Nov. 9 2011 12:00 AM

Powerful ‘Shrike’ explores malicious mind games


We forget that as recently as the mid-1960s,  people
were routinely admitted to county and state mental hospital wards
labeled as insane, without merit, guilty of non-conformity in an age of

Lansing Community College brings it all back with Joseph
Kramm’s “The Shrike,” the title deriving from a predatory songbird that
impales its prey on barbed wire, thorns and the sharp edges of broken

Set designer Fred Englegau has created a great, seemingly
soothing yet sinister mental hospital ward that is as seriously
anal-retentive and super-organized as a Martha Stewart Thanksgiving
dinner table, while director Paige Dunckel has found and selected the
most intriguing collection of 1950s standards, torch songs that are one
part syrupy seduction, one part mindless elevator music.  

The effect is scarily mind-numbing before an actor even appears on the stage.  

There are 24 characters in this play and 18 actors, many
of which defy the hackneyed logic of “there are no small roles, there
are only small actors.” Not in this play. Samantha Seybert does not
enter the play until well into the second act, yet she commands the
stage in a minor role as Ms. Wingate, the seemingly harsh nurse with a
heart of gold. Seybert uses brisk, no-nonsense movement with an oddball
accent to create a very real character. Not to be outdone, Kris Vitols
plays two characters: a patient who stares catatonically throughout Act
One and, in Act Three, the very convincing brother of the play’s
antagonist, Ann Downs (Beth Martin), the estranged sneaky shrike-wife,
who keeps her husband in the mental hospital out of spite. 

Michael Banghart plays Jim Downs, who has been
hospitalized following a failed suicide attempt. Banghart and Martin
are at the core of the play, performing a dance of desperation together
as Jim tries to “suck it up” with Ann to get out of the hospital. The
depth of Ann’s predatory depravity is revealed slowly, while Jim’s
response evolves through anger and frustration to convincing sobbing
resignation by play’s end. It takes a while to see the shrike-bird in
Ann, and how a conformist society supports and reinforces her
determination to get her husband back following an affair. 

Ken Beachler is very believable as the psychiatrist Dr.
Schlesinger, and the other psychiatrists in the play, Drs. Barrow,
Bellman and Kraamer, played respectively by Katie Bristol, Andy
Schumaker, and CJ Bernhart, each add an unconsciously sinister tone to
their characters.

It’s an effective ensemble, especially Dean Dodge, who
appears only in Act Three as Jim Downs’ brother. It’s noted in the
program that he has been a Lansing resident for 45 years and it is
suggested this is his first play.  Bravo, Mr. Dodge, we hope to see more of you. 

“The Shrike” is a reminder of a time not too long ago when individual liberties were best kept to yourself.

’The Shrike’

Lansing Community College

Dart Auditorium

8 p.m. Friday, Nov. 11, and Saturday, Nov. 12

$10 general admission; $5 for LCC faculty, staff, alumni and all students

(517) 372-0945