BY STEVE WONG
So when 53-year-old Johnny puts a gun to his head, did his “life flash before his eyes” or did some supernatural force punch a hole in the time and space continuum? However he got there, the unhappy-with-life guy with his finger on the trigger found himself 17 years old, a junior in high school, and hanging out in a treehouse with his geeky horny friends.
Call it a do-over that didn’t change anything, or to quote Shakespeare, which Johnny often does, “Much Ado About Nothing.”
Treehouse is an unknown but award-winning play by up-and-coming Alabama playwright Joe Musso and is currently at Greenville’s Centre Stage, as part of the theater’s Fringe Series.
Noteable, Treehouse won Centre Stage’s 2017 New Play Festival and is now back hoping to reach to a wider audience, having premiered last summer at Cottage Theatre in Oregon.
Other awards include winner in the American Association of Community Theatre 2018 NewPlayFest Competition and a winner in the 2017 Todd McNerney National Playwriting Award at Piccolo Spoleto Festival in Charleston, SC. Critics seems to like it, but only time will tell if it makes into mainstream theatre.
Centre Stage lucked out in set design for Treehouse because, as its Fringe Series goes, sets are kept to a bare minimum. In this case, Treehouse is being presented in the already-in-place set of Into The Woods, which is running until April 7. With trees and greenery already in place, it didn’t take much for Centre Stage to add the hodge podge collection of castoff furniture and stolen street signs to create a classic treehouse environment.
It takes a bit of suspended belief to get into Treehouse’s groove. For one thing, most of the actors are adults having to act like teenagers in high school. That coupled with the opening moments when Johnny is about to kill himself, seeing his wife’s ghost, and finding himself miraculously 17 again takes the unprepared patron by surprise and having to catch up on details to make sense of the situation.
It’s not that hard to do, but it does take a bit of effort. Thankfully, the actors do a great job in their roles, and it doesn’t take long for most people get the gist of the storyline — which is a middle-age professor with a drinking problem and abusive childhood tries to kill himself in the wake of his wife’s death. By divine intervention, he’s given a second chance at reliving a pivotal phase of his own life.
Leading the small cast is John Leggett, a senior drama student at the SC School of the Arts at Anderson University. With the help of other actors to change clothes quickly on stage during darkened transitional moments, Leggett carries some pretty heavy baggage as Johnny, who has full memory of his teen years, as well as his adult life. He may not understand why this happened or where it is going, but he fully realizes he is reliving his past with no way to correct the wrongs. With exceptional skill, Leggett is a man/teenager with idiosyncrasies, such as a taste for top-shelf liquor, knowing what will happen next, an irritating habit of quoting Shakespeare excessively, and a bad case of star-crossed lovers blues balls. This is a lot to ask of an actor, and Leggett is up to challenge.
The leading female role might be a three-way split between Johnny’s wife’s ghost Susan — played by Tiffany Nave — his enduring mother Mrs. Ross — played by Jacqueline Collison — and his teenage heart throb Alana — played by Sara Tolson. Nave is a sexy, wise, and under-the-influence ghost that comes and goes throughout the play. Nave delivers a great deal of much-needed insight and humor that only Johnny and audience can appreciate. As Johnny’s mother, Collison is the rock that tries to keep him grounded. Their mother/son relationship is most interesting, especially when she tries to treat him as a teenager and he reacts as an adult with insider knowledge. Tolson is the girl who got away — in a super bad way. As an actress, she is commended for both her subtle and not-so-subtle sexual attraction to Johnny, creating wonderful and unresolved tension.
Rounding out the cast are Joshua Barnes — as Ben — and Chris Cashon — as Oliver. These guys have a good time being bad boys: boys who make fart and phallic jokes, play air guitars, and good-naturedly rag Johnny about everything from hooking up with Alana and drinking hard liquor to starting a Shakespeare club and not playing football. These are not the high school cool kids: more like the geeks who never get out of the batters’ box in the game of love.
Make no mistake about it: Treehouse is out of the box. Even Director Amber Ensley noted such in her program notes: “I’m not going to lie to you, this a strange one. It’s a little hard to swallow. A fifty-three-year-old depressed man goes to end his life and instead gets transferred back to 1980 and is forced to repeat the spring semester of his senior year of high school with his two best friends and his first love? Yeah, maybe a little hard to grasp…” (Just like some of those dated details.)
Overall, Treehouse has a feeling of innocence lost — again. It tackles big issues like suicide, substance abuse, child abuse, wife abuse, social acceptance, self acceptance, and fate. Some of the emotional impact gets lost in the Shakespearean quotes, but then, what a nice way to add Shakespearean eloquence to a truly modern play. And some of the symbolism — like an uneaten peach and rolled jeans cuffs — totally went over my head. What Treehouse does well is make you think about some of life’s ugly turns — turns you wish you made in the other direction, turns you missed entirely, turns of fate you can’t really do anything about. And, that in itself is good enough reason to see this strange little play.
“Treehouse” continues April 2-3 at 7 p.m. at Centre Stage, 501 River St. in Greenville. Tickets are only $15 and available at the box office, by phone at (864) 233-6733 or online at http://www.centrestage.org.