A Play By Barb and Carl at Illusion Theater is a Powerful New Play Featuring Masterful Performances.

Kimberly Richardson and JoeNathan Thomas as Barb and Carl. Photo by Alex Clark

A Play by Barb and Carl could have the tag line “based on the incredible true story”. And while it’s based on fact that would sensationalize a story, it’s about the intimate lives of two people in love who are dealing with a situation that isn’t fair or just, it just is. The play is written and directed by Carlyle Brown and is inspired by him, his wife, and dramaturg Barbara Joyce Rose-Brown’s experience. A couple that worked closely together around a common shared love of language. The play is a snapshot of Barb and Carl’s life from the time she takes a fall in the hallway suffering a stroke which leads to her Aphasia. Aphasia is having a moment in the spotlight recently due to actor Bruce Willis’ retirement after being diagnosed with the condition.

Aphasia is a condition that affects your ability to communicate. It can affect your speech, as well as the way you write and understand both spoken and written language.

from the Mayo Clinic’s website https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/aphasia/symptoms-causes/syc-20369518

Barb’s right side is paralyzed and she can no longer speak much more than No and OK. But the play allows her to speak to us in moments, letting her explain what is happening to her. The play was written with Rose Brown acting as dramaturg accomplished the program says by “working in a room with actors and creative team”. I’m not sure how that worked specifically, but what it resulted in was Barbara having a way for her voice to be heard. I think having the character of Barb able to share her inner dialogue with us was a way to honor Barbara’s contribution and to let her be heard.

Kimberly Richardson, who wowed me last fall with her performance of all the characters in The Red Shoes, does it again in the role of Barb. Most of what little humor there is in the show comes from Richardson, but it’s her dramatic work that we are seeing showcased here. In a scene where she has fallen and cannot get up and must wait until Carl gets home, she is allowed her voice to share her thoughts in that moment. She invites us into the soul of someone whose mind is trapped in a body that has betrayed them. One of many moments that makes an impact on the emotions of the audience. Richardson is well matched in JoeNathan Thomas as Carl. One might think it’s the intimacy of the space allowing for a very subtle and natural approach, but the fact is these are high caliber actors who know how to “be” on stage. Thomas’ performance is on a level that can make other performers look like they are pretending. Thankfully, not his costars in this show. There is beauty and truth in the realness of these characters, we are not just shown their love and support for each other. We also see them fighting, and yes, Barb can fight. It’s showing the reality that makes the moments where the love shines bright all the more moving. Because Brown hasn’t written a fairytale about love conquering all, he has written a truth about how we can fight, struggle, want to give up, even want to die. Love doesn’t solve any of that, but it’s why we go through it.

Aside from Carl and Barb, the cast includes Laura Esping as a Healthcare Worker, she plays more than one and is the stand in for those in the medical field that interact with Barb and Carl. Esping does a good job with what’s really a role to fill in information. The show runs about 65 minutes, the material could definitely be expanded to a 90 minute runtime. There could be more for the Healthcare Worker to do, and we are left wanting more time with Barb and Carl. I would have no problem spending an Act 2 with Barb and Carl as they get the idea for and figure out how to collaborate on a play about the situation. I’m not criticizing Brown’s play, which I think is deeply moving and effective, I’m encouraging him to tell us more. The performance space is small and intimate with not much in the way of set, but for a large painting hanging behind the actors that shows us a representation of neurons. The painting changes with the lighting effects with red and blue flashing lights when the ambulances are on their way with sirens blaring. It’s simple but a nice way to symbolize the role the brain has played in what has transpired and suggest things that would be impractical to show. The Scenic Design is by Dean Holzman, Lighting by Alex Clark, and Sound by C. Andrew Mayer.

A Play by Barb and Carl runs through April 30th at the Center for Performing Arts in South Minneapolis. For more information and to purchase tickets go to https://www.illusiontheater.org/.

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