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LIFE AFTER DEATH

In/Form was a visual arts exhibit that had several runs in St. Louis at several locations. In May, 1998, it was scheduled for an empty warehouse at the vast, mostly empty Lemp Brewery in the south part of the city.

For this In/Form, the lively arts were going to be introduced into the mix – music, dance, performance art…and theatre. In/Form folks were aware of Midnight’s first work, a meeting of principals occurred, and a tacit agreement for Midnight to perform was reached. David and Joe were assuming the In/Form folks wanted a reprise of POUNDING NAILS. However, having produced visual arts shows, the In/Form folks assumed Midnight created their work from scratch (like a painter or a sculptor), not ever relying on published or classic scripts.

David and Joe went ahead with plans for reviving POUNDING NAILS, but Joe used this seeming “permission” to move ahead with scripting an idea he’d had for a play. (Joe had adapted two plays early in his career, and wrote every day in the advertising arena, but his was his first original produced script.)

He’d read an article about a spiritualist who was “talking to the dead,” and he envisioned a live appearance by this type of guy – an appearance with a built-in audience, and selected guests whose dearly departed would be contacted. (Again Midnight was adapting a script to a space – Midnight’s performing space at Lemp would be smack dab in the middle of the warehouse setting, with an acceptable playing space, lights, and warehouse background.)

The script came together quickly (with a performance deadline staring them in the face), Joe decided to direct, and he and David set about casting some of their favorite actors in the production – Steve Springmeyer as the spiritualist, Jen Loui as a skeptical reporter (with David cast as her friend), and talented colleagues like Penny Kols, Laura Turner, and Diane Peterson in key roles.

Midnight offered the plays in Repertory over two weekends (usually with two shows per night). Set within the two-story warehouse full of new art, it was another unique space for Midnight’s work (and it made sense that Midnight’s stage art was so close in proximity and spirit to other art forms).

(And the fact that the Lemp Mansion, former residence of the family who owned the brewery, was reputedly heavily haunted, added an extra dash of interest for LIFE AFTER DEATH’s enquiry into the afterlife. This was true for Midnight’s later DRACULA production as well.)

While reception to LIFE AFTER DEATH was mixed, Joe was encouraged enough to continue writing. And the Company was encouraged enough to plan ahead.

(LIFE AFTER DEATH indeed had life after its close; it was presented as a radio drama broadcast in September, 1999, on KDHX public radio in St. Louis.)


Joe Hanrahan's Life After Death
Midnight Productions
Reviewed by Teresa Doggett
KHDX Radio

It seems that today more and more people are searching for something that makes sense of their lives and how they fit into the grand scheme of things. We each, eventually, have to look death in the face whether it be the death of a loved one or even one's own mortality. This can often make people vulnerable to ideas and people that they would have laughed at at any other stage of their life. Maybe this is why many people turn to spiritualism and the charlatans that are out there. I'm not saying that there is not something greater than what I can see around me; after all Shakespeare once wrote,"there are more things in heaven than we have ever dreamt of". But if you carefully watch and listen to many of these so-called spiritualists they are very clever at extracting small clues about their clients with statements that are vague enough that they could apply to many people. This quality of these self-styled spiritualists is what is most clearly captured by playwright Joe Hanrahan in Life After Death presented by Midnight Productions.

We the audience join several women, played by Diane Peterson, Laura Turner and Kathy Hilker, who wish to contact loved ones who have passed over and the cynical reporter Jessica, played by Jennifer Loui, who has been sent to write a story on the spiritualist Doug, played by Steve Springmeyer, for the local paper. One of the problems with including us, the audience, into this scenario is that we are able to overhear the comments made by Jessica to her companion, Edward played by David Wassilak. Are we supposed to hear them? Are we active participants? The breaking of the "fourth wall" works well for the character of Amanda, played delightfully by Penney Kols, as she constantly tells us that books and tapes are available for purchase at the back of the room and to a certain extent for Doug as he tells us constantly that "we don't die".

Ultimately I found it hard to care about any of the people. I wasn't convinced that they were real and I wanted a little more of an edge to the character of Doug so that he became a little more dangerous and the truth of his ability as a spiritualist more ambiguous. As I mentioned the dialogue between Doug and his clients was well-written and right on the money. My complaints would be that it would be better to arrange the seating in a semicircle and bring the stage area more forward as sitting in the back rows limits the view, and to put up directions to the performance area. Also be aware that with the summer heat it can get a little stuffy in the converted Lemp space.


LIFE AFTER DEATHSt. Louis Post-Dispatch review
Reviewed by Judy Newmark

“Life After Death” is a somewhat smaller work than its extraordinarily ambitious title suggests. It is not really about life after death.

Author and director Joe Hanrahan’s one-act play concerns a genial medium who say she can communicate with the dead, and the people who do or do not believe him. It is a play about longing and susceptibility.

The play is set at a sort of public panel where the medium, Doug (Steve Springmeyer), will communicate with dead people for some women who believe in him (Diane Peterson, Laura Turner and Kathy Hilker); the most fervent believer of all is his assistant (Penny Kols). The audience also includes a cynical reporter (Jennifer Loui) and her friend Edward (David Wassilak), who doesn’t know what to make of it all.

As a writer, Hanrahan has a nice feel for the language of modern spiritualism. Doug’s slogans – “You don’t die,” “Feel the forver” – sound like something you’ve heard someplace. Springmeyer, with his mild delivery and teacher-like manner, avoids cheap stereotypes. The believers and the cynics don’t come off so well: Stereotypes take over so completely , in their stories and lackluster performances, that even their “surprises” are predictable.

