joining the Magnetic, is superb as the confused and admittedly failed professor John Lambert. And in her stage debut, Emily Tynan McDaniel is amazing as the former student Joanna Tilley, whose reunion with her former teacher is at first puzzling, then powerful and frightening.

She has quite a story to tell. But what, exactly, is it? It all starts with Joanna’s unexpected visit at John’s office, where it’s quickly clear that he has no idea who she is. And it is equally obvious that she is carrying a huge emotional load. But just what that is, and what she wants from John, remain unclear.

Joanna’s gift of  whiskey and a constant series interrupting texts from John’s impatient wife do not make this any easier.

The audience does eventually learn that the trouble happened 20 years ago. When what seems to be the truth is finally revealed, it raises issues of how to straighten the mess out, if it can be resolved at all.

A story like this requires strong acting talents. Gall long ago proved his skills, working as director, actor and playwright. His portrayal of John reveals  a deeply flawed man who has his own dark burdens. But McDaniel is the real surprise. Without any previous stage acting credits, she reaches deep within to craft this character who seemingly knows where her young life went off the rails. It’s rare that the audience ever sees the birth of an acting career, but McDaniel’s potential seems endless.

As layers are peeled away and details revealed, some viewers will be squirming in their seats — particularly in the second act. It’s a riveting ride and in no way a light night of entertainment. It raises thought-provoking issues of responsibility and who is to blame when life goes wrong.

WHAT: Better Strangers
WHERE: The Magnetic Theatre, 375 Depot St.
WHEN: Thursdays-Saturdays through Oct. 7, at 7:30 p.m. $16


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About Tony Kiss
Tony Kiss covers brewing news for the Xpress. He has been reporting on the Carolina beer scene since 1994. He's also covered distilling and cider making and spent 30 years reporting on area entertainment. Follow me @BeerguyTK

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9 thoughts on “Theater review: ‘Better Strangers’ at The Magnetic Theatre

    • Big Al

      This was much better.

      I saw “Oleanna” at 35 Below last year and left having “taken a side” despite Mamet’s intention to blur the battle lines. Was this Mamet’s failure or the actors? I am not sure, I just know I did not “get it”.

      While the subject matter, setting, and players are similar, this situation is much more subtle and the arguments (both sides) are more compelling. The acting was much better, too.

    • Jason W

      While the basic set up of the play is similar to Oleanna, a male teacher and a female (former) student, in his office at odds over a particular event, and may have been influenced by that play, the plot and themes of Better Strangers are considerably different. Oleanna deals with sexual harassment and the herd mentality, while Better Strangers had to do with blame, culpability, and denial of fault. The situation is, in my opinion, much more subtle, murky, and plausible than Mr. Mamet’s play. After the “final curtain” I think audience opinions of the play are a lot more varied.

  1. Curious

    ” . . .McDaniel is the real surprise. Without any previous stage acting credits, she reaches deep within to craft this character . . .”

    Without making any judgments about Ms. McDaniel’s performance, which I haven’t seen, I’m curious as to what her training and experience are?. Do actors require any of the same training that, say, musicians must have?

    • Tony Kiss

      According to the show’ s program, Ms. McDaniel has studied acting at Asheville’s NYS3 program, the Actor’s Center of Asheville and elsewhere. Musicians do not necessarily require formal training but of course it depends on their career path. A symphonic player would need certain training and experience while a singer-songwriter or busker might not. Both the show’s producer and director told me they were greatly impressed when she came in to the theater. Tony Kiss.

    • Kelley Hinman

      It is exciting to see new talent emerge. Emily studied with me this summer as a continuation of her Meisner training begun with the now-defunct NYS3 (I teach Meisner privately in Charlotte and recently started through NC Stage here in Asheville). When I read Lucia’s play, I recommended that my wife Callan read her for the role. Emily impressed us all with her talent and work ethic. I couldn’t be more pleased for her recognition.
      Kelley Hinman

  2. Bryan Cranston

    Nice review on Better Strangers. And although I can’t be there to support local theater as I love to do – the director, Callan White is no stranger to me. My friend for over 30 years is a phenomenal actor and insightful director. Kudos to the whole production, and I hope the community goes out and sees this play.

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