The play was cast before the pandemic, but events in recent years have amplified the need to work on themes found in “Tracy Jones,” which the Williamston Theater opened this month. It runs until June 19.
A new work that Williamston is co-producing this season with theaters in New York and Florida, the comedy is set in the back room of a restaurant chain where Tracy Jones is throwing a party for everyone who shares her name. It is also a co-production with the Tipping Point Theater in Northville. So when the show ends in Williamston, it will pack up and immediately move to the other theater and the cast and technical staff will get several more weeks of employment.
Director Tony Caselli, who is also the theater’s artistic director, first encountered the script when a friend sent it to him. The National New Play Network promotes new works by helping to organize what are called “rolling world premieres”, where a show opens in multiple theaters and all are recognized to be the premiere.
Written by Stephen Kaplan, “Tracy Jones” addresses loneliness and isolation, themes that have intensified during the pandemic. Filled with laughter and humor while tackling blue topics, the playwright calls it a sad farce. Caselli said he was immediately drawn to the script when he read it in early 2019.
“It’s really funny and really adorable,” Caselli said. “Then I found it on the New Play Exchange Network and started sharing it with other theaters I worked with.”
At the time he read it, isolation was something he felt came from technology, social media and the division of the world in general. On Giving Tuesday in 2019, they held a reading of the play and booked it for their next season – a season that would be canceled by COVID.
“People loved it,” Caselli said. “It was clear that this was something we wanted to produce. It was so funny and sincere. I love these pieces that make you laugh and cry and in this, loneliness makes you want to call the people you love. These are our three key points.
When the world shut down, much of the new game network continued, with theater producers reading more scripts and sharing information. Everyone, Caselli said, was making schedule after schedule for when they thought they could reopen. Caselli used this time to recruit other theaters to join them in the rolling world premiere.
Williamston is the second of two theaters presenting the show. The first was at Center Stage in Rochester, NY earlier this spring. Caselli said he traveled to Buffalo where he has family so he could see the show. He spent the weekend with his loved ones and then drove the extra hour to see the Sunday matinee. However, a huge storm hit and half of Rochester lost power, so they canceled the show. However, he was able to meet the director of the other show, the playwright and see the set.
Because these are rolling world premieres, the playwright is involved in all productions. After Center Stage production closed, Kaplan polished the script, and Williamston received an updated version a few days before rehearsals began. While they are in rehearsal, the playwright receives the daily rehearsal notes with the section for the playwright.
“I love that part of the new game process,” Caselli said. “It’s more fun that it happens with three theaters in a row and the playwright can see him in a proscenium in Rochester and then he comes to our tiny three-quarter with 100 seats. So the Island Theater is a any other version. It’s a great opportunity to see how it works with different artistic teams. The piece is already so funny, all these opportunities are a great opportunity for him to really polish.
At the conclusion of the world premieres, the script will be released through an arrangement the National New Play Network has made with Samuel French. All theaters will be listed there as a rolling world premiere.
The design team is mixed between those who usually work with Williamston and those who usually work with Tipping Point. They had to design a production that would be very easy to pack, move and put back in place. It should be as similar as possible so the cast doesn’t have to piece it all together.
The show takes place in the fun party area of Jones Street Bar and Grill: The Place for Wings and Things, a restaurant inspired by Bennigan’s, TGIF and Chili’s. The decor extends to the walls behind the audience. The walls are covered in stuff that screams “fun”.
“It’s this frantic, frenetic, business-focused, heartless but all-enjoyable wall-to-wall fun,” Caselli said. “It’s all on the wall in the dining room, but part of it is going to go around the audience, behind them and above their heads to include them in the room. We wanted them to feel like they were in the room with the actors.
The cast includes Emily Sutton Smith, Madelyn Porter, Steve DeBruyne and Allison Megroet. Two of them, Sutton Smith and Megroet were in the original reading in 2019. Apart from Sutton Smith, who is one of the founders of the company, none of the other actors have starred in a full production on the stage of Williamston. Caselli said he knew them all, however.
Caselli said Megroet is very funny, but usually when looking for actors with a youthful look, they turn to Michigan State University through their partnership with the theater department. However, due to the uncertainty over whether the students would return, Caselli said he offered the role to Megroet outright.
“She comes in with such energy,” Caselli said. “The other three people are older than her and she comes in with this burst of youthful energy. The character is — perky doesn’t even cut it. She’s so caffeinated and fun and driven to help that she fills the room and this is delicious.
DeBruyne is the founder and artistic director of The DIO, a dinner theater in Pinckney. Caselli saw DeBruyne’s work there and at the Encore Musical Theater and he said it suited him well.
Porter is well known around Detroit and Michigan. Her acting career dates back 40 years and in 2019 she was named a Kresge Artist Fellow. James Kuhl, the artistic director of Tipping Point, was the one who suggested Porter for the role. She went to a video audition.
“We just loved it and so it was easy to say please come and do this show,” Caselli said.
The reason this show makes for a delightful evening of theater, Caselli said, is that it’s funny, but it’s also a thoughtful play about loneliness and isolation.
“It feels even more relevant and meaningful and moving right now coming out of the pandemic and the lockdowns and all of that stuff,” Caselli said. “I want everyone to see it and go through a little catharsis of the collective trauma that we’ve all faced. Come laugh with us and cry with us and say we really can all get through this. It’s a wonderful reminder that the best thing we can do is remember that all we have is each other.
What: Tracy Jones
Where: Williamston Theater, 122 S. Putnam Street, Williamston
When: Until June 19