CCM’s “The Earth is Flat” Shows the Rising Stars

Review by Shawn Maus of The Earth is Flat: CCM Acting

I have to confess that I love seeing new plays debut.  I know that many times there is still work to be done.  I’ve been known to see a debut play and then (even if it’s a few years later) see the production again to see what, if any, kinks have been worked out.

The premiere production is beautifully staged, often moving with a solid team behind it.  The debut of Todd Almond’s The Earth is Flat at the College-Conservatory of Music’s Cohen Family Studio Theatre admittedlyhas  a few things to work out. It’s a mark of a well-made play when you arrive at intermission with no idea where it is heading and you want to come back to see how it ends, although in this instance you may have a hunch Ethan will come into his own.

Developed through a new playwriting seminar at CCM, the play tells the story of Ethan and Derek, college roommates meeting for the first time on move-in day at, of course, the University of Cincinnati.

Almond is a writer of wit and courage –tackling the issues of theology, coming-of-age, and of course the “earth is flat” movement.  The Earth is Flat creates a space that blends the mundane and exciting life of college with the mystic, that slips between the life of the moment and whatever comes after.  It’s clear, funny, and naturalistic.  It doesn’t romanticize the college dorm life, or gloss over the struggles of middle class family life; the bonds are intense and come through with all the emotional twisty encounters of disappointment, discovery and love.

Richard Hess directs with a sure touch for the sensitivities of his two struggling college souls.  He is aided by the outstanding talent in the two men, highly contrasted but equally sympathetic, who together generate a sexual charge that makes the air crackle.

Jack Steiner plays the title character, Ethan, a friendless, anxious high-school senior who gets caught up in a moral quandary—and becomes an unwitting hero—after the tragic death of his older brother Jeremy. Steiner’s performance is genuine, competent and charismatic.  Steiner artfully holds down the character without allowing Ethan to become a college student cliché in performance or character development.

Ethan’s roommate, Derek, is sprinkled with mischief. Graham Lutes is tremendous — a beguiling mix of bombast and naivety while being quietly revealing.  He leaves you with a sense that he’s about to have some astounding and important work in his acting career.

Jennifer, Ethan’s sister, was portrayed by Madeleine Page-Schmit on opening night. She brings a simple depth with lasting relevance that makes Jennifer consistently lovely and moving.

Meg Olson plays Shelly (in the opening night production), the YouTube video “earth is flat” sensation who disses on Ayn Rand and who is trying to save all from the delusion that the world is a globe. Olson is brilliant at bringing humanity to the loony Shelly.  She infuses Shelly with strange social behaviors in which love and loneliness spar.

Paige Jordan (as “Woman  – Various Roles) and Graham Rogers (Man – Various Roles) steal nearly every scene.  They wring subtext through every physical movement and bring remarkable raw wit, adolescent anguish and lots energy.

The characters’ mounting issues are resolved with exactly the right mix of emotional resonance and theatrical force.

When I was a high school theatre director you longed for scripts like this that allowed the students to play roles that fit their situation. There is only so much you can get from a teenager trying to play characters written for adults.  Almond’s script will win your heart as so much of the success lies in the charm of the actors, and we’re not shortchanged.  Each of these actors is a pro; they know what they’re doing and they delight in it.

I could say very nice things about story, but I’d rather you discover it.  I will say it’s a pleasure to see this play in these discordant times. We need all the love, warmth and friendship we can get.  I was reminded of my own experiences as a college student and loved every moment of looking back on my college days through these characters.

I can’t wait to see what the future holds for Mr. Almond as a playwright and where this cast of stars will land.

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