As part of Jenn McKee and Don Calamia’s new Platonic Theater Date review series, they attended the same Saturday performance of Tipping Point Theatre’s “Northern Aggression,” on May 19, and followed-up with a conversation about the show. Here’s their joint review:
An inherent challenge of a family squabble – particularly when there’s a clear resolution – involves the reality of having to still interact with each other for years afterward while silently assuming our post-conflict, arrogant/resentful roles.
As divisive and dysfunctional as the United States has become, we’re still ultimately one big family, and the Civil War remains our definitive quarrel. Though multiple generations have died and been born since battles between the Confederacy and the Union took place, a tension – something like historical muscle memory – still radiates from both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line; and prolific Michigan playwright Joseph Zettelmaier taps into this long-simmering tension via his play “Northern Aggression,” now playing at Tipping Point Theatre through June 24.
The show begins as a young couple from Detroit, Maddie (Alysia Kolascz) and Rob (Patrick Loos), are moving into their new home in rural Georgia, where Maddie’s landed a new job as the town’s veterinarian. Rob, formerly an engineer, doesn’t know how or where he’ll fit into the local ecosystem yet, but after elderly neighbor Doc (Thomas D. Mahard) stops by, Rob not only finds himself wearing gray during a local Civil War reenactment, but also waging a prank-filled personal war against Doc.
DC: It’s been a while since I’ve attended a Joe Zettelmaier play, and so it was a great refresher on what I’ve always liked about his work: well-drawn and identifiable characters, dialogue that serves both the characters and the story, and an overall entertaining story.
JM: So you didn’t get to catch his drama “Our Lady of Poison” at Williamston?
DC: Unfortunately, no. I haven’t been out to Williamston in a while.
JM: That was the most recent show of his I’ve seen, and because I had very different reactions to these two shows, that’s what I’ve been kicking around all weekend. “Poison” had really high stakes for its characters – and this is what I think I felt was missing in “Northern Aggression.” It’s an amusing premise, but it felt slight to me.
DC: Well, it’s one of his earlier scripts. I reviewed its world premiere in Williamston under the title “And the Creek Don’t Rise” back in 2011, and he’s certainly grown as a playwright since then. While you’re correct, this isn’t a high-stakes story, I find it to be a very intimate and personal tale that explores various aspects of men and their ability to accept change and bond with other men. And he accomplished it with a rather unusual, yet creative plot.
JM: Ohhhhhhhh. Oops. I hadn’t known of the show’s history, and I hadn’t heard this title before – I had a baby in 2011, so I can just blame that for my ignorance on this point, right?! – so I’d presumed it was a more recently written script.
DC: (laughs) I’ll buy that excuse. At the time I found it to be yet another evolutionary step in his maturation as a playwright.
JM: I appreciate its ambitions, and there’s definitely some good stuff to unpack in it – North/South differences, generational differences, how notions of masculinity are changing – but again, for me, it didn’t dig quite deeply enough to make much of an impact.
DC: What do you think it was missing?
JM: Well, take the sequence in which the men are ramping up their pranks on each other, for instance. That, to me, feels a bit sit-com-y. It’s something we often see in films and television shows, and it’s familiar shorthand for an escalating conflict, so it just made things feel more contrived and less organic to me. And how does a man who’s despised by everyone – though he doesn’t seem particularly hateful or mean when we meet him – get a job for a guy who moved into town? And if Rob hates the job, which he seems to from the get-go, what’s stopping him for looking for other work in town? I just kept getting tripped up by questions like this, and I wasn’t so riveted by the central conflict. I appreciated the wit of the dialogue, and many elements of the production’s execution, but overall, this was not one of my favorite Zettelmaier shows. Fortunately, there are LOTS to choose from, though.
DC: That there are. Up till the time this initially appeared, I had seen every one of Joe’s shows, and what I appreciated is that it wasn’t trying to tackle the world’s woes, but rather simply look at what could happen when two men who have absolutely nothing in common other than their Y chromosomes are forced to reckon with each other as next door neighbors. So what we end up with is their own mini Civil War, or Hatfield-McCoy feud. And so how it escalated didn’t bother me; testosterone will do that to a guy – although breaking into the other’s house WAS a bit too extreme for me; that crossed a boundary. You also have to remember that small Southern towns may not be hospitable to a Yankee newcomer, and I think there’s a line or two about there being no jobs available. So he WAS kind of stuck there in a job he hated. And why did the dealership give it to him if they hated the doctor so much? He mentions several times he’s owed favors, and so I assume the owner lived up to granting that favor – despite his personal feelings for the guy.
