by DICK KEREKES & LEISLA SANSOM
ABET opened playwright Gina Gionfriddo’s dark comedy After Ashley at its theatre at 716 Ocean Boulevard in Atlantic Beach with performances to run through May 26, 2012. The number for reservations is 249-7177, or visit www.abettheatre.com
After Ashley is a cutting edge comedy/drama satire about how television programming exploits victims of crimes for better ratings and greater revenue. The play debuted at the Humana Festival of New Plays in Louisville in 2004 and was selected as the best play by the Dual Critics. It opened in New York in 2005 and won two Obie awards.
Ashley Hammond is a middle-aged woman bored with her unfulfilled life. She teaches art part-time, but she’s not a good artist and she doesn’t like children. She smokes pot regularly and spends a lot of time with Justine, her fourteen-year-old son, trying to educate him about, among other topics, love, sex and drugs, and urging him not to make the same mistakes she made. Her husband Alden is a less than successful journalist. They married only because of her unexpected pregnancy; divorce might be a good idea but they can’t afford it. Ashley meets with a tragic death (offstage) before the middle of Act I. Since we don’t want to be spoilers we will leave the circumstances for you to learn about when you see the play.
Journalist Alden writes a moving book titled After Ashley that becomes a best seller.TV talk show host David Gavin has Alden as a guest on his weekly program “Profiles in Justice.” Afterward, he tells Alden that he has recently received a promotion to production chief of crime programming and doesn’t have time to continue as host. He proposes that Alden replace him in a show with an updated format that will focus on sex crimes, to include interviews with victims and reenactments.
All this happens over a three-year period, and Justin, now seventeen, is very upset about the way his father has portrayed his mother, since he glorifies her life rather than chosing to tell the truth about her. Justin has his personal problems with alcohol, drugs, and his relationship with his father.
Deborah Jordan, who runs the Acting/Directing Program at Jacksonville University, has directed many plays in community theatre as well. Ms. Jordan is also a fine actress when she can find the time, and her last three performances have been on ABET’s stage. She was Marmee in “Little Women” and Mrs. Alving in “Ghosts.” Ms. Jordan is marvelous as Ashley and her interaction with son Justin during the beginning of the show provides probably sixty percent of the humor.
Pablo J. Milla, a junior theatre major at Douglas Anderson, plays the pivotal role of Justin and his performance is convincing and remarkable. Of course, the Dual Critics knew it would be, having seen his previous outstanding performances in Theatre Jacksonville’s acclaimed “Rabbit Hole,” and Douglas Anderson’s “Urinetown” and “Paradise Hotel.”
Larry Walshaw as Alden Hammond delivers an excellent performance. This is Mr. Walshaw’s first stage appearance since he starred in Neil Simon’s comedies, “The Star Spangled Girl” and “God’s Favorite” thirty years ago. Larry was a very believable journalist and TV personality and plays the egocentric father to a T.
David Gavin, the TV host who becomes a program producer, is portrayed by Larry Fairall with an air of authenticity. Not only did he look the part, he has the deep, resonant vocal qualities to make it realistic. Fairall’s last role on local stages was at the Alhambra Theatre and Dining as Loretta Swit’s husband; it pays to be distinguished looking and over 40.
Jet Thomas, a Jacksonville University senior, plays Julie Bell, an attractive young woman Justin meets at a local bar. Ms. Thomas has a marvelous singing voice, which we have experienced in musicals at JU. She is also a very fine actress, which she proves as she becomes an influence in Justin’s life in the role of Julie.
The final character is Roderick Lord, somewhat of a salacious individual with a scandalous purpose in life. Since his appearance adds an unexpected element in this mix toward the end of the show, we will leave it at that. Sean Segerstrom makes his community theatre debut with this intriguing role.
After Ashley was directed by Lesley Nadwodnik, a Jacksonville University graduate who now resides in her home state of Michigan. Ms. Nadwodnik has appeared in many productions at JU and on ABET’s stage, which included “Little Women” and “Ghosts.” She was also the Assistant Director of “The 39 Steps” in December at ABET. Ms. Nadwodnik flew to Jacksonville for the opportunity to direct this play and will be returning to Michigan and to special classes she is taking at The Second City Theatre in Chicago. Her casting and direction of this production were excellent.
Stage Manager Katie Berry and her backstage crew, Emily Keith and Ian Chaille were an important part of this play since the play is done on an empty stage with set pieces moved quickly on and off for various scenes. The television scenes were handled realistically with the use of director’s chairs and bright lighting.
After Ashley has adult language and situations and is not for children.
Playwright Gina Gionfriddo has been a script writer for the TV show “Law and Order” and since the play’s debut eight years ago, reality TV programming has expanded. In addition to the various network shows that feature reenactment of crimes, Investigation Discovery is available on Comcast Cable, with reenactments of murders and other crimes that run 24 hours a day. If you watch TV, you should see After Ashley, a provocative and enlightening theatre experience.
by DICK KEREKES & LEISLA SANSOM