Storytelling took flight Friday night as Stray Cat Theatre in Tempe opened its 10th season with “The Sparrow,” a work conceived by Nathan Allen and co-written with Chris Mathews and Jake Minton.
It’s directed by Stray Cat Theatre’s founding artistic director Ron May, recently honored with an Arizoni Award for directing last season’s “Learn to be Latina.” He opened the evening by previewing the rest of this season’s shows — “Milk, Milk Lemonade” by Joshua Conkel, “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot” by Stephen Adly Guirgis and “Heddatron” by Elizabeth Meriwether.
That last one promises a mix of housewife, playwright and robots. May has perfected the fine art of selecting a season — and casting the right people for each role. “The Sparrow” features Alyson Marie Mahoney as Emily Book, the sole survivor of a school bus that somehow collides with a train.
In a day and age of lavish, big budget productions that expect little of their viewers, Stray Cat Theatre knows that less can be more. Robert Kolby Harper, associate artistic director with Phoenix Theatre, praises May’s “minimalist” approach to “The Sparrow” — noting its elegance as an homage to imagination.
Rather than elaborate sets with frequent changes that can distract audience members from the heart of a story, May pumps life into “The Sparrow” with a simple dollhouse, tall red rectangles signifying student lockers and a bevy of chairs — plus a little something we all remember from high school biology but never expected to see doing the disco.
Damon Dering, artistic director for Nearly Naked Theatre in Phoenix, notes that May’s production has a “real Chicago feel.” The play originated at The House Theatre in Chicago, and May’s own Chicago roots have clearly taken flight at the little Tempe theater where he’s feathering the nest with a “$10 for 10th” campaign that’ll help future seasons soar.
This production’s Chicago connections include Andréa Morales, who portrays high school uberachiever Jenny. Morales performed for several years with Childsplay in Tempe before heading to the Windy City, where she’s a company member with Halcyon Theatre and artistic associate with Polarity Ensemble Theatre.
I hit opening night for “The Sparrow” with my daughter Jennifer, an ASU student who usually ranks attending live theater productions right up there with cleaning out the litter box. But she was eager to see “The Sparrow” after learning that the cast includes a couple of actors she knows from ASU and Arizona School for the Arts.
I spoke with one of them, Joshua Sherrill, after the show. He practically waxed poetic about the show’s deeper meaning. We all experience pain, he told me, but it’s how we come through it that defines who we are. In “The Sparrow,” it’s parents who are grieving.
The parents’ pain, and the grief of a community losing its innocence, are signaled by actors carrying framed photos of children and pastoral rural scenes. No need to wheel trees and plains in and out of view. We get it from the moment the show first spreads its wings – thanks in part to simple but dramatic lighting and music, mostly strings, that mix sweet melodies with sad, somber sounds.
Much of “The Sparrow” centers around small town high school life. Think cheerleaders and football fervor. Wrist corsages and awkward prom moments. Teacher crushes and overhead projectors. The latter makes for nifty shadow effects on a screen also used to show footage of the school bus crash at the heart of the play. The film clips are especially compelling when mixed with sound effects signaling trains careening down the tracks.
“The Sparrow” is perfectly enjoyable as a story free from existential elaboration. Theater goers who prefer to let trains be trains will be satiated by this show. But those seeking deeper symbolism can find it in a speeding train that could be the powerful imaginings of a young child or the repressed feelings of a teacher at once tender and treacherous.
It’s the collision of love and loss that gives “The Sparrow” its poignancy and power. The naysayers of a decade ago who told Ron May that starting Stray Cat Theatre could lead to a train wreck were right. But little did they know just how high it would soar.
Note: “The Sparrow” is best for mature teen and adult audiences. To learn more about the show, which runs through Oct 8, visit www.straycattheatre.org. I’m told the fabulous cookies enjoyed by folks who lingered after the show for a 10th season celebration came from Angelica Howland, proprietor of Scrumptious Angel cookies. I’ll update this post with her website once it’s up and running. Baking first, technology second. I like her style. Hooray! You can now click here to find the cookie website!
Coming up: Show me your Sondheim!, Mystery takes center stage