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Breakout Star!

YEARS ago, during the heyday of the late, great Orthwein Theatre Company, I directed a production of Cindy Lou Johnson's THE YEARS. I felt it was a delicate, but powerful work about two sets of cousins and their lives through the years.

I don't recall much about the casting process or the production process (other than that I decided to do it in the round in Orthwein's Black Box, which made for challenging staging and acting.)

But one actor in the cast I've been reminded of lately was Jon Hamm. Of course, Jon is the (or one of the) so-called Breakout Star(s) from the critically acclaimed new AMC series MAD MEN. As agency creative honcho Don Draper, Jon was just nominated for an Emmy (joining the series and other cast in record-setting Emmy recognition.)

I'd followed Jon's progress since he moved to Hollywood, with roles in indy films and bit parts in other things like Mel Gibson's WE WERE SOLDIERS ONCE Vietnam movie. He was a regular on the TV series PROVIDENCE, and had recurring roles in other series like THE DIVISION and THE UNIT.

But MAD MEN was the one that put him over the top. A very smart, period show about Madison Avenue advertising men and women featuring impeccable 1950's era design and manners, MAD MEN is well-deserved cult hit. And Hamm's excellent performance has already gained him a key role in the upcoming sci-fi epic remake, THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, with Keanu Reeves, due later this year.

I wish I remembered more about Jon in our production. He must have been friendly and hard-working (or I would have remembered otherwise), but, I do remember, along with the entire cast, I really enjoyed his work, and thought he added a lot of colors to the show.

And I wish I could take more credit for his success now, but he's pointed out publicly, several times, his debt to Wayne Salomon, his teacher and director at John Burroughs High School. Jon went to on to Mizzou in Columbia, and I think we caught him for our show in between Mizzou and L.A.

Dave Wassilak and William Roth, Orthwein regulars, were in the cast, and sisters were played by Laura Turner (who I've been lucky enough to work with several times, including in Midnight's LIFE AFTER DEATH) and Nicki Sarich (whose poster/program photo created lots of controversy as she appropriately appeared sporting a wedding dress and veil and big shiner. The black eye – from a mugging on her wedding day in the script – generated a lot of Violence Against Women talk, but, of course, we were in no way supporting or encouraging violence – just using a provocative image to gain awareness. We gained it.)

Hamm played Laura and Nicki's cousin, but another Breakout performance (or if not Breakout, a great return to town) in THE YEARS came from the actress playing his sister – Lavonne Byers. I'd acted with Lavonne years before in HURLEY BURLEY for City Players, directed by Milt Zoth. This was just before Lavonne left town, went equity, and worked in several places throughout the Midwest.

Lavonne had just come back to St. Louis as we were preparing THE YEARS, and it was her first show here. And as she's done many times since, she turned in an excellent performance in a challenging role.

Here's a sample of some of the reviews for THE YEARS

Reviewed by Phyllis Thorpe in Intermission (excerpt)

Imagine that you are hearing Willie Nelson crooning “Through the years…” The feeling that the song evokes matches what I felt as I drove away from Orthwein's presentation of Cindy Lou Johnson's jewel of a play, THE YEARS. Maybe it was the splendid cast – each one matching their role perfectly so that I liked and cared about each of them, to an extent unusual in the modern theatre; or that director Joe Hanrahan seemed to mesh with the world view of the woman playwright to a remarkable degree. Or perhaps it's that the play itself, in a way that is beyond my power to describe, has an impact that allows for a gentle catharsis, causing one to be fully present to the conditions and challenges of life, right now – particularly in our relationships with family and the opposite sex – as few plays ever have. I cried gently as I drove away, after laughing frequently amidst the ups and downs of the two sets of cousins the play focuses on.

Nicki Sarich is vulnerable yet powerful as Andrea, and Laura Turner is extraordinarily delicate, tender, and quietly focused as her sister Eloise.

Looking on through all this is cousin Andrew. His character could be simply irritating, but he is so cute, so absorbing, so light as he zings darts of truth, that we ache as we chuckle at them. Jon Hamm shines in that role.

And trying to manage everything is his sister Isabella, who “can be a force when she wants to.” She is forcefully and delightfully played by Lavonne Byers.

As the publicity suggests, this is a very special production. THE YEARS is a beautiful play, beautifully played. Those of us who saw it will cherish it for a long, long time. Thank you, Orthwein.

Reviewed by Gerry Kowarsky in The St. Louis Post-Dispatch (excerpt)

THE YEARS is an exceptional work. Many plays deal with the pains of family relationships, but few have as much insight, pathos and humor as THE YEARS does in its current production at the Orthwein.

As the cousins, Nicki Sarich, Laura Turner, Lavonne Byers and Jon Hamm project a sense of intimacy that is crucial to the emotional impact of the play.



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Revised: October, 2007
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