March 26 2009 12:00 AM

Black Box show gives insight to fiery world of publishing

Most weeks when we’re interviewing a director, actor, stagehand, etc. for Theater Spotlights, we like to ask who is the intended audience for an upcoming production, and almost every time we get an answer like, “There really is a little something for everyone,” no matter if it’s a musical about prepubescent zombies or melodrama about some Renaissance-era star-crossed lovers.

Which is why you have to admire director Bill Helder’s frankness about his new Riverwalk Black Box show, “The Substance of Fire,” by Jon Robin Baitz. “It doesn’t have wide appeal, I’ll admit that from the start,” Helder said.

“It’s for people into books, who enjoy reading.”

Which in Helder’s mind makes it a perfect script for the more intimate, black-box style.

Helder said the show’s basic plot follows a “fairly standard intergenerational dispute,” between a dictatorial father, who is also the head of a publishing house, and his three children, who after their mother dies and leaves them her shares in the company have a chance to band together and stand up to him.

A Holocaust survivor, the dad pays homage to those who died in the genocide (which includes members of his family), by publishing monuments, such as multi-volume works on the medical experiments conducted by Nazis, to the detriment of his company.

When the children try to convince him to publish a trashy romance novel or two to help keep the lights on (not to mention their legacy afloat), he resists on the grounds that the house’s reputation would be compromised. “‘People have lost their fire,’” Helder said the father tells them. “‘They don’t do the things we believe in any more, so we’re left with a pile of carcinogenic trash.’”

The show’s cast of familiar local names includes Bob Gras as the father, Ian Griffin as the oldest son, Joe Dixon as the younger son and Tanya Burnham, who shows up in Act II as the father’s therapist. And while she’s no stranger to the local theater scene, Melissa Kaplan, performing arts coordinator at Lansing Community College, is playing her first real role as the publisher’s daughter.

“I know everyone says this, but it is a dynamite cast,” Helder said. “I know I mean that, because I sit there every night and I’m absolutely fascinated with what they’re doing. I’d like to say that’s the way it always is, but it isn’t.”

‘The Substance of Fire’

March 22 8 p.m. Friday & Saturday 2 p.m. Sunday Riverwalk Theatre
Black Box Creole Gallery, 1218 Turner St., Lansing $12 (517) 482-5700 www.riverwalktheatre.com

Take the stage BoarsHead Theater will hold open auditions for it’s 2009-‘10 season April 10 and 13 at the theater, 425 S. Grand Ave., Lansing. Male and female roles are available for productions of “I Love a Piano,” “Greetings!,” “Death of a Salesman,” “The Nerd,” “Wait Until Dark,” “A Murder, a Mystery, and a Marriage,” and a to-be-determined children’s show. Appointments can be made for 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. by calling (517) 484-7800, ext. 107, or emailing kdoylemuses@ gmail.com.