I’ll let you in on a little trade secret. My first step, when writing about pretty much anything, is a Google search. I like to see what others have already written — specifically so I can disagree. This invariably provides an effective starting point.
Here, the latest offering of Perseverance Theatre’s 2017-18 season, “William, Inc.” presents a quandary. It’s a world premiere. As a reviewer, mine will be the first ink spilled on the subject. Talk about pressure.
These days you don’t often get to experience anything for the first time, let alone the debut professional production of a rising star from the Alaska Native Playwright Project, Lucas Rowley. What’s more, the play marks Perseverance Theatre’s third consecutive season to include a play written by a Native playwright (Rowley is of Inupiaq, Scottish and Italian descent), led by a Native director and featuring an almost entirely Native cast and creative team.
First and foremost, “William, Inc.” paints a well-observed portrait of Alaska Natives coping with the difficulties of life in the present-day Great Land. Through Rowley’s inventive, often bitingly funny but generally heartfelt externalization of the title character’s internal struggles, “William, Inc.” contains a powerful message for all modern tribal communities.
The play revolves around William, a young, married Dena’ina Athabascan working as a substance abuse counselor in small-town Alaska. To deal with the demands of his career, his family and his own tenuous sobriety — not to mention the mounting tension he feels between traditional Native culture and the contemporary world around him — William adopts an unconventional strategy: he incorporates himself as an ASNCA Native corporation, William, Inc. and begins convening meetings inside his own head.
With William acting as president and CEO (at least at the outset), the remaining board of directors consists of three archetypes, each representing a different part of William’s consciousness: the Shadow, the Joker and Traditional Woman, each with a different approach to keeping William, Inc. in the black, so to speak. This strategy backfires, however, as the archetypes jockey for influence, forge alliances and attempt a hostile takeover.
And so “William, Inc.” splits its time between the “boardroom” and William’s real life as a well-intentioned, although largely absent, husband and father with a stressful job and a loving, although exhausted, wife.
The strength of “William, Inc.” lies in the “gestalt” of its production — in other words, the total effect of the whole creative team.
William’s internal and external storylines unfold on the same set, courtesy of scenic designer Akiko Nishijima Rotch, meant to resemble a massive therapeutic sandbox similar to the one William uses with his patients. Combined with powerful visual effects by lighting and projection designer Tom Ontiveros, the stage, itself, deserves its own mention. So, too, do the play’s score and soundscape by Ed Littlefield (Tlingit), a composer and percussionist with the Native Jazz Quartet, as well as the costumes by E.B. Brooks. I’d also be remiss not to acknowledge stage manager Marland C. Thorp, whose behind-the-scenes work enables the many fluid transitions of the playing space from William’s mind, to William’s job, to William’s house to what I can best describe as William’s “spiritual journey.” That level of effortlessness can only be achieved with a ton of hard work.
Of course, the cast also sparkles, under the crisp direction of Randy Reinholz (Choctaw), an accomplished producer, director, playwright and actor, as well as the co-founder of Native Voices at the Autry, a resident theatre company at the celebrated La Jolla Playhouse in California.
Frank Henry Katasse (Tlingit) returns to the Perseverance stage as the eponymous William (as a playwright, Katasse’s play “They Don’t Talk Back,” debuted last year at Perseverance and Native Voices at the Autry; Reinholz directed). Opposite Katasse, Erika Stone (Iroquois) holds her own as William’s wife, Cindy, who struggles with her own issues of cultural disconnect. Brian Wescott (Athabascan/Yupik) plays both Walter, William’s patient, and Gary, William’s therapist… and formerly estranged uncle. (“It’s small-town Alaska,” Gary tells him at their first session. “You can toss all that confidentiality crap out the window.”).
Personifying William’s psychological make-up: Erin Tripp (Tlingit) as Traditional Woman, or the voice of reason; Alec Shamas (Chickasaw) as the Joker, or William’s fun side; and James Sullivan as Shadow, the most demonic of his inner demons, simultaneously destructive and alluring. For me, the interplay between these archetypes stands out as the script’s most compelling aspect.
That’s not to call “William, Inc.” a perfect play. Emotionally speaking, I found the two acts a bit uneven, and for a dramatic comedy — or is it a comedic drama — the jokes sort of petered out during the resolution. But wrapping things up can be tricky even for a seasoned writer, let alone a debutant. I, for one, am willing to cut Lucas Rowley some slack.
I only hope someone’s willing to do the same for me.
• Geoff Kirsch is a freelance writer living in Juneau.