Director Phil McKinley has helmed musicals on Broadway and high-powered shows around the world, but feels the Q-C born and bred “A Green River” is among the best and most important plays he's ever done.
The 1973 Augustana College alum — and executive artistic director of Mississippi Bend Players — is back on campus to lead a new production of Davenport playwright Aaron Randolph's intense, moving drama, opening Friday. Fitting for the July 4th weekend, “A Green River” is the second show in the professional summer-stock company's military-themed third season.
“The company is amazing; it's some of the best acting I've ever seen,” McKinley said Tuesday at the Brunner Theatre Center. “You would see this level of acting in New York.”
Premiered in 2013 at QC Theatre Workshop, “A Green River” tells of Army soldier Erik White, having been stationed overseas, who returns home to a world he no longer recognizes. A traumatized Erik must face challenges of everyday life, including bearing the weight of his haunted memories, while continuing to struggle with a war he can't leave behind.
Starring 2018 Augie grad Keenan Odenkirk, who co-starred in last season's “Beginner's Luck” and “The Glass Menagerie” at MBP, “A Green River” mixes naturalistic dialogue with a non-linear structure that allows the audience to experience a troubled soldier's mind. Randolph has done further rewrites and penned new music for the play, and McKinley’s new staging will keep the eight-person cast on stage for the duration of the drama.
The director said he learned from Broadway legend George Abbott to never do the same work the same way twice, and to try something you're scared of.
“It's a completely different production,” McKinley said of “Green River,” which he directed at Augie's Potter Hall in December 2013 and again in Milwaukee, Wis., in January 2015, for which a freshman Odenkirk played the friend role of Jason. The new Augie version has the characters on stage throughout because they're “all in his head constantly,” McKinley said of Erik. “The piece is all in his head.”
The play was chosen for the 47th-annual Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival Region III in Milwaukee for a Jan. 8, 2015, performance at The Pabst Theatre. Odenkirk earned the festival award for Distinguished Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role.
He said Tuesday that he's gained enormous respect for service members through “A Green River.”
“They have to shut down everything but survival,” said Odenkirk — whose brother is another Augie actor, Tristan (the recent lead in MBP's “Biloxi Blues”) and uncle is TV's Bob Odenkirk (“Better Call Saul”).
“Their job is to kill people,” he said. “They have to pursue it doggedly and have to have complete focus.” The battlefield is “normal” for soldiers, so when they get back home, they don't know how to cope. “Some of the bits are so shocking,” Odenkirk said of the play.
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“We're not very good at taking care of these guys,” McKinley said.
They were floored by an Afghanistan veteran from Wisconsin who attended a rehearsal Monday, and has had counseling at Rock Island Arsenal with McKinley's partner, David Manning, a retired social worker for the former Community Based Warriors in Transition Unit, which was shut down about four years ago.
After the show, the vet talked with the cast for 45 minutes. “What he told the cast, he had never told David,” McKinley said. “He opened up about things he'd never spoken about. That's the purpose of the piece – it opens the conversation. It allows these guys to recognize what they're going through and we're trying to open the conversation so you can talk about it.”
More recent research on PTSD has shown that it shouldn't be treated with drugs, which often raise suicide risk, McKinley said, noting an estimated 22 U.S. veterans and active military take their lives every day.
“He was telling these horrifying scenarios — stuff you try not to think happens in the world anywhere, even in warfare. You imagine there's a certain amount of honor, control and humanity,” Odenkirk said of the vets' stories of Taliban atrocities. “All out the window, completely. They did horrible things.”
The message of “A Green River” is that vets must be encouraged to seek and get the help they need, and be supported by their community.
The cast includes Marjorie Gast (Odenkirk's co-star from last summer) as Erik’s lifelong love, Amy; MBP veterans Megan Cox, Jeremy Mahr and Shelley Cooper; MBP producing artistic director Mike Schulz, Augustana graduate Joshua Malone and Arizona-based actor Danny Fapp, a Tucson high-school classmate of Odenkirk, who plays his best friend, and the role Odenkirk did previously.
Since graduation, Keenan has been in Chicago, and spent several months active in the unique Quicksilver Shakespeare troupe, in which actors learn and memorize all parts for abridged Shakespeare plays. The four-hour “Hamlet” was trimmed to about 100 minutes, and Odenkirk has played Horatio and the title role, in unconventional settings like bars and art galleries. Before each show, playing cards are drawn to pick which actor plays which role.
“It's the coolest thing; I love it,” he said. “Literally, everything is improvised except for the words themselves. It's incredible, the enthusiasm.”
That prepared Odenkirk for memorizing his “Green River” role in three days, he said. The play contains adult language and content, including portrayals of battlegrounds, gunfire, and death that could be potentially triggering for some audience members. It is is intended for mature audiences only.
A psychologist will be available for each show, and there will be a talk back with the audience after each performance.