The IU Theatre is presenting a surefooted production of Warren Leight’s deeply and richly imagined ‘Side Man" directed by Erik Friedman in the Wells Metz Theatre of the Lee Norvelle Theatre and Drama Center.
Tom Connor plays Clifford, the thirty year old narrator of this memory play. The story begins in the early fifties before he’s born. Clifford shows us his mother-to-be the young inocent Terry, Rachel Sickmeier, who’s escaping from marriage and Baltimore. She’s almost offhandedly wooed and won in the basement of the New York City’s Nevada Hotel by Clifford’s father-to-be, the trumpet playing Gene, played by Josh Hambrock.
Clifford introduces us to Gene and his circle of trumpet playing friends as they gather at Charlie’s Melody Lounge. There’s Al the good looking one, Harper Jones; Ziggy the newspaper reading lisper, Matt Gripe, and the addict Jonesy, Tijideen Rowley. Like Gene they’re versatile musicians, players, veterans of numerous club dates, casuals and road trips They’re like him too as they really live for the music. Together the four have a warm easy comradeship of shared experiences. They finish one another’s often repeated stories and supply the punch lines for their jokes. Presiding over the lounge is Dawn Thomas as Patsy. Patsy’s a resilient woman who despite a good deal of history and even some painfully acquired wisdom keeps marrying trumpet players.
As Clifford continues the story of "Side Man." Terry gets pregnant with him and Gene marries her. Their life together has more downs than ups. In a recurring monthly pattern Gene screws up, Terry goes off the deep end and Gene leaves. Terry goes to sleep, Clifford cleans up and his father returns. This drama with Clifford as the mediating center goes on from the time he’s just a boy through high school, college and his first full time jobs.
Throughout "Side Man" the acting and direction is just first rate. Each character is deeply thought out, varied and detailed. They are their characters and there’s never a moment’s doubt. Playwright Warren Leight has the history of what was happening to the music and to the world down and slides it in with just the right touches. The newspaper reading Ziggy neatly footnotes things like the McCathy Hearings, the Hungarian Uprising and the Cuban Missle Crises. There’s plenty of nostalgia for the now departed big bands and a look at how bad working conditions could be for a professional musician. The gang actually watches Elvis on Ed Sullivan and one predicts that this isn’t going to be good for trumpet players.
Terry’s rampages gets worse and worse. At one point she says the trouble with having been in the nut house is that when something seems wrong, you can’t tell if it’s really wrong or if you’re just losing it. I did wish that I could feel more sympathy for her, but except for the initial scene of her wooing, she’s a pretty unpleasant lady. Gene on the other hand gets even more deeply involved with his music and more oblivious to the reality around him. The trumpet playing friends have hardships of their own. One has a mild stroke and is reduced to drumming, a second loses teeth and gets by playing piano. The third plays on, but jobs for trumpet players are harder and harder to come by.
Finally, Clifford does what he’s come back to do, what his recounting of his life has prepared him and the audience for. He is quitting as Terry and Gene’s foster parent, supporter, mediator, cleaner up of their messes and going on to his own life. "Side Man" is piece of potent stage story telling. It is sad, but sad in a way that’s truthful to its involving characters and their stories.
The IU Theatre’s production of Warren Leight’s "Side Man" plays each evening through Saturday.
You can find an interview with thre of the cast members on our Arts Interviews page .