By JIM VOREL - H&R Staff Writer
DECATUR — For all its success in fostering innovation and leadership among Millikin University’s drama and theater arts students, there is one aspect of the theatrical process that the Pipe Dreams Studio Theatre has not explored.
It has been home to some enthusiastically received shows, but never has a play written by a nonstudent received its world premiere in that space. That changes this weekend with the premiere of “Cracker” by Paul Shoulberg.
“I have been encouraging the Pipe Dreams students to invest in a world premiere to give their theater an identity,” director and Millikin professor Tom Robson said of the show, which opens Friday, April 26. “It’s also a spectacular opportunity for a young playwright. The students chose from about 20 scripts from all over. Interestingly enough, they ended up choosing ‘Cracker,’ which was written by a playwright I’ve worked with numerous times in the past.”
In fact, the Bloomington, Ind.-based Shoulberg is a friend of Robson’s, and the professor has previously directed six of his other shows. For that reason, it was only natural he request the chance to direct this new premiere at Millikin.
“I think this show captures his style pretty well,” he said. “His stated intention has been to make ‘theater for the indie film crowd.’ His work is very rough, aggressive and funny, but often in a biting way. He really just writes plays about young people in our modern world and the challenges they face.”
The main character of “Cracker” is a teenage boy named Les Colton. Colton is growing up in a low-income area of an economically depressed Midwestern town with his alcoholic mother and “white cracker” friends. When his older brother Ray returns from a stint in prison, the resulting friction threatens to rip the fledgling family unit apart.
“To me, the world of the play isn’t far off from some people’s experiences in Decatur,” Robson said. “There are similar issues of race and poverty. The concept I keep coming back to this week is violence and rage, often misdirected rage. Some of the characters focus their rage on themselves, some focus it on trying to escape and some focus on people different than they are.”
In constructing a cast that could make a good impression on the first-ever production of “Cracker,” Robson looked for students he felt could project the sense of gravitas the play deserved.
“It doesn’t preach or try to offer solutions, just a sympathetic portrait of those who struggle,” he said. “I was looking for actors who could master language and performers with a rough, gritty quality to them. I could not be happier with the group I have.”
Erich Peltz portrays the former inmate Ray. He described the character as beset upon from all sides and prone to lashing out at the world.
“Ray’s challenge is not being understood by anyone around him,” Peltz said. “He tries to intimidate people into respecting the family unit he’s created when he’s thrust into being the head of the household. His rage stems from how he was treated by the community and how he was treated in prison, and he feels like his way is the only way.”
Peltz, and the rest of the student cast with him, are also excited to be able to say they performed the world premiere of this show on the Pipe Dreams stage.
“It’s something I’ve never done before, creating something new from nothing,” he said. “There are no previous performances to compare it to, which pretty much gives us total freedom. What a valuable experience that is for this whole production team.”