JM: I just felt like things like this were explained away too easily when they didn’t hold water for me. Yes, I definitely, upon moving to Athens, Georgia for a two year stint long ago, became pointedly aware of my own Yankee-ness, so some of this rang very familiar. But again, some plot points just felt contrived to me – where I was thinking about the choices made by the writer instead of being engaged with the story.
DC: I think part of our difference of opinion here is that I went in to the performance with complete knowledge of what to expect, and being fully aware of how far Joe’s skills as a playwright have progressed since then. So I was seeing it as a reminder of just how far his work has progressed over the years, while for you it felt like a step back.
JM: That’s probably part of it. Having no previous knowledge of this script, I went in expecting the level of skill Zettelmaier’s working at right now. And expectations can definitely play a significant role in how we process and respond to works of art.
DC: Exactly. Although it earned a 2012 Wilde Award nomination for Best New Script, six years later it’s dropped off my list of Top Three Favorite Joe Zettelmaier Plays. Still, it’s one I enjoy very much because of its simplicity and the truthfulness behind how men often have trouble making friends and resolving differences. But then again, I might also be influenced by the performances – both with the Tipping Point production and with the world premiere in Williamston.
JM: I was just taking note of Mahard’s bio, which states he originated the role in the first production at Williamston. Did you notice significant changes in the show since seeing it back then?
DC: I loved him in both, actually, as he fully became the doctor in each production. He was the epitome of the small town Southern Gentleman – at least on the outside. If there was a difference, it was only in how certain lines were delivered.
JM: Mahard did a great job of projecting the polite Southern gentleness that Doc puts on for Maddie, while still suggesting Doc’s sense of mischief and his potential for anger that’s always just beneath the surface.
DC: In my review of the 2011 production, I instructed theatergoers to watch Mahard’s eyes if you REALLY want to know what’s lurking inside the doctor’s head, and that’s STILL a relevant statement. He’s a master at using his eyes to tell a story.
JM: And Loos is so funny and earnest as Rob. He pretty much has to carry the thing, since his “fish out of water” struggle is the one we’re following most closely, and Loos’ joy in the role feels contagious.
DC: When I first heard he was cast in the role, I thought it was perfect casting; it’s like he was made for the role. John Lepard played the character in Williamston, and it was interesting to see how differently they approached it. Loos was a boiling tea kettle ready to explode, and watching him struggle to keep it inside him was fun to watch.
JM: Because this play is largely about a sandbox battle between the two men, Maddie’s part is the most utilitarian – she has to play referee, lover to Rob, and concerned neighbor and veterinarian to Doc. She’s crucial for being the bridge between the men, and providing information that helps us piece things together, but it’s all in service to the central story. Nonetheless, Alysia Kolascz strikes the right tone as the go-between. She’s like the human embodiment of the Mason-Dixon Line.
DC: Yes, there’s not a lot of dramatic meat to the role, but she plays the sympathetic referee quite well.
JM: Maybe that was part of my issue with the show, too. It’s fine that the beef between these two men plays the starring role, but I feel like, since Maddie’s part of their story, and plays a part in bringing them together, maybe there should be more of her in there.
DC: But this isn’t Maddie’s story. It’s the guys’ story. Joe had written a number of excellent plays starring strong women who were the focus of the plot, and this was his attempt – in my mind, at least – at showing he could also tell a men’s story equally as well.
JM: There’s no question that it’s a really tough balance to strike, as a playwright. You can’t give everyone equal space and time, or you’ll lose focus. So I absolutely acknowledge that, and I don’t suggest I have an easy answer, either. That was just one element that felt undercooked to me.
DC: Since, in general, men and women have different ways of resolving conflicts, when it comes to interpersonal issues between two men such as this, the guys have to resolve it on their own. And – no spoiler warning needed – they did. Her direct interference might have resulted in a different ending.
