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Incline’s “The Graduate” Wants to Ask You a Personal Question

Review by Jack Crumley of The Graduate: Warsaw Federal Incline Theatre

Mike Nichol’s film, The Graduate, is arguably the most iconic coming-of-age tale of love and sex of the 1960s. From its long, dialogue-free opening shots and iconic framing to its highly quotable dialogue (“Plastics!”), The Graduate represents an essential piece of American culture. In the year 2000, it was adapted for the stage by Terry Johnson and had a run both in London and on Broadway. Johnson’s work blended elements both from the movie and from the original 1963 novella by Charles Webb. It also included scenes in neither the film nor the book, though that’s not indicated by Director Greg Proccacino for this production that’s running at the Warsaw Federal Incline Theatre, now through February 10 (just in time to miss Valentine’s Day, appropriately).

The Graduate tells the story of Benjamin Braddock: 21-years-old, fresh out of college, and totally disillusioned with life. He’s highly educated and exceptionally alone, looking for anything that’ll make him feel something he considers genuine. An encounter with Mrs. Robinson at his graduation party, and a subsequent (albeit brief) stint fighting wildfires, give him a thirst for both life and an affair with her. The two begin to regularly see each other at a hotel until outside forces manipulate Benjamin into going on a date with Mrs. Robinson’s daughter, Elaine. Despite his efforts to sabotage it, Benjamin finds himself drawn to Elaine’s honesty and ability to actually converse. When Elaine becomes engaged to another man Benjamin is forced to confront his true feelings and goals in life.

For this production, Elliot Handkins plays Benjamin, and Marissa Poole plays Mrs, Robinson, both shouldering a heavy load in putting these characters on stage without simply doing an impression of Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft. Procaccino’s program notes focus on how this show is about choices and the consequences they bring. And I would say the choices Handkins and Poole make are what makes this production unique.

There’s an awkwardness that’s inherent to Benjamin’s character, especially in the first act, and Handkins plays it with a slightly frantic candor, not a quiet reserve. He’s graduated college and he still finds himself being told what to do by his parents, and he’s sick of it. The relationship he has with Mrs. Robinson starts as an act of rebellion, however reluctant he is at first.

Poole’s work as Mrs. Robinson covers a variety of emotions and moods that are almost constantly in flux. She shifts from nihilistic, to defiant, to playful, to seductive, to dismissive, to manipulative from line to line, and that’s just the first scene. There’s also an honesty to Poole’s portrayal of the character that wasn’t a part of the film. Her Mrs. Robinson comes off as more direct than devious in that once she decides she wants Benjamin, it’s practically fait accompli.

The supporting adult character roles are filled admirably by Brent Alan Burington (whom I last saw as Henry Higgins in Covedale’s My Fair Lady) and Torie Pate as Benjamin’s often confused, frequently frustrated parents. Alan Kootsher plays Mr. Robinson as an interesting combination of blustering sad sack. I last saw Madison Pullins relishing the daydream sequences as Mrs. Shields in the Covedale production of A Christmas Story from just last month, but she’s playing a much more complex character this time around as Elaine Robinson. Pullins as Elaine is equal parts innocent and intriguing. She’s such a breath of fresh air compared to her cynical mother that the youthful Benjamin can’t help but be attracted to her. Pullins is playing an Elaine that is still a pleasant, open person, despite having grown up being constantly told what to do by a mother who resents her. There’s more for her to do in this production than the movie, including a scene where she and her mother get drunk together and bemoan, well, pretty much everything. It gives a better glimpse into what Elaine Robinson’s life has been like. The dynamic between Pullins and Handkins feels very natural.

Warsaw’s Executive Artistic Director, Tim Perrino, greeted the audience before the show began by pointing out emergency exits and promoting the next season at the theatre. He also warned the audience that this show is “rated R,” and that was a fair warning. Poole’s Mrs. Robinson has several scenes where she’s fully nude on stage and there is an extended musical montage of her in bed with Handkins’ Benjamin. Praise to the actors, the director, and the rehearsal regimen for making the parts of the show with said nudity play with a steadiness and sophistication. It’s a professional atmosphere all around, and Sunday’s Warsaw audience, while certainly surprised when she drops the towel, did not seem to take offense. Brett Bowling’s set design is a simple room with a center backing that rotates to go from bedroom/hotel room to strip club with a small stage. There are no scenes of characters driving in cars, just walking through the city streets of the audience. A simple light on the stage conveys Benjamin and Mrs. Robinson in an elevator. There are some great effects in the climactic final scene.  

The Graduate is playing at the Warsaw Federal Incline Theatre on Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30, Friday and Saturday at 8:00, and Sunday at 2:00 now through February 10, 2019. Tickets are available by phone at 513-241-6550 or 513-241-6551 or on the Warsaw website: www.cincinnatilandmarkproductions.com/incline