NORMAL — In the world of art and entertainment, timeliness can be next to godliness.

Sometimes, though, it can be a double-edged sword.

Take, for example, the sensitive situation facing B-N's Heartland Theatre Company this weekend as it premieres its run of "For the Loyal" on the One Normal Normal Plaza stage (Feb. 8-10, 15-17 and 22-24).

When Heartland's play selection committee picked the dark-leaning Lee Blessing drama as one of its 2017-18 season offerings, his inspiration was still omnipresent in the nightly news: i.e., the real-life case of Jerry Sandusky, the Penn State football coach accused of sexually assaulting young boys.

But the real tsunami was yet to come.

As the year progressed, the sexual abuse scandals multiplied on every societal front, from the kindred sports scandal involving USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar to the Hollywood-based Harvey Weinstein affair that helped launch the global #MeToo and Time's Up movements.

"There is no way then that we could have anticipated everything that came later," agrees Heartland's artistic director, Rhys Lovell. "That's just what happened."

Twelve months later: "And now here we are about to open this play that has people asking 'this is is so timely ... how did you plan for all this?'

"And the answer is ... we didn't plan for this."   

As Lovell observes, anyone who knows Heartland knows "that we've always tried to produce work that is topical and issues-oriented. This is not the first time we've produced a play that deals with the notion of sexual misconduct," he says, referencing the company's 2008 staging of John Patrick Shanley's "Doubt."

"That play dealt primarily with the abuse within the Catholic Church that was the ticket at the time and was eventually made into a film with Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman," notes Lovell.

The work of Blessing, the Midwest-born playwright best known for 1988's Tony-nominated "A Walk in the Woods,"  is certainly no stranger to the Heartland stage.

In fact, Heartland's 1994 production of Blessing's "Two Rooms," "is where my wife, Devon, and I met and fell in love," notes Lovell, then a jobbing actor with the troupe.

With 2015's "For the Loyal," Blessing took the Sandusky affair as inspiration and then had his own dramatic way with it: via the story of a young coach and grad student named Toby who sees a famed offensive coach in a compromising position with a young boy (named only The Boy in the script).

Toby tells his wife, Mia, the story, the ramifications of which threaten to derail his promising coaching future. Mia becomes the drama's "agent of change," deciding between honesty and loyalty, and whether doing something wrong is the only way to do what's right.

"Like any good playwright, Blessing only poses the questions and doesn't answer them for you," notes Lovell. "The questions are 'is it better for you to remain silent?' or 'is it better to speak out, no matter what the repercussions might be?'"

"It's been extremely compelling and actually a very rewarding experience to work on because this is a play that speaks up about what goes on when a pedophile does something," says the Heartland production's director, Kathleen Kirk.

"The protagonist is a young woman who is the wife of a young graduate assistant coach who's witnessed what he tells her is a sex crime. The whole play involves her trying to decide what is the right thing to do if the people around her aren't going to do enough."

The dramatic crux: What is she going to do, and what are the consequences going to be?

"And it's thrilling to watch it unfold," says Kirk.

Set in the late 1990s, the drama unfolds over the course of a single evening after an early football practice at an anonymous Midwest university, shifting in and out of both its reality and its time frame.

Michelle Woody, who plays Mia, calls "For the Loyal" "one of the most powerful plays I've ever read ... and as soon as I read it, I knew I wanted to audition."

Woody views the complex character as "more than just a character ... she's the kind of a lesson about how we react to cases of abuse as a society.

"In a nutshell, I'd say the play is this woman's thought process, showing how she should react in learning about a child being sexually abused — going through the different choices, and seeing what would happen if she chose this course of action."

Among the challenges facing Kirk was the casting of the character billed only as The Boy: the 15-year-old sexually abused by the coach.

Though Kirk's preferred plan was to cast an 18-year-old-or-older college-based actor who could "play younger," she ended up double-casting the role with two bona fide 15-year-olds: Will Lovell, the son of Rhys and Devon Lovell; and Maximilian Beck, a young local actor with whom Kirk had worked before under different decidedly circumstances (the McLean County Museum of History's History Makers Gala).

"Will has grown up in the theater, and he really wanted to take on this challenge ... he asked to do the audition," recalls Kirk.

"I asked her how she felt about reading my son for the role," recalls Rhys Lovell.

"Theater has been a big part of the lives of both of our kids. It's been really interesting to work with Will, running his lines with him ... though I must say that it is strange being the dad of the actor playing a boy who is sexually abused."  

"When I first read the play, it just gripped me," offers Kirk to those who think the drama might be too darkly oppressive to digest on the heels of what very well might have dominated the evening news just hours prior.

One minute she found herself reacting with "Oh, no ... not that!"

Followed by, "Ahhh, there's a possibility ... then, oh, but wait ..."

"I want the audience to have that similar experience of tension all the way through. And I think through the shifting (from reality to unreality) it confronts us with all the possibilities and obstacles to doing the right thing.

"And it also shows us the tendency to have a rationale or excuse for not doing this or that, and the rationales and excuses can come from various people. This stuff just keeps happening and happening ... so what do we do? This play has taken on that challenge." 

"It's a testament to how very difficult it is to try and find some appropriate course of action when we hear about these things,' adds Woody.

"It does feel like this play joins in in saying 'time's up' ... shouldn't we be stopping the covering up? It calls on us to think about the consequences of our actions ... to stand up for what's right."


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