The play was picked before the pandemic, but the events of the past few years have amplified the need for work addressing the themes found in “Tracy Jones,” which Williamston Theatre opened on this month. It runs through June 19.
A new work that Williamston is jointly producing this season with theaters in New York and Florida, the comedy takes place in the back room of a chain restaurant where Tracy Jones is hosting a party for everyone who shares her name. It is also a co-production with Tipping Point Theatre in Northville, so when the show closes at Williamston, it will pack up and immediately move to the other theater and the actors and technical staff get another several 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 arrange what are called “rolling world premieres,” where a show opens at multiple theaters and all get credit for being the premiere.
Written by Stephen Kaplan, “Tracy Jones” touches upon loneliness and isolation, themes which were intensified during the pandemic. Filled with laughter and humor while touching on blue subjects, the playwright calls it a sad farce. Caselli said he was immediately drawn to the script when he read it in early 2019.
“It is really funny and really sweet,” Caselli said. “Then I found him on the New Play Exchange Network and started sharing it out to other theaters I’ve worked with.”
At the time he read it, isolation was something he felt was coming from technology, social media and the divisiveness of the world in general. On Giving Tuesday in 2019, they staged a reading of the play and earmarked it for their next season—a season which would be cancelled by COVID.
“People loved it,” Caselli said. “It was clear this was something we wanted to produce. It was so funny and heartfelt. I love those plays that make you laugh and make you cry and in this, the loneliness makes you want to call people you love. Those are our three key points.
When the world shut down, a lot of the new play network kept going 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 that time to recruit other theaters to join them in the rolling world premiere.
Williamston is the second of the two theaters who are premiering the show. The first was at Center Stage in Rochester, NY earlier this spring. Caselli said he drove to Buffalo where he has family so that he could see the show. He spent the weekend with his relatives and then drove the additional hour to go see the Sunday matinee. However, a huge storm hit and half of Rochester lost power, so they canceled the show. However, he did get to meet the other show’s director, the playwright and see the set.
Because these are rolling world premieres, the playwright is involved in all the productions. After the Center Stage production closed, Kaplan tweaked the script and Williamston received an updated version a few days before rehearsals began. While they are in rehearsal, the playwright gets the daily rehearsal notes with the section in it for the playwright.
“I just love that part of the new play process,” Caselli said. “It is made more fun having it happen with three theaters in a row and the playwright gets to see it at a proscenium in Rochester and then he is coming to our tiny three-quarter thrust with 100 seats. Then the Island Theater is a whole other version. It’s a great opportunity to see how it works with different artistic teams. The play is already so funny, all these opportunities are a great opportunity for him to really polish.”
At the end of the rolling world premieres, the script will be published through an arrangement The National New Play Network has with Samuel French. All the theaters will be listed in it as a rolling world premiere.
The design team is a blended one 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 up, move and set up again. It needs to be as similar as possible so that the cast doesn’t have to restage the whole thing.
The show takes place in the fun time party zone of the Jones Street Bar and Grill: The Place for Wings and Things, a restaurant modeled after Bennigan’s, TGIF and Chili’s. The set extends to the walls behind the audience. The walls are covered with stuff that screams “fun.”
“It’s that frantic, frenetic, corporate-driven, no heart but all fun on the walls,” Caselli said. “There is all that stuff on the upstage wall of the restaurant room, but some of it will go around the audience, behind them and over their heads to include them in the room. We wanted them to feel like they were in the room with the actors.”
The cast features Emily Sutton Smith, Madelyn Porter, Steve DeBruyne and Allison Megroet. Two of them, Sutton Smith and Megroet were in the original reading back in 2019. Other than Sutton Smith, who is one of the company’s founders, none of the other actors have performed in a full production on Williamston’s stage. Caselli said he was, however, familiar with all of them.
Caselli said Megroet is very funny, but usually when they are looking for actors with a youngish look, they pull from Michigan State University through their partnership with the Department of Theatre. However, because of the uncertainty of when students would return, Caselli said he offered the role to Megroet outright.
“She comes in with such an energy,” Caselli said. “The three other people are older than she is and she comes in with this burst of youthful energy. The character is—perky doesn’t even cut it. She is so caffeinated and fun and driven to help that she just fills the room and it is delightful.”
DeBruyne is the founder and artistic director of The DIO, a dinner theater in Pinckney. Caselli has seen DeBruyne’s work out there and at the Encore Musical Theater and he said it felt like a good fit.
Porter is well-known around Detroit and Michigan. Her acting career stretches back 40 years and in 2019 she was named a Kresge Artist Fellow. James Kuhl, the artistic director at Tipping Point, was the one who suggested Porter for the role. She turned in a video audition.
“We just loved her 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 is funny, but it is also a thoughtful piece 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 those things,” Caselli said. “I want everyone to see it and go through a little catharsis of the collective trauma we’ve all dealt with. Come laugh with us and cry with us and say that we really can all get through this. It is a wonderful reminder that the best thing we can do is remember that all we have is each other.”
What: Tracy Jones
Where: Williamston Theatre, 122 S. Putnam St., Williamston
When: Through June 19