March 25 2009 12:00 AM

LCC Theatre applies edgy Balm in gritty new show

It’s Friday night in Lansing, and about 20 people are hanging out at a diner where soda costs 50 cents and drugs and prostitution might as well be on the menu. Of course, the diner sits atop Lansing Community College’s Dart Auditorium stage, and the drug pushers and escorts are a mix of LCC students and community actors preparing for an upcoming production of Lanford Wilson’s “Balm in Gilead.”

Visiting director John Lepard, who is also executive director of Williamston Theatre, expects the edgy show to ruffle some people’s feathers.

“‘Balm in Gilead’ is no ‘Our Town,’” Lepard said. “Its not too well known, and some people are probably going to be really offended by it. You just have to remember that the characters are human beings. They’re not wicked or evil. They have made some bad choices, but theyre only human.”

Lepard has worked with Wilson and Marshall Mason, the original director of “Balm in Gilead,” before, and he said having these contacts is a luxury. Although Wilson and Mason are not involved in the LCC production, they have been available to answer questions and provide support, Lepard said.

In addition to the controversial subject matter, Lepard said the play’s long list of strong, dynamic characters made it easy for him to adapt the project. “I wanted everyone to have a substantial role to work with,” he said. “Lanford developed these characters from people he knew and overheard when he moved to New York. I didnt want someone to spend six weeks wondering why the maid comes in and gives someone tea.”

LCC student Kathryn Renaldi-Smith’s character Rust, a drug-dealing lesbian, definitely doesn’t get served any tea. Renaldi- Smith said the biggest challenge developing her character, one of 28 in the show, is finding information about gay people living in 1965, since it wasn’t accepted and openly talked about in that time period. “Ive never done a play like this before,” Renaldi-Smith said. “Some of it still applies to today. We still dont openly talk about drugs and other issues like that. There are just so many elements in this play that make it so intense and shocking.”

Although this is not Lepard’s first time directing one of Wilson’s plays, he said it is the first time he has directed a show with so much “chaos.”

“(Balm in Gilead) is different than the plays I usually direct,” he said. “It’s the first play that did this kind of overlapping dialogue thing back in 1964 when Lanford wrote it. It’s elaborate.”

Lepard said while shock value will make for an interesting performance, the play’s willingness to explore real issues that are often swept under the rug makes it a special project.

“It’s interesting, because ["Balm in Gilead"] reflects the part of society we dont necessarily want to see, but it holds a mirror up and says, ‘This would be us, if we had made those different choices,’” Lepard said.

Playing characters based on real people adds to the excitement, Renaldi-Smith said. “This did happen,” she said.

“This is how it was.”

‘Balm in Gliead’

April 4 8 p.m. Friday & Saturday 2 p.m. Sunday LCC Theatre
Department, Dart Auditorium, 500 N. Capitol Ave., Lansing (517)

Get mad

Riverwalk Theatre invites audiences to get spooky with Shakespeare this week when it opens the Bard’s “Macbeth.” This tragic tale of power, violence, magic and madness is directed by Lansing theater veteran Eric Dawe and stars Brad Rutledge and Kelly Gmazel as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.

7 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday & Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday through April 5. Riverwalk Theatre, 228 Museum Drive, Lansing. $8-$14. (517) 482-5700.

Good plates

Find out how far one woman will go to get the right word stamped on her vanity license plate and what happens as a result, when Williamston Theatre opens “Panache.” The Don Gordon comedy is directed by Suzi Regen and stars Alex Leydenfrost and Sarab Kamoo.

8 p.m. Thursday & Friday, 3 p.m. & 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday through April 19 (no matinee on March 28). Williamston Theatre, 122 S. Putnam St., Williamston. Pay-what-you-can Thursday, March 26; $15 March 27-April 2; $18-$24 April 3-19. (517) 655-7469.