March 22 2017 02:31 PM

‘American Hero’ explores the struggle of the under-employed

In his director’s notes, Andy Callis suggested that “American Hero” had heroic characters who found solutions to “problematic lives.” But when the play ended, all three lead characters — former “sandwich artists” for a national sandwich chain — were still unfairly unemployed. One was in jeopardy of losing her kids, one still struggled with a shaky marriage and an MBA he couldn’t use and the third lost the two jobs she depended on to pay for her ailing father’s medication.

The cover of the playbill for Lansing Community College’s black box play included the quote, “We are all free now. We can do what we want.” But that never seemed possible for the principal characters, because the issues of corporate abandonment and inequality that caused their dismal states were never conquered.

Those weren’t the only questionable moments during the play. Why did a mom fighting for child custody attempt murder? How could a subway chain shop survive while selling peanut butter and jelly sandwiches as a mainstay? Why did an employee think a trip to tour the corporate office was such a grand “prize?” Why would a corporate executive reveal intimate details of his life to underlings he has just met? And why did the shop manager disappear?

The sandwich-maker leads were not to blame my bewilderments. Michelle Lerma, as Jamie; Jesse Deardorff-Green, as Ted; and Anna Hill, as Sheri, offered determined performances that got me to believe in the unsubstantiated characters overseeing the Torpedo Subs franchise, offering substance and distinction to their unfolding roles. The trio made their substantial, anything-but-subtle parts anything but sub-par. However, Bess Wolh’s substandard script, with its dubious subtext, doomed their efforts to failure — in my subjective opinion.

What was authentically sublime was the “American Hero” set, designed by Bob Fernholz, who also designed the play’s crafty lighting. Realistic signage by Taylor Riffle added to the sub shop décor. Props designed by Madj Shank included a real soda dispenser and cash register and walls adorned with loaves of bread. Oddly, though, there was no sign of an oven.

The set, complete with detailed paneling, trim work and bright paint, would have fit a big-budget TV studio as well as the black box stage. Accurate sound additions by Scott Crandall, including “pings” when anyone came through the entranceway, were also professionally executed.

Coordinated, colorful furniture and walls matched the hues of the workers’ uniforms, which were fashioned in all their humiliating glory by Stephanie Henderson. Only the cowboy boots Stephen Clark awkwardly walked around in seemed out of place. Clark played the only customer to visit the shop during the weeks it was open.

The surreal Sandwich — embodied by Ndegwa McCloud — felt incongruent in a play that dwelled on miserable lives and bad choices. The flamboyant and glittery figment-of-a-dream character, despite McCloud’s charming performance, seemed more like a lost member of Parliament Funkedelic inserted as weird comic relief than a plausible solution to real-life injustice.

Dunia Zawideh, in her brief role as Beth the manager, was memorable — but remembered most for being hard to comprehend. Hunter Folleth, as corporate-type Gregory, suited his role, even if his role didn’t seem an accurate executive stereotype.

Alas, the true heroes of “American Hero” were none of the mostly-selfish characters portrayed on the LCC stage. It was most heroic when the steadfast actors delivered those characters’ full-of-stumbles-in–logic lines without stumbling.

“American Hero”
LCC Theatre Program
8 p.m. Friday, March 24 and Saturday, March 25
$10/$5 students
LCC Black Box Theatre
Gannon Building, Room 168
422 N. Washington Square, Lansing
(517) 483-1488,