JM: I don’t know that I necessarily believe that there are gender differences in regard to conflict resolution – but that sounds like a topic for another Platonic Theater Date all together. Can’t imagine who would read THAT one, but …
DC: Probably no one. (laughs) But traditionally, women will take whatever time is necessary and talk things out. Men aren’t like that; we’re not talkers, we’re doers. So we’ll often go to war with each other until we figure out a way to resolve the conflict to our mutual satisfaction. That’s especially true for alpha males who jockey to become top dog. But you’re right; that’s for a different discussion! (laughs)
JM: So let me ask: did the set designer for the original production employ a completely different concept?
DC: Yes, very much so. In my earlier review, I describe Daniel Walker’s set as “mostly the exterior of the Graff’s house, plus various moveable set pieces” And I made special mention of the hospital bed that they quietly sneaked on stage.
JM: Tipping Point’s Jennifer Maiseloff used projections on a set of tall, white vertical blinds, and minimal furniture for scene changes. Plus, you saw a painted wooded backdrop to underline not only how far into the woods this couple had moved, but also to supply an appropriate visual backdrop for the Civil War reenactment scenes.
DC: For me, the blinds were a great idea in theory, but in practice they didn’t succeed as intended. All too often there were gaps between panels, and they continued to shimmer for far too long after they were closed, which made the projected image look like what those of us older than dirt will remember when you watched TV with an antenna on your roof: a shaky image if not tuned correctly. I found them distracting.
JM: I found it distracting at times, too. Not constantly, but my eye was drawn away when they would continue to flutter, post-closing.
DC: Yep. Mine, too.
JM: It seemed like one of those cool ideas that, in practice, presents a small but hard-to-solve problem.
DC: I’ll give them an “A” for at least TRYING the idea, though.
JM: Yes, when I first realized how they were using it, I thought, “Oh, that’s so clever!” But I will say that the painted floor design and backdrop where quite beautifully executed.
DC: I agree. And so did the friend who was with me. He was quite impressed with both. What did you think about the sound?
JM: I loved Julia Garlotte’s use of bluegrass covers of pop/rock hits – by everyone from Guns-N-Roses to Tears for Fears. A nice little musical reminder that we’re not in Detroit anymore. But she also, of course, had to make the battlefield feel more visceral by way of shots and explosions, and “fill the battlefield,” as it were, with a crowd of reenactors that aren’t there.
DC: It was a magnificent job, that’s for sure. And I think stage manager Tracy L. Spada deserves a hearty round of applause, too, for executing what seemed like a million cues so flawlessly.
JM: Yes – all ran smoothly on opening night! I also appreciated how lighting designer Rita Girardi could subtly differentiate between indoor and outdoor settings – with the battlefield scenes doused in something akin to natural lighting, while Doc’s hospital room gave him more the pallor of a man in such an institution.
DC: Agreed. Even the TV in Doc’s hospital room was realistically represented.
JM: And Colleen Ryan-Peters’ costumes – which Doc would correct me by saying “uniforms” – not only help bring us further into this world, but also visually underline the many differences between these two men. Rob wears a Tigers t-shirt when we first meet him; Doc might, MAYBE, wear a t-shirt as underwear – if that!
DC: Yep…other than the blinds, this was a very well-designed and executed production!
JM: And it’s interesting that in a time of ever-widening partisan division in this country, this play about two very different men finding a way to live next to each other in peace is being re-staged now. Probably not a coincidence.
DC: I agree; probably not. It’s very timely, actually. If only ALL of our nation’s disagreements could be resolved with such a satisfactory conclusion. So, ultimately, what’s your overall opinion of the show?
JM: I’ve used this allusion before, but it felt more like an appetizer than a meal. It was pleasant enough, and I laughed a few times, but I didn’t feel satisfied. For those seeking a lighthearted night out, it’ll definitely do, but I think I was looking for more. Or perhaps “expecting” that, as we mentioned earlier.
DC: For me it’s a pleasant night at the theater that lightheartedly examines how our differences don’t have to separate us if both sides are willing to meet half way. And it leaves me wanting to see what new things Zettelmaier has coming down the pike.
JM: Oh, do you think he’ll write more plays? (I kid, I kid…)
DC: I dunno. Maybe one or two more! (laughs)