Play packs a punch at Planet Ant

By Donald V. Calamia

One aspect of Michigan's professional theater community that makes it stand out from others around the country is this: the willingness to take risks. In particular, I'm referring to the fact that many of our theaters both big budget and small are willing to take chances on producing original works that may or may not bring in an audience, or scripts written by new and/or untested playwrights. While Chicago and other cities may have broader support or may move a play to New York every once in a while, none of them is a haven like Michigan is for creative souls needing to express themselves through a new live stage play.

Sure, many of the locally produced original works end up as one-shot projects - and a few will hopefully never be seen again on any stage - local playwrights such as Kitty Dubin, Joseph Zettelmaier, Kim Carney and even some guy named Jeff Daniels would never have become celebrated or prolific in their chosen profession if it wasn't for some producer at some theater deciding to give them their first shot on a major stage.

Hamtramck's Planet Ant Theatre has long championed original works, and its latest offering carries on that proud tradition. And if the world premiere of "The Sunday Punch" is any indication, I predict Linda Ramsay-Detherage may soon find herself included among the list of important local playwrights mentioned earlier. (Along with a handful of others, of course).

As "The Sunday Punch" opens, we find a long-married couple having problems in the bedroom. Gordon (Eric Bloch), it seems, is in the midst of an unspecified midlife crisis and is unable to perform his husbandly duties. So Claire (Sonja Marquis) decides to spice up their lovemaking by entering their bedroom wearing a trench coat, hat and nothing else. The reaction she gets, however, is NOT what she anticipated. "You saw me naked, and you screamed," the stunned wife says to her shell-shocked husband. The reason, we soon discover, has nothing to do with her age-related imperfect body, but with a lifetime of verbal abuse Gordon has been subjected to by his 75-year-old father, Arthur (Clement Valentine), a self-described prick he's about to spend a weekend with at a family gathering that includes his successful brother Max (Sean Paraventi), sister-in-law Sarah (Wendy Katz Hiller), and mother Rose (Dominique Lowell). As Max says, there's no biblical provision for flattening thy father or dueling with thy elderly parent, but nevertheless, Gordon decides a physical confrontation with the old man is inevitable. And Arthur is ready for the challenge. But will the end result turn out as either planned?

Originally conceived as a screenplay, Ramsey-Detherage re-conceptualized "The Sunday Punch" for the stage and submitted it to a local theater for consideration. It was rejected, but staged readings by Performance Network and Magenta Giraffe helped ready the project for its world premiere production at the Ant.

And what an impressive debut it is!

For a first-time playwright, Ramsey-Detherage has crafted a surprisingly well-constructed tale that says plenty about the complexities of family dynamics. As the layers of story and family history unfold, the dialogue always rings true, and there's never a false note that takes the audience out of the action with a "what the heck was THAT all about" moment.

But to be honest, I was prepared to take Ramsey-Detherage to task for what appeared to be a thoroughly unsatisfactory ending to the father-and-son dispute. However, during the show's final two minutes she sneaked in the coda that effectively closed the show. I love being surprised by a smart move like that!

Former BoarsHead Theater Artistic Director Nancy Kammer helms the show with a deft hand, creating a true ensemble piece in which her six actors work as a unified team to tell the story.

Lowell is especially notable as the family's matriarch - her facial expressions and line delivery are both delightful and revealing - and Valentine is a totally believable SOB. Marquis, too, is equally comfortable as the sex toy she believes her husband needs and the wife who discovers a stunning secret that could ruin her marriage.

But with that said, both Marquis and Bloch appear to be about a decade younger than how the script describes their characters. And Bloch's line delivery often signifies an actor who is unsure of himself or his lines. Plus, much of his dialogue is delivered looking at anything other than the person to whom it is directed - something that disconnects him from both his fellow actors and the audience that needs to believe the interactions they're observing.

Tommy LeRoy's versatility as a set designer is on display with set pieces that roll up, fold down and open wide to become whatever location the script demands. (The beach house is especially notable, enhanced by Kate Peckham's sound design.) The troublesome lock on the screen door has to go, however - although it did provide unanticipated humorous moments at various times throughout the opening night performance.

All told, I arrived at Planet Ant anticipating an enjoyable, but probably forgettable one-act play. I left after a thoroughly enjoyable two-act production that introduced me to a promising new playwright. It can't get much better than that!

REVIEW:

'The Sunday Punch'

Planet Ant Theatre, 2357 Caniff St., Hamtramck. Friday-Saturday through Dec. 17, plus Sundays Dec. 4 & 11 and a Community Night Tuesday, Dec. 6. $20. 313-365-4948. http://www.planetant.com

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