“The Thanksgiving Play,” written by Larissa FastHorse and directed by Raymond O. Caldwell, opens the 2021-22 season at the Olney Theatre Center in the newly-renovated Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab. The front of the building has been modernized, as well as the enlarged lobby. More comfortable seating has been installed and can still be reconfigured for the different needs of various productions. For this show, there is a small stage in one corner and the audience sits in a quarter-round on its two sides. In an announcement before the show and in the program, the point is made that this complex is built on grounds once inhabited by the Piscataway Tribe.
“The Thanksgiving Play” is a fabulous feast stuffed with comedy and seasoned with social and political insights.
The story is a comedy that focuses on how the non-indigenous people in this country portray Native Americans, especially during Thanksgiving. Logan (Megan Graves) is an elementary school drama teacher who, along with her significant other, Jaxton (Parker Drown), a jobless actor and yoga follower, are in the process of creating a Thanksgiving play for the students at the request of the School Board. Logan is a would-be actress/director (who had a stint in LA) trying to keep her job which hinges on the success of the play. Both she and Jaxton are proponents of cooperative playwriting where all members of the cast and crew participate. The grant they received requires that they hire a Native American actor. They find Alicia (Dani Stoller), a very sexy, dark-haired woman whose deceptive appearance mimics more Kim Kardashian than Maria Tallchief. Alicia became an actress not because she was driven, but because she finds it easy—think more a Disney performer rather than a fine stage actor. This cast for their production also includes Logan, Jaxton, and a school history teacher, Caden (David Schlumpf).
The play pokes fun at a great deal of societal flaws. Jaxton and Logan are always trying too hard to be politically correct or “woke.” They are also into other semi-mystical behaviors. For instance, they go through a physical ritual to disconnect their personal relationship from their theatrical one. It also has a laugh at the reverence some people in theatre have for actors who perform in Los Angeles. There are some jabs at history teachers and those who are wanna-be playwrights.
The main theme of this play is how we deal and have dealt with Native Americans. It is obvious that despite their efforts to be realistic about the natives’ participation in the first Thanksgiving, the foursome fails miserably. This is underscored by some searing films shown on a small screen at the start and end of the play and in-between scenes. Those clips present some hard truths about the plight and history of Native Americans. Caden’s first draft which is much too graphic for a children’s play also has some chilling insights.
Graves has a tremendous amount of energy on stage as the overwrought Logan. She conveys the worries Logan has about her job which is in conflict with her ideals. She calls Thanksgiving the “holiday of death.” The actor also conveys a woman in conflict about whether it is more important to have a job or go after your dreams.
Drown also hits the mark as her boyfriend Jaxton. Although slightly less worried about being politically offensive, he has little insight into how little he really understands about what it means to be a minority in this country.
Schlumpf as Caden creates a totally believable character as the history teacher smitten with Alicia. Caden is a bit of a nerd and often gets too excited about the play they are creating. He does not have a really strong personality and often gives into Logan’s demands. Schlumpf keeps him likeable but never someone we respect.
Probably the strongest character in the play is Alicia, and Stoller plays her sexy and “simplistic.” Alicia is the only one of the characters who understands who she is and is also very funny in the role. Her comedic ability, especially in the scene about turkey bowling, often keeps the pace moving quickly and humorously.
Director Caldwell keeps the fast action and sometimes phrenetic movement contained well on the small stage. He utilizes painted crates in creating the scenes. Despite the limited size of the performance area, the actors are always visible and create memorable moments. Scenic designer Milagros Ponce de Leon was even able to create a small hallway behind the classroom.
Jeannette Christensen’s costumes capture the characters well. Alberto Segarra’s lighting design and Tosin Olufolabi’s sound design complement the set and staging nicely. The interesting film projections are provided by the talents of Kelly Colburn and Dylan Uremovich.
“The Thanksgiving Play” is a fabulous feast stuffed with comedy and seasoned with social and political insights. It a marvelous reopening for this autumn and the new 2021-2022 Season.
Running Time: One hour and 40 minutes with no Intermission.
Advisory: Not recommended for young children due to language and some graphic violence.
“The Thanksgiving Play” runs through October 31, 2021 at Olney Theatre Center’s Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab, 2001 Olney Sandy Spring Road, Olney, MD. On October 9, 2021 from 4:30-6:00 pm, there will be an extra event “Appreciating the Indigenous History of Maryland” and “Afterwords” discussions will be held October 9, 16 and 23. For tickets, call the box office at (301) 924-3400 or go to this link.
Note: At this time Olney Theatre Center is requiring Covid-19 vaccination proof and masks are required for the audience once inside the theatre. For specifics on their policy, go to this link.