The Infinite Black Suitcase by Friends’ Central School in Wynnewood, PA
November 2, 2016
Review submitted by Trinity Pike of Upper Merion Area High School
While grief possesses an overwhelming weight, it must be carried through life. Friends’ Central School took their suitcases with both sensitivity and sophistication. The cast and crew of Infinite Black Suitcase portrayed human resilience with insightful artistry in their Saturday performance.
Critically-acclaimed playwright E. M. Lewis sought a spectrum of emotion from the ensemble. Nuanced vignettes revealed a diverse cast, yet the characters shared a recognizable humanity as they grappled with trauma. A family suicide haunted the Kalinskis, while gay couple Dan (Evan Paszamant) and Stephen (Julian Shapiro-Barnum) faced the impending separation of the former’s death. Terminally ill Katie (McKenna Blinman) struggled to continue being the voice of reason for ex-husband Joe (Joe Schoepp) and current spouse Tony (Zoe Walker) as they wrestled with the knowledge of her death. These developments were balanced with humorous relief delivered by cheerful funeral director April (Alexandra Fiorentino-Swinton), sarcastic priest Father Sebastian (Jack Correll), and exasperated non-Catholic Frank (Ezra Kruger).
Each character developed complexity despite the brevity of their individual appearances. Stephen and Dan fostered a versatile dynamic, beginning with playful kisses and cheeky flower delivery, then slipping into the painful silence of holding each other as they awaited the inevitable. Janie Kalinski (Ciara Hervas) also expressed volumes of meaning without speaking, so shocked by the suicide that each movement trembled and each expression was marked with dolor. Stan Kalinski’s (Alex Bessen) frantic efforts to maintain the semblance of normality were laced with the same misery, but characterized with detail by the actor. His brother, Kal (Charlie Blumberg), was an especially important vehicle in revealing these hidden troubles with fiery arguments fueled by the confusion of loss.
Siblings Stephen and Liz (Noelle Mercer) also handled conflict skillfully. Liz was especially natural as she shifted between reasoning with her brother and displaying her own vulnerability. Friction between Tony and Joe was made tense with body language, but facial expressions revealed the sympathy they had for one another. Jake Harrison (Jacob Lynn-Palevsky) and his second wife, Anne (Karishma Singh), were another duo who vividly expressed both genuine love and frustrated distrust as they discussed Jake’s late first wife. These organic interactions and intricate portrayals emotionally connected the audience to the stage, tastefully framed by creative technical choices.
While technical aspects were not especially demanding, decisions made by the crew showcased the capability of the students as artists. The aesthetic drew effectiveness from simplicity, featuring a rustic set and everyday props. Transitions of nostalgic music, tree shadows swaying on the soft colors of backlights, and the silhouettes of characters exiting the stage remained impactful as they repeated throughout the show. Other additions were momentary, but equally powerful, such as the cast’s performance of Cat Stevens’s song “Moonshadow.”
Overall, the excellence of Friends’ Central School’s Infinite Black Suitcase was rooted in the artistic vision of its cast and crew. Skillful characterization and unique staging allowed Friends’ Central to gift audiences with a beautifully intricate memento mori.
Review submitted by Jane Mentzinger of Westtown School
Friends’ Central doesn’t shy away from challenging material. In 2014 they performed Angels in America, and this year they offered Infinite Black Suitcase. In both productions, the school explored issues of mortality, grief, and acceptance with sensitivity, insight, and even a bit of humor.
Infinite Black Suitcase, by E.M. Lewis, takes us to a small Oregon town where we spend one day with three interconnected families. Each family is struggling with the impending death of a loved one, and through their stories, we gather strength and develop compassion and empathy.
Friends’ Central’s production marked the show’s East Coast premiere, and the freshness of the material heightened the show’s impact. The cast fully embraced the toughest moments, not pulling any punches but instead welcoming our discomfort. The show never felt rushed. The actors gave time for their words to sink in and for the audience to process the emotions onstage. The silences in the show were just as powerful as the dialogue.
Julian Shapiro-Barnum gave a standout performance as Stephen Miller, a man who is torn apart watching his life partner lose his battle with a debilitating illness. Shapiro-Barnum never wasted a line, filling every phrase with emotion and pain. Evan Paszamant, who played his partner, never gave us a respite from physical pain; even as he walked offstage, we winced. The actors had touching chemistry, conveying strong affection and connection. Even their everyday, familiar conversation carried the weight of their joint burden.
Joe Schoepp, as Joe Stricklin, gave a nuanced performance, showing both understandable anger and unexpected depth when arguing with his ex-wife’s new wife, Tony Liu. Zoe Walker, as Liu, matched Schoepp’s skill, showing her character’s strength. Later, as Schoepp and Walker sat together in a bar, they came to an understanding driven by their mutual pain and love for their dying partner.
The lighting design, by Hannah Benjet, beautifully enhanced the production. The background was filled with colored lights that changed with the mood of the scene. Projections of clouds added to the small town setting. The stage never went fully black even between scenes, signaling the audience that the stories were connected rather than discrete.
At the very beginning of the show, the actors lifted up suitcases and let them fly out, showing them giving up their journey and their lives. At the end of the show, flowers sprouted everywhere, and we were filled with our own individual dreams for some form of afterlife and with the reality that life must go on for those left behind. Friends’ Central faced the brutality of death head-on, but left us rejoicing in the common bond created by our joint mortality and in the comforting power of love.