Whenever I see a play at Chelsea’s Purple Rose Theatre, I can count on the acting, sets, costumes and everything about the production to be the highest quality. I can also usually count on the plays themselves to be good, but those are sometimes not as spectacular as the rest of the offering.
The newest play at the Purple Rose, Jeff Daniels’“Casting Session,” comes the closest that any of Daniels’ most recent plays have come to rising to that level of quality. It is hilarious and also poignant.
The play centers on two out-of-work, over-the-hill and less than famous or talented actors, Ron and Frank, who have been competing for roles in New York City for several decades. Ron seems too busy touting his meager credits to actually go out and get better roles, and Frank is eager to restart his career after a disastrous on-stage mishap that has led him to change his entire identity.
The dialogue was fast and clever, and often had the audience laughing out loud. But for all its caricatures of the cutthroat theatre world, the heart of the play is sweet, vulnerable and ultimately, very true.
Jeff Daniels knows firsthand what it’s like to be an actor, and even though it’s likely been years since he had to do what these two characters are doing, he surely experienced something akin to their experience when he was first starting out.
All of the technical aspects of the show are pretty bare bones, but extremely effective. Bartley H. Bauer’s set, Shelby Newport’s costumes, Angie Kane Ferrante’s sound design (which included some great pre-show music), and Dana L. White’s lighting design all worked together subtly and seamlessly to enhance the action. One particular lighting cue during an emotional speech helped to heighten the stakes of the scene.
Guy Sanville, the artistic director of the Purple Rose and director of many of the shows there, once again ably guided his actors through the many twists and turns of the plot.
The acting is up to its usual incredible Purple Rose standard. I don’t know what the casting process was for this show, but they sure got it right. Tom Whalen, a Purple Rose regular, provides many laughs as the uptight, nervous and forgetful Frank.
David Daoust shines as Whalen’s polar opposite. His Ron is brash, relaxed and confident, and knows just how to push the anxious Frank’s buttons.
Rounding out the small cast is Erika Matchie Thiede, formerly an apprentice at the Purple Rose, here making her professional debut. Holding one’s own alongside two veteran actors of Whalen and Daoust’s caliber is a tall order, but Thiede proved herself worthy of a place in the cast with a sweet, emotional and often hilariously stoic portrayal of Fiona, a director’s assistant who—like Frank and Ron—stops at nothing, including deception, to get what she needs.
The play’s theme is universal and one which we can all relate to: the longing to find work that we love and then to be content with whatever level of success we achieve.
“Casting Session”runs through Dec. 19at the Purple Rose Theatre in Chelsea, Mich.