The Show Must Go On – A Rick By Any Other Name

I saw such a wonderful example today of why live theatre is so captivating.  When people ask “why not just see a movie” or try to explain to me that with television and film the performances, setting and all the production values can be so much more polished and perfect and unlimited, etc., I reply that it’s a totally different experience altogether. I love television and film, but theatre can be even more special. With theatre, it’s a group experience.  The group of artists that have worked so hard to build the art you are seeing, the group of artists that are performing it in the moment, the audience group experiencing it together and reacting back to the performers  –  we’re all partially responsible for how this all goes — and it may go differently this time than last time or next time.  That’s exciting — there’s an extra frisson of engagement and anticipation.

Jeremy Ryan, Mary Lou Torre and Keenan Flagg photo by Taylor Sanders

Jeremy Ryan, Mary Lou Torre and Keenan Flagg
photo by Taylor Sanders

Today I saw a lovely play at City Lights Theater in San Jose called Making God Laugh by Sean Grennan.  It begins in middle-America 1980 when parents Ruthie and Bill host their 20-something children Rick, Tom and Maddie for Thanksgiving;  the three subsequent scenes are family holidays in 1990, 2000 and 2010.  It’s a very funny but sharp and thought-provoking view of a family and the dynamics and shifting roles of lifelong relationships.   I thoroughly enjoyed this play and recommend it (details at end of post).  However, I’m not writing this to talk particularly about the play.  I want to focus on the stand-in actor and the adaptability of theatre and theatre artists.

The actor who normally plays the part of Richard (“Rick”) was, on very short notice, unable to perform today.  Two hours before curtain, director Caitlin Papp got in touch with actor Sean Okuniewicz who agreed to play the part of Rick in today’s performance, carrying a script.  Sean has worked with City Lights Theatre and Caitlin Papp before but had only seen this play once in its two-week (so far) run.  But, he’s a professional actor and he said (something like), “sure, can do”.

Karen DeHart and Sean Okuniewicz and City Lights fall 2016 production of Other Desert Cities   Photo by Taylor Sanders

Karen DeHart and Sean Okuniewicz in City Lights fall 2016 production of Other Desert Cities
Photo by Taylor Sanders

He was terrific.  Not, “considering he had no notice, he was terrific”.   Not, “if he had had the benefit of six weeks of rehearsal”,  or “if he wasn’t carrying a script he would have been terrific”.  No qualifiers.  He just was extremely good in this part today.  I often forgot he was carrying a script.   He appeared so comfortable in the role and appeared effortlessly to embody the complex character of Rick — this once-star athlete always looking for the next big thing and always making the wrong choice.  (Rick’s 1980 car was a salmon-colored Pacer.)  Sean’s physicality was perfect and unafraid and yet he portrayed some nuanced emotional reactions and interactions difficult to do behind a script.  I did regret that I didn’t get enough of his face and eyes because he had to read.

Sean Okuniewicz’s performance in this stand-in role was outstanding.  He gets a lot of credit for that, but not all of it.  The other performers (all very talented in their own right) almost seamlessly supported him — feeding him a line or a cue now and then, providing a subtle blocking aid when needed with moving around the stage in a support system virtually undetectable if you weren’t looking for it.  Of course the other actors wanted the play to go well; it’s in their interest.  But it felt warm and generous too, like they wanted his experience to go well for him.  The amazing adaptability of live theatre – kind of like one of those micro-organisms that closes around a foreign particle and absorbs it completely, he was made one with the ensemble.

As the director said in her pre-curtain speech, this theatre, as most theatres, feels like a family.  And as the play ultimately says too, family takes care of family.  I witnessed an example and it enhanced an already wonderful theatre experience.

Maria Giere Marquis, Mary Lou Torre and Keenan Flagg in Making God Laugh  Photo by Taylor Sanders

Maria Giere Marquis, Mary Lou Torre and Keenan Flagg in Making God Laugh Photo by Taylor Sanders

Making God Laugh plays through December 23, 2018.  It’s full of laughs (even if you aren’t old enough to remember Pacers) and you will have a great time.  City Lights Theater, 2nd Street San Jose.

From City Light’s website:

“Come share the holidays with Ruthie, Bill and the kids. Thirty years of holidays, that is. You’ll laugh, tear up and shudder: sometimes at the “festive” recipes, sometimes at the fashion choices you’ll never admit you also made. Through it all, Ruthie and Bill try to keep the home fires burning as the paths of their three adult children—a priest, an aspiring actress and a smooth-talking entrepreneur—twist and turn. As Woody Allen once said, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.”

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  1. Carl Jones
    Dec 3, 2018

    Loved this story, very hard to step in and do this kind of a job! I love everything that you write!

    • Susan Fairbrook
      Dec 4, 2018

      Thank you Carl!

  2. Patricia Billingsley
    Dec 5, 2018

    So glad you were in attendance for such an unique and special performance and then to be able to share the experience so clearly with us.

  3. Hannah Caratti
    May 6, 2019

    Wow what a wonderful blog post..
    . thank you so much Susan !
    I appreciate your enthusiasm
    for wonderful theater…
    And I love the photos you
    have posted along with the blogs!

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