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On Theater: Still in 'Development,' but promising

Vanguard University production exploring mental illness offers some intense highs

March 07, 2013|By Tom Titus

Projecting mental illness on stage is about as difficult a task as any director or troupe of actors may face, but when done effectively, it can produce a mesmerizing evening of theater.

In "Development," Vanguard University's world premiere of a new drama by Warren Doody, an English professor at the Costa Mesa college, schizophrenia is an inherited condition, passed down from a woman to her son and on to his son. It's a truly frightening premise, triggering a pair of unforgettable portrayals.

Strained familial relationships are a byproduct of this maddening disease, and director Susan K. Berkompas — who requested a play on this subject from Doody — has elicited some electrifying performances from her mostly student cast. The only nonstudent is a mature actor whose age is an additional stamp of credibility on an electrifying production.

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Doody's drama is not a perfect play — situations often appear contrived, and the ending is somewhat nebulous — but interpretations at its core are delivered with a vitriolic passion seldom encountered on a collegiate stage.

The action, set in 2011 and 2012, opens with an aging and demented vagabond wandering drunkenly and blabbering in the Mojave Desert. This is guest artist Tony Sutera, who imbues his psychotic character with wide-eyed mysticism as his ravings land him in a local hospital.

Visiting him, although the old man walked out on them some 15 years ago, are his two sons — one a would-be Hollywood player (Jordan Laemmlen), the other an aimless loser (Michael Fidalgo), although their roles will virtually reverse within a year as the former's mind begins to crumble much like his father's.

Laemmlen delivers a performance of intense, visceral power, beginning as a driven movie promoter attempting to sell a screenplay concept of Custer's last stand with Leonardo DiCaprio attached, then descending the ladder of sanity to a paranoid figure much like his father. It's an interpretation of immense depth, though the character's abrupt mood switch (within a year's time) may seem difficult to accept.

Matching this intensity is Kimberly Monks as Laemmlen's fiancee (in Act I) and wife (in Act II), who battles unsuccessfully to keep her man grounded in reality. Monks renders a richly believable character whose truly caring nature is thwarted by his increasing madness.

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