Richardson — The Core Theatre sits nestled in an unassuming storefront in Richardson. This passion project of James Prince is dedicated to reclaiming the arts for the lofty goal of educating and elevating its audience, as well as, entertaining them.
While the friendly crowd of Friday night may be one indication that he’s on the right track, the show that he’s written and directed, Fire at the Cocoanut Grove, 1942, seals the deal. Even though it details the deadliest nightclub fire in our history, the takeaway isn’t one of tragedy but reverence for life and hope for redemption.
After a lengthy era-establishing montage supported by Brenda Christopherson’s piano accompaniment, playwright Prince uses direct address monologues by diverse characters involved with the catastrophe that claimed 492 lives. The technique allows the audience to see the event from all different angles. What becomes clear is that whether your presence there was for enjoyment or employment, it was no ordinary club.
Any dramatization of historical tragedy requires the audience to move past the place, however, and get interested in the people. To put it coarsely, the show’s success lives and dies by the audience’s investment in who lives or dies. Of the characters introduced, the cute older couple played by Mack Hayes and Brenda Christopherson, the timorous med student played by John Hogwood (one of several distinct characters he manages) and the bubbly photographer/coat check girl played by Ali Stolar stand out. Though the cast is padded with some players on the young and inexperienced side, their sincerity is charming.
The play also uses scenes to introduce the proprietor, Barney Welanskey (Matt Gunther) who is being interviewed by a plucky reporter played by Stefany Cambra. Their extra portentous chemistry will pay off in the second act, as will the scene with the fire inspector played by Mack Hayes. It’s a tricky line to walk between meeting the people affected by the tragedy and the people responsible. But therein lies the unique experience of The Core Theatre.
There’s no denying the great culpability of Barney Welanskey, but the show doesn’t shine its light only on him. All the characters take a turn in our gaze. Though some lives ended at Cocoanut Grove, some didn’t. How they move forward becomes the litmus test to which we must compare ourselves. And that includes owner Welanskey.
Gunther plays Welanskey with a simplicity that helps to make his wrestling with the effects of his actions all the more accessible to the audience. It’s hard to know what a person would do in the face of such breathtaking calamity and the accompanying culpability. By keeping the scale small, there’s more room for us to see something of ourselves.
One of the most chilling scenes comes right after the disaster when Welanskey meets with the mayor played by John Hogwood. Over stiff drinks they work out how the blame will be managed. In their hands, evil is so easy that it’s ordinary. Only when it’s over does it dawn on what a huge agreement has just been made.
In the end, after serving four years of his sentence, Welanskey is released on account of a terminal cancer diagnosis. His meeting again with the reporter allows us to witness his hope for some salvation. The wish is expressed with such a simple earnestness that it is hard to begrudge him. The sentiment seems something akin to there but for the grace of God…
But director/playwright Prince isn’t going to let us go without a stern reminder of the fire. The show closes with five unbroken minutes of the footage of the 2003 fire at the nightclub The Station in Rhode Island. Lest we think that the issue belongs only to history, the unforgettable video begins with the ignition of the acoustical foam behind a band in a crowded club. The cameraman senses the danger in time with the rest of the crowd and joins the crush toward the exit. He makes it out but some of the rest pile up in the bottleneck. One hundred lives are lost.
It’s a powerful reinforcement to the message that life is fragile and precious.