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May 8, 2013

Theatre Guild show asks deep questions

VALDOSTA — Theatre Guild Valdosta’s latest play, “Cliffhanger,” isn’t so much a who-done-it as it is a what-would-you-do?

If the cast and crew do their jobs correctly, audiences should be both entertained during the show and motivated to have an intriguing discussion on the ride home: Is doing the right thing always set in stone? Or are there occasions when doing the right thing depends on the situation?

“Cliffhanger’s” basic plot: A college department head wants to force a philosophy professor into retirement, pushing the mild-mannered professor to the point of violence. The professor has long believed in the idea of Socratic principle that right is right, but the situation has placed him in the position of questioning if doing right is the right thing to do?

To drive this point ironically home, the professor has used a stone bust of Socrates to commit his act of violence.

“The show pits the philosophy of Socrates of good is always good and bad is always bad against the philosophy of situational ethics,” says Brenda Brunston, “Cliffhanger’s” director.

Socrates proclaimed that doing right is the key to true happiness; if a person knows right from wrong, they will do what’s right; knowledge is the equivalent of virtue/good, while ignorance equates with bad/evil, etc. The problem, according to Brunston: “If evil is never done deliberately or voluntarily, then evil is an involuntary act and no one can properly be held responsible for the evil that is done.”

With situational ethics, according to Brunston’s program notes, “right and wrong depend upon the situation”; no universal rules can determine the morality of dealing with each unique situation; etc. “Cons of situational ethics: It excludes most universal moral truths,” she notes; “it can’t produce consistent results; it may approve of ‘evil’ acts.”

The grand-scale example of these conflicting philosophies is often couched in a what-if scenario: Under Socratic philosophy, murder is always bad, but, through situational ethics, if you had the opportunity to kill someone like Hitler and stop events such as World War II or the Holocaust, would that be bad?

This may sound a bit deep for an evening of theatre, but Brunston promises that “Cliffhanger,” written by playwright James Yaffe, is an entertaining play, witty and dramatic, as well as thought-provoking.

“Cliffhanger” is a different type of show for Theatre Guild Valdosta. It is the last production in a season that has worked hard to establish a new direction in the wake of several successful shows that also threatened to become too well-worn a path.

For a few seasons, Theatre Guild packed houses with rural comedies. These were popular shows, “Simply Divided,” “Dearly Beloved,” “Dearly Departed,” “Christmas Belles,” “Greater Tuna,” “Southern Hospitality,” “The Great American Trailer Park Musical,” etc., which offered as many Bubbas as Bravos, but they threatened to turn Theatre Guild into a one-trick pony of Southern comedies.

The 2012-13 season took a grand leap from the start with Stephen Sondheim’s beautiful skewed fairy tale musical “Into the Woods.” “Love, Sex and the IRS” returned Theatre Guild to the broad farce of double identities and misunderstood situations. “The Trip to Bountiful” was a poignant story of an older woman longing to return to the home of her childhood and youth. And “Cliffhanger” presents a show that Variety described as combining “the warmth and humor of ‘On Golden Pond’ with almost as many plot twists as ‘Deathtrap.’”

In many ways, this season seems as diverse as the community theatre’s first season of 1989-90, which included shows such as “The Mousetrap,” “They’re Playing Our Song,” “Bus Stop,” “You Can’t Take It With You,” and “Auntie Mame.”

Through the years, Theatre Guild added children’s shows to its repertoire. Children’s theatre has taken the name of Gingerbread Players of Theatre Guild Valdosta. Gingerbread Players offers two productions annually featuring area youngsters on stage.

This season, Theatre Guild also offered shorter play opportunities for performers and audiences with its Stage Two series of shows. The first Stage Two shows were the Vietnam reader’s theatre work “A Piece of My Heart” and “Smell of the Kill,” another what-would-you-do show where three women stuck in bad marriages must decide if they will free their husbands who are accidentally stuck in a locked meat locker.

Talk about situational ethics ...

Likely, audiences attending “Cliffhanger” will be discussing situational ethics this week and next week as they leave the show playing in Theatre Guild’s long-time home of The Dosta Playhouse.

“Cliffhanger’s” small cast of five performers will do its best to ensure those conversations happen.

Regular Guild audiences should recognize Patti Cook, who plays the professor’s wife and has performed through the years in numerous roles such as Jessie Mae in “Trip to Bountiful,” Jacqueline in “Don’t Dress for Dinner,” Louisa in “Ladies in Retirement,” and Diane Brunston, who recently stepped into the role of Edith to replace another performer in “Cliffhanger,” and who has performed in shows as diverse as “Leading Ladies,” “James and the Giant Peach” and “The Great American Trailer Park Musical.”

Andrew Thomas plays conflicted Professor Henry Lowenthal in “Cliffhanger,” and has had a busy season having performed in the Guild’s “Love, Sex & the IRS” and “Into the Woods.”

With “Cliffhanger,” Sommers Coleman makes the transition from the Gingerbread Players’ children/youth shows to the Guild’s adult shows. Quentin McKennon comes to Theatre Guild from performing in Theatre Albany’s “Big River” and Clay Auditorium’s “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” “Bye Bye Birdie” and “Footloose.”

As for anyone who is interested in participating in the Guild’s next production, auditions have already been scheduled for 6:30 p.m., June 3, 4, at The Dosta Playhouse, for the first show of the 2013-24 season: “9 to 5: The Musical.”

And at 7:30 p.m., July 19, Theatre Guild Valdosta celebrates 25 years of community theatre, with a downtown celebration at The Dosta Playhouse.

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