Starring: Tyler Parr and Jeff Werkmeister
Directed by Jeff Culbert
Produced by Jeff Werkmeister
Written by Jason Rip
To Ashes, numerous vignettes, and consistency issues – it all adds up to a production where the individual components serve to outweigh the overall value of its whole.
That’s not to say it’s not a worthy production. There are several outstanding components interspersed throughout. But it’s a production that succeeds in spite of a weak story line and stereotypical characterization. It’s a story with an ending that’s obvious from before the characters even take the stage, but it’s a production that makes that journey worthwhile regardless.
The story revolves around two – for lack of a better term – losers who share the same name Thomas/Tom Ash, who are brought together through an identification error made by a creditor.
Werkmeister’s Ash is a boorish, hot-headed, and arrogant ass who is dealing with a divorce and estrangement from his daughter. He’s loud, abrasive, quick-tempered, and designed to be completely unlikeable. Yet Werkmeister’s charisma shines through and you find yourself oddly drawn to his Tom Ash.
Parr’s Thomas Ash, in particular, suffers from being a layering of archetypes seemingly designed to force the viewer into a feeling of sympathy. Physical disability? Check. Mental challenge? Check. Social recluse? Check. Infirm, dying mother who represents his last tie to humanity? Check. Puerile response? Check.
But Parr’s Ash is also a character who strives not to overcome his challenges, but uses them as excuses to craft the archetypal woebegone misfit to whom life happens. The desired sympathy never materializes and the addition of a Catfishing habit seems to be gratuitous.
Unfortunately, there’s a lack of consistency amongst the characterizations. Parr’s affectations come and go throughout the presentation and Werkmeister’s aggressiveness seems to ebb and flow at odd times. There are times when bombast and hyperbole would not only be expected, but called for, yet the response is far more muted than it should be.
However, there are moments when both actors shine. Parr, in particular, has a touching and endearing segment that allows him to showcase his character’s emotional depth when he reaches out in vain to his mother, who has been rendered emotionally and intellectually distant due to disease.
Both characters shine in the moments where they are speaking to characters who don’t appear on stage. Much of the plot is driven through the characters interacting with others on telephones, but we never hear the other half of the conversations. It’s a testament to both actors that we not only understand the context, but can infer feeling and emotion from a one-sided conversation made whole through delivery and emotion.
Amongst the aforementioned highlighted components include the set design, hair/makeup, and costuming. There were subtle but effective delineations in the staging of the production. Parr’s side of the stage was not only cluttered with trash, but also was defined by a thick layer of dust on the stage floor. Werkmeister’s side was more minimalist in design, but befitting his role as a clockmaker, it was precise, clean, and orderly.
Marina Sheppard’s hair work was outstanding. As good as Parr’s slicked-down, stereotypical nerd hairstyle (complete with a fly-away tuft on the back) was, it’s hard to compete with the majestic mullet adorned by Werkmeister – one that was only enhanced by the Fu Manchu moustache. And costuming was effective, providing a sense of lower-class characters circa the late 1980s.
As this was reviewed on a preview night, there were still some bugs to be worked out in the production, specifically relating to the musical transitions from scene to scene. They seemed to be out of place and most certainly out of sync with the overall volume of the production. But that can be easily modulated to be more aligned with the tone of the play.
In all, there are several positives that To Ashes brings to the stage – from its direction, to its production, to the work of its cast and crew. To Ashes is a play that rises from the limitations of its story thanks to the talent and abilities of its two leads and is well worth viewing for those reasons alone.