by Peter Sessum

Central Heating Lab (CHL) is an initiative by A Contemporary Theatre (ACT) to provide space and resources to new projects. That investment has paid off in two very different productions. Josua Rollins’ 25 Saints and Adam Rapp’s Red Light Winter.

It can be difficult to pull the audience in when the edge of the stage is within the peripheral vision of the audience. Set design and lighting help, but it is the acting that elevates a performance. In 90 minutes, Rollins and his cast are able to bring a world of story and emotion to a run-down meth lab cabin in nowhere West Virginia. It was really the superb acting that pulled the audience in and made 25 Saints believable. The writing and acting was so good, the audience could walk out of the theater and tell the life story of each of the characters.

The depth of the characters that Rollins was able to put into that time is nothing short of amazing. He did it without resorting to lazy writing. I honestly didn’t know that Tuck, played by Richard Nguyen Sloniker, had a problem with his hand until it became relevant to the story. It was subtle things that made the play mirror life more than many small productions. After all, a person with a bad hand doesn’t spend much time waving it around. He would still try to do as much as he could with the limitation. Sloniker has been seen in other local productions recently including Red Light Winter and Saint was by far his best performance. In Winter, his character is less sympathetic and more just pathetic.

Tim Gouran is also in both plays. He is superb as Charlie, the good guy in a bad situation in Saints. Everyone knows a guy like Charlie, solid as a rock and the one you can always count on. But how would he be if he was in over his head? If you see him in Saints, Gouran is almost unrecognizable as Matt in Winter. The two characters could not be more different

Sammy, played by Libby Barnard in Saints, is a complex character and it takes skill to play her and make it believable. Again, Rollins does not get sloppy in the writing with the Charlie/Sammy dynamic. The audience understanding of their relationship develops over the course of the performance. Watching Saints is like taking a bite of a complex meal. The flavors develop as they dance across the palette. What you taste at the end of the bite is not what you experience at the start. Unlike Winter which is like an onion. As you peel back the layers, you still have an onion.

25 Saints isn’t a made up story, it is a piece of life encapsulated on stage. Each character, given the context of their world, is believable. The lazy review would be to make comparisons to Breaking Bad, but that would cheapen what transpires onstage.

Red Light Winter is well acted, but doesn’t hold up to critical thinking. A good play entertains while the curtain is up a great one entertains after the curtain comes down. Saints is one of the great ones. The audience can step outside the theater and discuss what happened onstage. Winter is good, but deconstructing the play diminishes the performance. Too many questions are raised that go unanswered, it is difficult to identify with the characters and some of the brief nudity doesn’t make sense. While I am not a connoisseur of Amsterdam prostitutes, I find it difficult to believe that they make multiple pointless wardrobe changes during a house call.

Winter was, however, entertaining enough for a theater newcomer. The person that just wants to support small theater will still enjoy Winter. The theater fan that enjoys solid storytelling and discussing the performance after the applause fades will love 25 Saints.

All theaters depend on ticket sales and donations to keep bringing productions to the stage. With CHL, ACT is helping productions find a space that might not have otherwise found a home. Since they are competing with larger theaters for ticket and donation dollars small productions have to bring something worthy to the stage. It is good that Rollins has risen to the challenge with 25 Saints and brought big theater acting to the small stage. This is a production that is worth supporting with patronage. See both if you can, but if you have to choose, see 25 Saints. Neither performance is kid friendly. The subject matter and intensity of 25 Saints might be too much for children and the full frontal male and female nudity and adult situations in Winter makes it not suitable for younger audiences. Red Light Winter runs through Nov 23 with 25 Saints ending Nov 24.