There’s an extraordinary confluence of good things onstage this weekend at Studio Grand Central in St. Petersburg – a perfect storm of story, script, positivity and performance skills.
into the night, an original play by Rosalind Cramer and Linda MacCluggage, is presented inside the intimate theater just this weekend, Friday and Saturday nights, and Sunday afternoon.
It’s the story of widowed Claire Fallon and her son Benny, who has Down’s syndrome, the intellectual disability caused by a genetic disorder. Things are happening in the lives of both mother and son, things which will certainly change their relationship, and their respective futures.
into the night is a collaboration with Theater eXceptional, the Pinellas-based organization that produces theater with disabled adults, with the goal of educating the public and eliminating the stigma that tends to surround intellectual disabilities.
And the actors absolutely love doing it.
MacCluggage, a Sarasota resident, met Theater eXceptional director Brianna Larson several years ago when they were both cast in a play. Larson explained what her company de ella, founded in 2015, does.
“I started thinking, ‘Let’s tell a story about some people with a cognitive disability,’” McCluggage recalls. “We never, ever hear their stories.’”
Attached to the project from early days was Ryan Prince, a regular performer in Larson’s productions. Prince, who has Down’s syndrome, was McCluggage’s first and only choice to play Benny. He is 27 years old.
“I don’t have any direct experience with a family member with Down’s syndrome,” she says. “I did a lot of research, and we certainly met Brianna’s students, I went to a couple classes … and then when I started working with Ryan, we got to be good buddies.
“His passion is acting, in the same way that Benny’s passion is art. And he’s an enormous movie buff. The first time I met him, I was directing harvey; He’s telling me what year the film was made, and who he was in it.
The character of Bear in into the night bears more than a passing resemblance to Harvey, the invisible rabbit.
In this production, the cast includes several familiar faces, professional actors from both sides of the bay – Nicole Jeannine Smith (who plays Claire), Roz Potenza, MacKenzie Aaryn, Ward Smith and Matthew Frankel.
Their interaction with Prince’s Benny, with each other and with Sally Norris, another Theater eXceptional performer, keeps the story moving forward at a brisk clip. “To me, it’s just a realistic – as much as it can be – story of a young person’s coming of age,” MacCluggage says. “But a young person whose story we don’t see.”
Potenza plays Benny’s grandmother, Rose.
MacCluggage says she named the character after her co-writer Rosalind (Roz) Cramer, who died of cancer in 2017, while into the night was in his infancy.
Cramer, like MacCluggage a veteran “theater person,” was undergoing treatment when they began working on the story. “I’d come over, we’d sit at the kitchen table and talk about it. It was a great way to sort of be with a friend who was going through something.
“And we did do a reading before she passed, at the Sarasota Art Center. Her kids de ella came, and it was wonderful, and I remember her daughter de ella telling me: ‘This was great – my mother was a writer tonight, and not just a cancer patient.’ ”
MacCluggage promised her friend that into the night would go on.
Equal parts drama, comedy, fantasy and reality check, into the night is unlike anything else on Tampa Bay stages in recent memory. It will affect people in different ways.
“In many ways, the story is Claire’s story,” MacCluggage explains. “It’s about how she changes. Because Benny does not really change – it’s just Benny finally is able to say what he wants, and his mother sees it.
“I had a couple mothers come up to me after the preview this week and say ‘Oh… that was so true.’ Because it’s an issue when you have an adult child with a disability – helping them find their independence, or putting barriers up to it because you’re too afraid for them to find independence.”
And the playwright/director has a wish for her audiences. “I hope it’s a chance for them to have their eyes opened a bit, and say ‘Oh. This is just a person who’s different. A young person who probably wants the same thing that all young people want.’”
Find tickets here.