TCR’s ‘Next Fall’ is hard and real, unique and touching

Next Fall

Theatre Cedar Rapids — through Jan. 28

John Miersen (L) and Matthew James in Theatre Cedar Rapids' production of 'Next Fall' -- photo by Struttmann Photo
John Miersen (L) and Matthew James in Theatre Cedar Rapids’ production of ‘Next Fall’ — photo by Struttmann Photo

Next Fall, by Geoffrey Nauffts, which opened at Theatre Cedar Rapids on Jan. 13, is set in two worlds. In one, we travel the timeline of a relationship brimming with honesty and real love. And, in another, we are stuck in an uncomfortable hospital waiting room, filled with uncertainty, fear and secrets.

The opening scene of the play is in the hospital. We don’t know anyone onstage yet, and soon come to find that, despite a mutual connection of the patient, most of the characters on stage are fairly ignorant of each other as well.

Brandon, played by David Schneider, is that patient’s successful and dry “emergency contact” (a slightly estranged friend from years before) and is the first to arrive at the hospital. Holly (Jessica Link) is level-headed and completely devoted to her best friend. She is in a constant battle always to keep things amiable. Butch (Scott Humeston), the father, is detached, bigoted and macho. Arlene (Traci Rezabek), his ex-wife, makes excuses for him, protecting him, always seemingly filled with an optimism that things will work out in the end, even if they don’t actually.

The scenes in the world of the hospital are rightly filled with awkward moments, but sometimes did suffer from some poor pacing or timing issues. The blasé attitude makes sense in a tragic scenario, but the subtext of paralyzing fear was absent. The stakes could have been higher.

As soon as we shift worlds and see how Adam (Matthew James) and Luke (John Miersen) meet each other, any negative energy brought by the hospital scene dissipates. The dialogue between them is smart, funny and incredibly believable. Miersen and James do a wonderful job of listening to each other on stage and the chemistry between them is magic. Not for one second did I question that these two men were perfect for each other.

Whether it be the writing or the level of honesty achieved by Miersen and James, each time a character from that sterile hospital waiting room was integrated into the world of Luke and Adam’s relationship, their characters, and performances, also blossomed. It became easier to understand and accept each character’s presence in the story at large. Link, for example, is always a delight, but she simply shone in those memories.

The acting is, across the board, very good. You can tell that each actor fell in love with their character, and that director Angie Toomsen worked on meshing that love with their given talents to create a handful of skilled and honest performances. A few of the more emotional moments felt a bit forced, or misplaced. However, they were then quickly turned into striking visuals or telling silences that completed the thought of the moment well.

(L-R) David Schneider, Traci Rezabek and Jessica Link in Theatre Cedar Rapids' production of 'Next Fall' -- photo by Struttmann Photo
(L-R) David Schneider, Traci Rezabek and Jessica Link in Theatre Cedar Rapids’ production of ‘Next Fall’ — photo by Struttmann Photo

The technical aspects are, generally speaking, adequate for this production. The set design by Daniel Kelchen is simple and, though serviceable, could have made better use the space, and seemed to be restrictive of actors’ movements at times. Amanda Mayfield’s lighting is thoughtful and specific, colorful but also evocative of memory. The sound design, by Ben Cyr and Toomsen, was lovely — non-distracting, lightly peppering the emotional landscape laid out before us.

I only have one major gripe on the technical end: the mics. I understand that body mics are a constant in the TCR space, but with all the random heavy breaths, the ways an article of clothing could rub against them, or a hug muffle them, they often took me out of the play. I wanted the actors to rip the mics off and just tell me the story. Let me hear when they were entering from offstage as opposed to when they were addressing another person right down in front. I wish TCR could find a way to mic the stage, as opposed to the actors, for the shows that exist sans big tap numbers and flourish. Sometimes a whisper can be deafening, and though it might have been effective in this show, that potential was absent.

While the story is beautiful, the script had some (minor) flaws. I’m not convinced the hospital world and the characters within it are written to the same standard as the relationship timeline and those who dwell there. One character could have potentially been stricken from the story completely (through no fault of the actor), whose purpose could have been consolidated within other existing characters or events.

Another failing of the script is that it’s an “issue” show. Not that the topics raised within the story aren’t important for discussion and exploration, but really, at it’s core, this is simply a beautiful and tragic love story. A big part of me wishes we could treat it as such. Perhaps, one day, we will be able to.

I almost never cry at a show. No matter how many Kleenexes are used around me, the most I might muster is a slight sniffle. Also, I am not a proponent of the standing ovation. In all of my theatre-viewing career, the primary reason I rise from my seat with haste, no matter how good or bad the production may have been, is to ensure I’m at the front of the line at the bathroom once the mass exodus begins. Even when the entire room is on their feet, I remain stubborn unless I truly feel as though the gesture is earned.

When this cast came out, I stood.

Not because I love the material, or the people involved, but because I was lucky to witness something so entirely unique and touching. The role of Adam feels as though it was written for Matthew James. His delivery is expert. He is a hilarious, heartbreaking, complete human being — one who, almost instantly, we all fall in love with, and mourn the loss of when the lights finally go down. And when he stepped on stage to take his bow, I felt my shoulders rise as a full-on sob escaped me.

Despite my technical gripes, and the few moments of unattained perfection, the skill with which this story is told, and, yes, even the story itself warrants your butt in one of those seats.

Matthew James (L) and John Miersenin Theatre Cedar Rapids' production of 'Next Fall' -- photo by Struttmann Photo
Matthew James (L) and John Miersenin Theatre Cedar Rapids’ production of ‘Next Fall’ — photo by Struttmann Photo

One of the most incredible things about art, is that it has the capacity to show us pieces of ourselves we didn’t know existed, or even to reacquaint us with those important pieces we’ve neglected. It makes us think outside of our boxes and talk about the hard things. That is just one aspect of the power of art.

TCR took a risk on this show. It’s not “family” or “classic” or “musical.” It’s hard and it’s real, and men kiss, and God both saves and condemns in the same frustrating breath, and audiences need to see more of that. I hope to see more art like this and beyond in upcoming Theatre Cedar Rapids Linge Series (or non-Linge Series) seasons.

Buy a ticket. Go. Don’t wait. Because, before you know it, it will be next fall. And this moment will have passed you by.

Next Fall plays at Theatre Cedar Rapids Fridays and Saturdays Jan. 20-21 and 27-28 at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday Jan. 22 at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $21-30.

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