PHASE EIGHT THEATER COMPANY REVIEW
A DUAL CRITICS REVIEW BY DICK KEREKES & LEISLA SANSOM
Jacksonville Florida’s newest addition to the theatre scene, Phase Eight Theatre Company, an ensemble based company, staged a two-performance run of “Hot L Baltimore” during December 10-11, 2016 in their performance space at 3674 Beach Boulevard. If the production is any indication of the quality of the work by this new group, theatre fans are in for an interesting year.
This play by Lanford Wilson debuted over forty years ago, before most of the audience members on opening night were even born. The production received both the 1973 Obie Award and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for best play, and remained on stage for a remarkable 1,166 performances; most non-musicals never last that long in NYC.
The play is set in the rundown lobby of the Hotel Baltimore; the title is based on the deteriorated hotel’s neon sign, which is missing the letter ‘e’. The property is scheduled for demolition in the near future, and the residents are facing eviction. A comedy/drama, this production had twelve excellent actors who were superbly directed by JaMario Stills, the Founder and Artistic Director of Phase Eight. He graduated from Douglas Anderson School of the Arts, and then received a Bachelor’s degree from The Julliard School in New York.
The ages of the eclectic mix of occupants ranged from just post-adolescence to the aged. Perhaps the most startling (for the time period), were the three prostitutes. April (Amy Leone), attractive and outspoken, is talkative about the activities she is willing to engage in with customers if the price is right. Suzy (Amber Brown), the sharpest dresser of the three, is sassy, flamboyant, and hoping for a better life. Jeanette Schock, the youngest of the three, is identified as “The Girl” in the program, and is constantly on the stage. All three were marvelous, with special acknowledgement to Ms. Schock, who had many many lines.
Veteran Sandra Spurney was Mrs. Bellotti, a middle-aged woman whose son was a previous resident; she spends most of her time wearily retrieving her son’s belongings, as the manager won’t allow him to return. Ms. Spurney has been in many plays at Theatre Jacksonville; most recently as Lady Catherine in “Pride and Prejudice”.
Actress Miles Laura Para has also done a number of shows at Theatre Jacksonville, and appeared as Loretta in last season’s “Melville Boys.” Here, she portrays Jackie, who unrealistically plans to travel west to grow health foods on a piece of property she has recently purchased, and is seeming protective of Jamie (Hays Jacobs), her shy younger brother. Brad Trowbridge, one of Jacksonville’s best comic actors, appears as Mr. Morris, a demanding and temperamental elderly resident with multiple complaints.
The memorable Brooks Anne Hays Meiredieks is Millie, the resident Southern Belle in this setting for troubled souls. Ms. Meiredieks appeared previously in a 1979 production of “Hot L Baltimore” staged by Jacksonville University. She is an excellent comedienne, with many past appearances at Players by the Sea and other theatres throughout the area. Derrick Grant appears as Paul, a young man searching for his grandfather, a man he believes may have previously lived at the hotel. Mitchell Wohl, a very versatile actor whom we first saw in the leading role in “Fiddler on the Roof” several years ago, contributes three cameo roles as a pizza delivery man, a John, and a taxi driver.
The set used the entire length of the building as the hotel’s spacious lobby, filled with mismatched furniture which included a dilapidated couch with spilled stuffing. The audience sat in two long rows of chairs spanning the back wall. The cast provided the costumes, which were reflective of the times.
While the setting of the play may seem dated, experiencing it was like opening a time capsule and finding a mirror. Yes, while times and issues have changed and the media is filled with reports of problems with drugs, violence, and squatters residing in vacant houses, those living on the edge continue to search for and to cherish safe havens.
Congratulations to Phase Eight Theatre Company for assembling a solid ensemble of skilled actors to revive this theatrical classic, which provided a provocative and entertaining evening of theatre. Phase Eight’s inaugural season begins with “All My Sons,” which will be staged during February 1 – 4, 2017, we recommend adding it to your calendar as a must-see. The additional plays planned include “On Purpose,” “MLK Blvd” “Live Girls” (a world premiere written by Adam Groff), “Jesus Hopped the A Train,” and “Love’s Labour & Lost”. The company is seeking sponsors, patrons, and supporters, and you can contact them on Facebook.