June 13 2014 12:00 AM

REVIEW: MSU Summer Circle Theatre’s 'What I Did Last Summer'

Lela Ivey and Mark Schenfisch star in the MSU Department of Theatre’s Summer Circle Theatre production of “What I Did Last Summer.”

FRIDAY, June 13 — It’s summer again. Cue the sound of fireworks, the smell of hot dogs on the grill and the staging of coming-of-age dramas like A.R. Gurney’s “What I Did Last Summer,” the first show of the MSU Department of Theatre’s Summer Circle Theatre season.  

The show fits the traditional structure of many Americana adolescent-to-adulthood plays — loss of innocence, rebellion from parental expectations — but “Summer” feels especially vibrant because of its unflinching honesty.

Set in a rural New York town in the summer of 1945, “Summer” is part dramatic time-capsule chocked full of period goodies, such as references to a father serving in the Pacific Theater in WWII, war bonds and old-fashioned prejudice. Charlie (Mark Schenfisch) narrates the story of his 14-year-old self, a distant past when puberty was awkward and teachers fueled revolutionary ideas in their students ... wait a minute!

Charlie's quest for a summer job to compete with his peer, Ted (Cory Weatherup), and impress their mutual crush, Bonny (Anna Morreale), leads him to Anna, "the pig lady" (Lela Ivey), an eccentric bohemian who helps mold Charlie from naïve boy into a worldly young man. Charlie's transformation troubles his mother, Grace (Mandy Myers), and younger sister, Elsie (Jenna Jo Pawlicki).

Ivey’s dynamic performance alone makes the show worth watching. Like Robin Williams’ charismatic English professor in “Dead Poets Society,” Anna is openly defiant of authority and social mores.

“I’m dangerous because I’m a teacher,” she tells Charlie. “All great teachers are dangerous, like Socrates or Jesus." Anna's salty, irreverent dialogue could be drawn from virtually any liberal arts professor, but it’s Ivey who makes Anna the rich character that all young people would want as a mentor.

The rest of the cast works hard to keep up with admirable results, albeit with far duller dialogue. Schenfisch makes Charlie’s transformation subtle and authentic, especially in the beginning of Act II as Charlie dresses for a WASP-y dinner party. Morreale comfortably inhabits the rule-bound Bonny with a dry delivery. Her scenes battling the pitiful advances of Charlie and Ted feel especially timeless.

Director Lynn Lammers keeps the show moving at a brisk pace aided by minimal props and set changes. The combined set, costume and story elements make the play feel like a live action Norman Rockwell painting, but the story and themes are anything but nostalgic. Gurney’s characters are real and beautifully flawed and the cast breathes fresh life into every one of them.

“What I Did Last Summer”
MSU Department of Theatre’s Summer Circle Theatre series
8 p.m. tonight-Saturday, June 14 (Friday-Saturday shows are preceded by all-ages improv comedy, “The Summer Circle” at 6 p.m., and followed at 10 p.m. by “The Weird,” six short anthological horror plays)
Behind MSU Auditorium Building