The most peculiar, yet intriguing, aspect of “Life After Death is Hanrahan’s ambiguous handling of the audience – the real audience. It’s never clear whether we are the audience for the play – entitled to laugh at he assistant’s earnest shilling of books and tapes – or for Doug, in which case we should be shouting “Hallelujah!” (as one woman last weekend did.) That ambiguity is appealing, but Hanrahan undercuts it by letting us hear private conversations between the reporter and her friend. We know things we couldn’t know if we were real believers.

But than omniscience also lets us hear a private conversation between Doug and Edward, when Edward gives us a glimpse of the grief he still feels for someone he lost.

His posture is tentative – hands in pockets, eyes averted – and his speech is clumsy. He doesn’t want to talk about it. But it’s the moment when Hanrahan comes closest to his real subject – the pain of loss and the yearning to ease it.


Riverfront Times review
Reviewed by Bob Wilcox

In the long one-act “Life After Death,” Joe Hanrahan displays a confident hand as both writer and director. The play takes the form of an evening with a man who claims to be able to put people back in touch with relatives and friends who have “passed on,” while a skeptical reporter observes and comments. The audience in the theatre doubles as the audience for the spiritualist’s appearance – we’re both observers and participants.

That double role raises credibility problems when, as theatre audience, we’re made to hear conversations that, as audience at the séance, we would not be hearing. Swallowing that, however, is a small price to pay for the evening. And Jennifer Loui and David Wassilak, as the reporter and her friend, help us get over the hurdle by ignoring the awkwardness without a trace of self-consciousness. Similarly, Laura Turner makes convincing the pain of a woman whose probing of the past uncovers child abuse – a cliché that has been ridden too hard and too long. Kathy Hilker also does well with another overworked number, the teenager whose best friend committed suicide. The grieving widow seeking permission from her late mate to start a new life may be equally familiar, but it’s less of a hot-button tear-jerker, and Diane Peterson handles it with grace. And the play’s repetitious ending does go on too long.

These, though, are minor flaws, given the ease and credibility with which Hanrahan’s dialogue flows from his characters. He’s also perfectly even-handed as he probes the subject. Here he gets a big assist from Penny Kols as the medium’s assistant, oozing sincerity, and an even bigger one from Steve Springmeyer. Comfortable and unpretentious as old loafers, Springmeyer makes the spiritualist a selfless comforter, almost hypnotic in is persuasive warmth.


Intermission Magazine review
Reviewed by David Dandridge

“Life After death” tells the story of Doug, a man who claims he can communicate with people beyond the grave. He uses his ability to speak to the dead to deliver messages of hope to tell their survivors and to promote his catalog of inspirational books and tapes. Jessica, a skeptical reporter arrives to observe one of Doug’s public seminar/psychic counseling sessions and immediately decides that the fix is in. Doug spends a good amount of the play trying to convince her that he is as real as cancer.

“Life After Death” was written and directed by local actor/director Joe Hanrahan. The most interesting thing about the play is its structure, and how Hanrahan uses the performance within a performance to play with the traditional narrative. The theatre audience becomes the studio audience in what is obviously meant as a spoof of infomercials and tv ads for psychic help lines. Some of the actors enter through the audience as if they too are attending the performance. Several times during the play, actress Penny Kols (who I loved in The Orthwein’s “Sweet Bird of Youth”) as Doug’s assistant, Amanda, addressed the audience directly. After each “psychic” experience she would pitch Doug’s books and tapes on sale in the lobby. It’s Bertholt Brecht’s “V” effect meets the home shopping network.

Hanrahan’s play is thought provoking in that it raises important questions about how we process death, and the role of therapy. We know that Doug is a phony and that he’s giving these bereaved people sugar pills, but the sugar pill seems to be working. Doug is giving these people closure, comfort and much needed catharsis, but does this justify his lying and profiteering.

The strength of Hanrahan’s writing is his ear for dialogue. Whitney, an alienated teen-ager, sounds like an alienated teen-ager, and Doug definitely sounds like a con artist. He responds to challenging questions with slogans, not answers and speaks with a series of catchy repeatable refrains. Hanrahan has the salesman lingo down pat, probably an occupational hazard from years as marketing himself as an actor and director. The weakness of his writing is the ending. The entire play unfolds as a series of seated two-person dialogues without much in the way of action or blocking, and you can almost feel Hanrahan writing himself into a corner. The final confrontation between Doug and Jessica was telegraphed from a mile away and even when it finally arrived it was disappointing. The play ends with another “psychic counseling” session between Doug and Jessica’s friend Edward, but after sitting through several of these sessions throughout the play I was expecting the final one to go to another level, which it did not. The audience needed closure as much as Doug’s subjects, but Hanrahan provides little.

Overall the acting was solid. Steve Springmeyer as Doug displayed moxie that fit the over the top pitch man. Kols had just the right amount of the brainwashed, Stepford wife in her Amanda, reminding me of the people who work at the Center for Scientology. And Kathy Hilker brought a great deal of realism to her portrayal of Whitney.

Although “Life After Death” was ultimately disappointing, it is none the less exciting to see a local playwright producing original work. I applaud Hanrahan and Midnight Productions for trying to pull of some non-traditional theatre and look forward to their future work.

 


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Revised: October, 2007
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