Lots of Laughs with a Message in “The Thanksgiving Play” at Chamber

Eric Schabla, Torrey Hanson, Hannah Shay and Kelsey Brennan in The Thanksgiving Play

Sometimes you know exactly where the road is going  to take you, but it doesn’tmatter that you already know. 

Because you just know that getting there is going to be more than half the fun.

Such is the 90 minutes of “The Thanksgiving Play,” which opened at Milwaukee Chamber Theatre this week. 

Logan is a high school drama teacher and she has gotten a few grants to celebrate Thanksgiving by designing and directing a play that is to be culturally sensitive to Native Americans.

Logan (Kelsey Brennan) is passionately politically correct and she is joined in her campaign by her boyfriend, Jaxton (Eric Schabla), equally submerged in that sea of passionate belief. He gives her a rehearsal gift of a mason jar made from the “recycled glass from broken windows in housing projects.”

The other cast members are Caden (Torrey Hanson) a fellow teacher who is also an amateur actor and playwright and dedicated historical researcher and Alicia (Hannah Shay), a Los Angeles actor who Logan thought was a real Native American, thereby fulfilling the Native American grant she received for the play. Logan made the mistake because of a headshot Alicia had of her wearing braids and a turquoise necklace.

There is no script for Logan’s play. It’s going to be developed by a lengthy process of improvisation, a process most likely to fail in spectacular fashion given the lack of any real creative bones in these four. She wants to “devise” the play but we, the audience, know that this journey is going to be full of missteps.

For Logan the goal is to not only produce the most culturally sensitive pageant ever, but is also trying to burnish her reputation after her recent productio of {The Iceman Cometh” with 15-year-olds led 300 parents to sign a petition calling for her to be fired. 

Written by Larissa FastHorse, a member of the Sicangu Lakota tribe, the play is very very funny. But it’s also a broad satire about people who are woke, who think they have high level sensitivity to all issues of diversity and prejudice.  Ms.FastHorse has described her play as “making fun of white people for 82 minutes.”

Under the veteran direction of Laura Gordon this production has the kind of pace that is integral to good comedy. It’s the final play in the 2020-21 virtual season from Chamber Theatre, and the first under Artistic Director Brent Hazelton.

I hope he choice of “TheThanksgiving Play” is an indication of the kind of production we can look forward to under Mr. Hazelton’s guidance. It’s fun but has a message that skewers the whitewashed version of the Thanksgving holiday we have all come to believe. 

In  a serious vein, doing a play like this presents certain risks – that a portion of an audience might well take offense at a particular portrayal. But it is taking these kinds of risks that make for great theater and Mr. Hazelton deserves great credit for choices like this. 

Production credits: Director, Laura Gordon, Stage Manager, Briana J. Fahey; Composition and Sound Designer, Joseph R. Cerqua; Costume Designer, Misti Bradford; Scenic Designer, Jason Fassl; Lighting Designer, Marisa Abbott; Properties Designer, Jim Guy; Dramaturg, Benjamin Wilson; Production photographer, Paul Ruffalo.

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