By JEBallantyne Jr.
YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — The lights dimmed and actor Terry Shears starred as Joe at the start of “People Along the Way,” also written by Shears, at the Youngstown Playhouse Friday night.
Joe, or “Average Joe”, begins by explaining that his name could actually be the name of anyone in the audience and anyone in the audience could be where he represented Joe.
So began an entertaining evening at the Playhouse with “People Along the Way,” which Shears says is autobiographical. Joe explains that he is the product of the many people who have come and gone from his life over the years, just like we all are. The play allows some of these people to see Joe again in the present and gives Joe the opportunity to reflect on his past and those who made him who he is.
Some of these moments are funny, some heartwarming, and some sad. But all serve to illustrate how those who cross our lives make us who we are and who we are.
Shears is aided on his journey by a superb cast of fellow actors. The cast of five portrays 17 different characters starting with Brian Suchora as Dr. Zeigler who gave birth to Joe and then saved his life five years later during the unleashing of the polio epidemic. Suchora seems to feel right at home in the role of doctor as he talks about the outbreak and how it tore Joe’s family apart, right down to his golf swing.
Suchora returns as Coach D., a multi-talented football coach and teacher, who delivers a hilarious blackboard description of the Battle of Gettysburg. His final appearance is a heartwarming visit from Grandfather Charles. Suchora shows considerable versatility in all of these roles.
Now that Joe’s entry into the world is told, we meet the first member of his family. The great-grandmother (Denise Sculli) spits pearls of wisdom such as: “Life is like a cup of tea. It’s all in how you do it. Sculli is the lovable, near-blind grandmother we all remember. With each line, she takes every member of the audience with her on her journey.
Sculli also returns as Joe’s baseball-bat swinging sister (with slight reminiscences of Lucy taking the football away from a charging Charlie Brown). She reappears as Gert, Joe’s New Years-partying grandmother. But her strongest turn is as Martha, Joe’s boss when he worked at a department store while attending the university. Sculli pulls out all the stops for the role and delivers one of the best comedy scenes of the night. His energy and total involvement in the role make it a classic Playhouse moment.
Brandon Donaldson paints a moving portrait of dad confined to a wheelchair due to poliomyelitis. But his influence on Joe is limitless as we discover during the show. Donaldson returns as Bobby, the tough kid at school, who wants to be the Elvis Presley of Stupid People.
Donaldson does well with these two very different characters, but his second return as a dad provides for one of the most poignant scenes of the evening.
Connie Cassidy made her return to the Playhouse with her first appearance as a mom, the comforting element that helped Joe’s family overcome the polio that disrupted their lives. We see her again as Dr. Fitzpatrick, an English literature professor during Joe’s college years, and then later as a cold-hearted lady on South Broadway. But Cassidy’s true talent and versatility shines through in the character of Mary Ella, an elementary school girl who is bullied because of her last name. Clinging to her doll, Annie, is her only comfort as she laments that Annie is the only friend she has. It really is a moving scene and it’s extremely well done by Cassidy.
Jason Green turns in three very divergent roles. Mr. Stafford, one of Joe’s first teachers who motivates his students with jokes while dealing with the complexity of simple instructions to his students. Green takes a dramatic turn with Cornish John, a minor and distant relative of Joe. Green conveys John’s character well by describing the years he spent working in the mines, hastening his death from lung damage. He ends his appearances as Ralph, a hick who describes himself as the poster child for staying in school past 8th grade. Green has fun with this character and his comedic timing provides some great laughs.
Director Maria Petrella-Ackley brings it all together. A good cast is half the battle for any show, but the director has to mold it all and bring it all together. And this show is an extra challenge because there’s not really a plot per se. It’s reminiscent of the old “This Is Your Life” TV show, with characters coming and going all night. But Petrella-Ackley pulled it all together to make it all make sense and keep the pace going without a lull.
Shears’ concept for the show is most intriguing. From its first opening lines, it captures audiences, not just as Joe, but with the very idea of how we are all shaped by the people we meet along the way. It’s easy to see that Joe is Shears, and many of these scenes reflect the joy or pain he experienced “along the way.” But the real art is in audiences accepting Shears as the Joe character and not as someone who just tells a story.
The set design is by Leslie Brown and is very simple with just a tree in the center, it serves the show well without cluttering the action. It also serves as a place where Joe keeps the many props given to him by each actor. At the end of the show, the characters are gone but they are still with him via those memories. Brown also designed the lighting.
This show is very easy to understand. We all know these people in our own lives. They are real people, real characters both good and not so good. But no matter what or who they are, they are all part of us and what we have become.
“People Along the Way” will continue on April 23, 29, 30 at 7:30 p.m.; April 24, May 1 at 2:30 p.m.
Copyright 2022 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.