Feb. 29 2012 12:00 AM

Riverwalk double feature unites the Sprague family — and marks director Bill Helder's swan song


It all started 25 years ago when local musician Jerry Sprague saw the 1987 production of “Two Beers and a Hook Shot” at Boarshead Theater with founder/artistic director John Peakes and his son, Ian, starring in the two-person show as father and son. Sprague never forgot it.

That BoarsHead production was the world premiere of the full version of Kent R. Brown’s drama, which tells the story of angry and disillusioned Randy, about to leave home but meeting his father, Dexter, a difficult man with secrets, on the basketball court for a last game.

Over the years as Sprague, 57, raised his own two sons as a single father and became grandfather to 10 grandchildren and step-grandchildren, the notion of doing that play himself with grandson Isaac, 19, became more and more persistent.

On Friday, that dream is being realized, more grandly than Sprague ever imagined.  “Beers,” starring Jerry and Isaac Sprague, opens in Riverwalk Theatre’s Black Box. It’s directed by Bill Helder, with local actress (and Jerry Sprague’s fiancée) Mara McGill as assistant director. Also on the playbill is Woody Allen’s one-act comedy, “Death Knocks,” which also stars the Spragues.

“I had talked about doing ‘Two Beers’ just for fun as family entertainment for Christmas, but we never got around to it,” Jerry Sprague said.  Then, in 2009, after a memorial service for BoarsHead co-founder Richard Thomsen, Sprague approached Helder about directing “Beers.”  Helder, who had also seen the BoarsHead production, was interested.

“My idea was to do it at the Renegade Theatre Festival because you could do it outside on a basketball court,” Sprague said. “I was assuming it would be a very informal thing that we could do over one weekend.

“Bill came back with the idea of doing it in Black Box, and I’m thinking, ‘That’s fantastic,’ but also suddenly it became a pretty big deal.  Isaac and I were placed in a more formal atmosphere in productions where we are the sole principal players. This is bigger than anything either of us has ever done in theater. It’s huge.”

Locally, the Sprague name has been associated mainly with music. Sprague has been a career musician for 26 years, singing and playing solo guitar and leading bands throughout the upper Midwest.  His sons perform professionally under their first names, Josh and Jeremy (Josh is Isaac’s dad.) When they were younger, Sprague and his sons became popular as Jerry and the Juveniles and Isaac Sprague plays guitar in the local rock band  The Unguarded Moment.

“Two Beers and a Hook Shot” marks Sprague’s first local stage appearance in 25 years, but what’s more important, the Spragues agree, is the fact that theirs will be the last show directed by Helder. A community theater icon for decades, Helder, who turns 80 this year, has decided to call it quits as a director.

“When Bill announced that our production would be his last one, it put the whole circumstance in a state of retrospect and nostalgia,” Sprague said. “It´s hard for me to believe that this is his last (show).

“He is so sharp, creative, and adept at directing, it´s hard to imagine it ending.”

Helder returns the Spragues’ esteem.

“I’ve enjoyed working with both of them,” Helder said. “I admire Isaac so much as an actor and I’m constantly amazed by Jerry’s ability to come up with new funny bits. He’s a very inventive guy. 

 “I’ve never been in a situation where the entire cast is a grandfather and grandson. What that does for a director is that there was no need to spend time establishing rapport between the actors. With Jerry and Isaac it’s already beyond rapport: It’s a genuine relationship. That makes it unique.”

Helder is also grateful that they didn’t have to start from scratch on the basketball sequences.   “This play is really about relationships, but what the audience sees is largely basketball and I know zip about basketball,” he said.

Helder had a couple of people lined up to do some coaching, but that never had to happen.  “By our first read-through, Jerry and Isaac had the whole thing choreographed as if it were a dance number.”

While the basketball game is significant, it’s the emotional punch of the play that’s creating a special bond among the three men. At rehearsals, feelings often run deep.

Helder recalls one rehearsal when near the end of the script “the father comes across (the stage) and the kid says, ‘Don’t touch me, don’t ever touch me,’ and within minutes there is a physical altercation and the boy finally ends up in his dad’s arms.

“All the lines were in place and all those relationships came together, and I was crying. I think this will be very emotional moment for adults who have sons.”

That scene is also climactic for Isaac Sprague. “Dealing with feelings about Randy and the kind of character he is takes a little bit of bravery,” he said. 

“In some ways, any 19-year-old can relate to Randy — he wants to hang out with his friends, smoke cigarettes and drink beer. He also wants to get away from home and search for adventure, but on the other hand there’s this very, very passionate anger with his dad.  Conveying this to my grandpa is in some ways a little surreal.” 

“I relate to this show as a father,” said Jerry Sprague. “There are times when I can’t get my lines out because I have that big lump in my throat.  The end of the show is going to be really hard because Dexter is left all by himself. In life, too, sons move out and so do grandsons. I can totally relate to everything that’s happening.”

‘Two Beers and a Hook Shot’/‘Death Knocks’

Through March 11

Riverwalk Black Box Stage

228 Museum Drive, Lansing
7 p.m. Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays

$12; $10 seniors, students, military personnel

(517) 482-5700