Tuesday, February 13, 2024

Ashland at Chameleon Theatre Circle

Chameleon Theatre Circle is presenting the world premiere of Ashland by Minnesota- and Oregon-based writer Isabel Estelle. The play was the winner of Chameleon's 2022 New Play Contest and had a staged reading in February 2023 at Theatre in the Round as well as an October 2023 reading at the Ashland New Plays Festival in Oregon.

It's clear to see why this play is attracting attention. In a tight 90 minutes, it tells a difficult story with great humor and humanity.

From the Chameleon website: A young woman is unexpectedly diagnosed with a terminal illness and chooses to pursue Death with Dignity. She and her new partner must navigate the beginning and end of their relationship simultaneously. As her health rapidly declines, her partner and two siblings grapple with the absurdity and hilarity of death, family, and what it takes to let go.

Performed in a black box theater at Inver Hills Community College, the simple set is just a few pieces of furniture, enough to suggest a living space. Lisa Diesslin's costumes suggest the characters without being overly showy, and Mark Steffer's props range from appropriate to hilarious. Kudos for using real food. Andi Billig's lights and sound work to create scenes in and out of the living space and keep the action from slowing down.

There isn't anything to detract from the performances or the relationships they build in a short time. Courtney Matula, Marlo Teal, and Phillip Zawieruszynski play siblings whose reactions to terminal illness are conveyed in a very natural, believable way. As Wes, Jessica Lynn Frederikson builds a relationship with the family and runs through the gamut of emotions, some so raw that it's hard to watch, but never overplaying. Nissa Frederikson as Susan is a calm, thoughtful presence throughout the events. Matula, as Vim, who chooses to end her own suffering, creates a delightful character and does a wonderful wordless scene showing the progression of her condition.

It's difficult to tell whether the truth of the relationships on stage comes from the naturalistic writing or from the work of the cast, under Bradley Donaldson's direction. The two elements work hand in hand to create a difficult, but ultimately heartening evening of theater.