Shotgun presents ‘The Great Divide’: social drama that punches hard and leaves you thinking

(Charles Kruger)

(Rating: 4/5 Stars » Highly Recommended)

This reviewer is a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

Why do we go to see plays? Leaving aside the grand musical spectacles (Les Miserables, etcetera) which are so popular, isn’t it true that, as entertainment, most people find most plays are a poor substitute for a good film, a rock concert, or a sporting event? What do we find in the theatre that we don’t find elsewhere presented with more fun and accessibility and cheaper to boot? Why do we bother with this dinosaur?

As a reviewer who typically goes to several plays a week, this is a question that constantly engages me. I haven’t found a glib answer.

But often enough, I’m glad to say, I attend a play and feel, to a greater or lesser degree, as if I have figuratively stuck my finger into an electric socket, and leave the theatre feeling as if something powerful has passed into me. This is hard to describe but the sensation is unmistakable and I don’t encounter it elsewhere. Fellow theatre lovers will know the feeling of which I write, although they may find themselves equally flummoxed trying to put it into words.

Sometimes, it arises from an encounter with archetypal forces and images, powerfully communicated by actors who push themselves to physical and emotional extremes. Sometimes (often with well-produced Shakespeare) the poetry of language beautifully spoken by live actors will do the trick.

Occasionally, the thrill is intellectual, arising from a drama written to seriously examine a social issue from a variety of human perspectives. That sort of drama was pioneered by Norwegian expatriate playwright Henrik Ibsen in the late 19th century. Ibsen perfected the genre of drama as societal commentary.

The Stockmann family at dinner in “The Great Divide”, produced by Shotgun Players. (from to r) Samuel Berston as Morten, Luisa Frasconi as Petra, Heather Robison as Katherine Stockmann,Michael Greeley as Mrs. Stockman,Edward McCloud as Tom and Scott Phillips as Peter. Photo credit: Pak Han.

In The Great Divide, inspired by and loosely based upon Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, playwright Adam Chanzit and director Mina Morita have given us a strong drama about a societal issue. In Ibsen’s original play, Dr. Stockman is an admired citizen of a small resort town where his brother is mayor. The town is on the verge of a financial boom, having opened public baths which are thought to have healing properties, and which are attracting large numbers of wealthy tourists. When Dr. Stockman finds that the water has been poisoned by local tanneries, making many people sick, he calls for the baths to be closed. He finds himself hated and despised by the townspeople and even his own brother, as they are unwilling to believe this inconvenient truth.

In Chanzit’s contemporary take, the setting is a small town in rural Colorado, where oil companies have been using fracking technology (a means of using chemicals to create fissures in rock layers, allowing access to natural gas). This technology has created a boom for the local economy, bringing jobs and profits to many.

As in Ibsen’s play, Dr. Stockman (a woman this time, played with persuasive passion by Heather Robison) discovers that the technology is contaminating the water supply and making people sick. When she speaks up about this, all hell breaks loose.

Playwright Chanzit does not shy away from exploring the many contradictory ways of viewing this complex situation. There are laborers, townspeople, landowners, family members, company spokespeople—a full complement of stakeholders. The script does an excellent job of showing the many large economic forces and smaller interpersonal pressures that effect the action.

The large cast is thoroughly convincing and works well as an ensemble. Director Mina Morita keeps things moving rapidly, balancing the larger social drama with smaller dramas of personal relationships, carefully played.

Audiences will leave the theatre emotionally excited and intellectually stimulated, having felt a lot and wanting to talk about it. That’s what it’s all about, right?

The Great Divide continues at the Ashby Stage through June 17th. For further information, click here.

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“The Great Divide” by Adam Chanzit, produced by Shotgun Players. Director: Mina Morita. Set Design: Martin Flynn. Sound Design: Colin Trevor. Costume Design: Maggi Yule.

Morten: Samuel Berston. Juan/Ensemble: Hugo E. Carbajal. Jo/Janet/Ensemble: Sabrina de Mio. Brent/Townsperson/Ensemble: Joe Estlack. Petra: Luisa Frasconi. Mrs Stockman: Michaela Greeley. Lyle/Phil/Jono/Ensemble: Carl Hovick-Thomas. Fred/Ralph/Trustee/Ensemble: Paul Loomis. Tom: Edward McCloud. Rita: Sarita Ocon. Peter: Scott Phillips. Mrs. Lewis/EPA Rep/Trustee/Ensemble: Rebecca Pingree. Katherine Stockman: Heather Robison. Hovstad: Ryan Tasker.

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