Rust Belt offers ‘Witherspoon’

By Milan Paurich

Rust Belt Theater Company’s “Durang-ed Summer” — a series of works by acclaimed American playwright Christopher Durang — draws to a close this weekend with the opening of “Miss Witherspoon.”

A 2006 Pulitzer finalist, “Witherspoon” marks the first Durang show this season NOT directed by Rust Belt founder Robert Dennick Joki. Stepping into the director’s chair this time is controversial local actor Tom Smith.

In a recent interview, Smith discussed his affinity for Durang, and why he’s so frequently attracted to off-color material.

Q. This is the third Durang play you’ve been associated with in the past year. What is it about Durang’s work that most appeals to you as director and actor?

A. It’s mere happenstance that I’m doing my third Durang show in a year. There are so many of his shows that I love, and a few that I just hate (laughs). I will confess to a real love/hate relationship with last year’s “Betty’s Summer Vacation.” I loved the part director Craig Snay cast me in, but found the play as a whole belabored and unfocused. It was a great experience as an actor, and my fellow cast members were awesome, but I felt the script lost it’s way somewhere in Act II. I know we freaked out the audience, so there WAS an upside (laughs). “Titanic” at Rust Belt was a blast, though. Silly and manic, and another fun character part for me to play. “Miss Witherspoon” is a different animal altogether. I think it’s a much more mature work, more thoughtful and not trying to hit the audience over the head with shocks. When Rob (Joki) told me about the Summer of Durang plays Rust Belt was planning, I knew he had to include this one. I’m honored that he asked me to direct.

Q. Could you give us a thumbnail synopsis of the plot?

A. Without giving too much away, it’s the story of a very depressed soul (the “Miss Witherspoon” of the title) who travels back and forth through various incarnations here on Earth with the help of a Hindu spirit guide. It’s a comedy about the lessons we learn in life. This is a kinder, gentler Durang. In “Miss Witherspoon,” we don’t have any of the outrageous sexual aberrations that seem to permeate some of his more shocking plays. It’s almost family-friendly — except for a few naughty words here and there. I fell in love with it the first time I read it. I guess the theme appealed to me because I had my own near-death experience 10 years ago. I had a heart attack and coded in the ambulance on the way to Northside Hospital. They had to hit me with the paddles nine times, but I’m baaaaaack! (laughs)

Q. Who’s appearing in the show?

A. Gerri Jenkins Sullivan is our Miss Witherspoon. I knew she was perfect the first time I read the script. Dawn White Rogers is Maryamma, the Hindu spirit guide. Joyce Jones, Chuck Wilfong and Brittiani McNeil Ketcham are my ensemble, playing all the rest of the characters who populate Miss Witherspoon’s life — and afterlife.

Q. What has the experience been like for you directing at Rust Belt? Do you find RB’s casual atmosphere liberating or intimidating?

A. Rust Belt’s ultra-short rehearsal times scare the heck out of me — and they also challenge me. I’m normally a laidback type of person, but I have a knot building in my stomach right now. I think that’s a good thing since pressure brings out my creative side.

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