Monday, June 23, 2014

The Well of Happiness

Playwright:  Stuart Ostfeld

Company:  Theatre Company of Lafayette (TCL)

Venue:  Mary Miller Theater, 300 E. Simpson Street, Lafayette CO

Running Time:  1 hour 50 minutes (includes 15 minute intermission)

Date of Performance:  Friday, June 20, 2014 (This production is a Colorado Premiere.)

First things first; The Well of Happiness is not for everybody.  It's a serious drama, with serious issues (teenagers, violence, and guns), and provocative and sometimes disturbing content.  Warnings aside, however, The Well of Happiness is an exceptional theater experience.  If you can handle the subject matter, you will definitely be glad you saw this production.

The story line is difficult to describe without spoiling the show, but here's a minimal outline.  Melanie, or "Mel," (Beth Davis) is a freelance advertising agent with a great track record.  We learn that she has just done a brilliant advertising campaign for a clothing line, bringing a female perspective to her clients.   She's a bit obsessive/compulsive; she obviously thoroughly researches and analyzes how to successfully sell her client's products.

Her boss, Nathan (Artemus Martin), asks her to take on a difficult (perhaps impossible) task:  design an advertising campaign for a handgun made specifically for women.  She reluctantly accepts.
Mel (Beth Davis)

Handguns are a product that would be very difficult to sell unless you have a full understanding of both the product and the consumer.  Mel has neither, so she does her research.  She attends a gun safety class.  She does some target shooting at a range.  She reads up  on "state of the art" firearms.  In fact, she becomes so immersed in the gun culture that she becomes a gun owner.

Mel's teenage son Collin (Donny Petro) lives in an alternate world, one where he can live as a non-conforming, anti-social narcissist.  Oh.  And he has a fascination with guns.

Mel and her son are on a trajectory that can only end in tragedy, and so it does.

Beth Davis is adept in the central role of Mel in The Well of Happiness, convincingly moving from skeptic to true believer.  There is a scene at a shooting range, where Mel fires her weapon for the first time.  Her experience is as profound and as unforgettable as losing her virginity.  (The connection between sex and firearms is an interesting one, but somewhat off topic here.)  Mel's distaste for guns evaporates before our eyes as she embraces the power and control she can wield with the proper weapon.

L-R Troy (Michael Samarzia), Lisa Ann (Molly Bibeau), Collin (Donny Petro)
Donny Petro is creepy as Collin; he is as disconnected and dangerous as a teenager can be.  One sometimes wonders how parents failed to prevent the carnage their children inflicted at places like Columbine High School or Sandy Hook Elementary School.  Petro deftly demonstrates the problem; Collin a moderately lovable child with serious but mostly secret psychiatric issues.  We all know about kids like Collin, but we only know their names posthumously, after they have inflicted their mayhem on the innocent.  Petro puts a face on those kids, and it's a very scary face indeed.

Molly Bibeau shines as Lisa Ann, the naive victim of Collin's senseless mayhem. Bibeau embodies the recklessness of youth, oblivious to the danger she foolishly falls into.

Artemus Martin (as Nathan, Mel's advertising boss) knows Mel is the best shot he has at getting the gun account, but he fears she won't take the assignment.  To help her make a decision, he offers her a partnership in the firm.  Martin shows us a boss who is sensitive to the ethical issues, but still determined to get the client to sign a contract.  It works.  Mel takes the assignment despite her misgivings.

Madge Montgomery has directed The Well of Happiness before, and it shows.  Montgomery understands the gravity of the script, the sensitivity of the subjects, and the tragedy that plays out on stage.  She has inspired a small but dedicated group of volunteers, both on and off stage, to perform at their respective peaks.  The set, the props (including non-lethal firearms), the costumes, the lighting, and the sound were all at a level one rarely sees in community theater.

Ostfeld's script is at once intelligent and brutal.  The story is not preachy but personal.  It carefully avoids taking a position on the politics of gun ownership while demonstrating the painful reality of guns falling into the wrong hands.  It's a smart story that provokes both sides to question their positions.

The central point here, though, is less about guns and more about our consumer culture.  Any product, of any kind, can be marketed successfully to virtually any group.  "Marketing ethics," if there is such a thing, must be solely focused on the clients, not on the consumers.  Advertising sells guns.  Advertising sells tobacco.  Advertising could probably sell heroin and nuclear weapons if they were legal.  Marketing executives have no moral or ethical problem selling any product, even if that product is harmful or unsafe for consumers.  Their interest is only that what increases their own bottom line.  Ostfeld's point is well made, and it's a sad reflection on both the corporate mindset and on consumers collective ignorance.

The Well of Happiness is one of the best shows I've seen at TCL.  If you're looking for a smart, provocative, and challenging night of theater, go to The Well.

Ron (Tom Doyle)


There is ample free street parking at the theater.

This show closes on June 28, 2014.

This show is suitable for mature teenagers; but it is not recommended for children under 12.  Gunshots (starter pistols) used during the performance.  Discretion is recommended, as the subject matter may be disturbing to both teenagers and adults.

Pre or post show dining suggestion:

Waterloo Restaurant, 809 Main Street, Louisville CO.  Waterloo is an interesting mix of British and classic country music influences ("God Bless Johnny Cash"), inspired by the Waterloo Record Store in Austin TX.  Happy Hour is 3:00-6:00 PM daily.  Draft beers include Guinness (of course), Boddington's, and Left Hand Sawtooth Ale.  Live music some nights, rock and roll always.  Menu here.  

Tickets HERE.

Photo Credits: Lafayette Theatre Company

Director:  Madge Montgomery

Scenic Design/Construction:  Chris Pash, Pam Bennett, Howard Lee Smith

Sound Design/Projections:  Madge Montgomery

Lighting Design:  Brian Miller

Production Manager:  Artemus Martin


Melanie ("Mel"):  Beth Davis

Collin:  Donny Petro

Troy:  Michael Samarzia

Lisa Ann:  Molly Bibeau

Nathan:  Artemus Martin

Detective Dale:  Bill Graham

Dana:  Heather Murray-Price

Ron:  Tom Doyle

Pat:  Artemus Martin

Connie/A Woman:  Judy Wolf

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