It’s not easy starting a theater company, but two seasons in, actor-director-playwright John Morogiello is feeling confident about Best Medicine Rep, the 501c3, nonprofit professional theater company he started to bring comedy to the people using a stage-in-a-storefront in Gaithersburg’s Lakeforest Mall.
“I feel like things have hit a really good stride,” said Morogiello, a playwright in residence at the Maryland State Arts Council whose works have been produced Off Broadway, in Los Angeles and Europe, and across the country, although they are particularly well-known to theatergoers in Montgomery County and the D.C. area. “The response to the first three plays has been really, really good critically, and audiences have enjoyed them. And we’re in the black!”
Which is a great way to wrap up, especially when “Play Date” — Best Medicine’s last show of the season — promises fun and farce as it explores the dynamics of a group of stay-at-home moms and dads.
Inspired by his own stay-at-home-parent days (and those of his friend and colleague, actress Lori Boyd), “Play Date” grew from an idea discussed in a Montgomery Village park to an actual comedy featuring farce, fighting, infidelity and two actors juggling six characters.
“Years later, I found the idea yellowing in my closet,” the playwright laughed. “I said, ‘Lori, do you mind if I write this?’ and she said, ‘Sure.’”
In “Play Date,” the children are never seen. Instead, the action focuses on the parents, their happiness (or lack thereof) and the relationships they form with each other. “One of the first things we say in the play is, ‘Having a child changes everything,’” said Morogiello, whose two sons are now grown. “How do you deal with that change?”
Kira Burri doesn’t know. The 24-year-old plays “Play Date’s” female characters, but in real life has yet to experience being a mom. “But the play itself, I just love it,” she said. “I laugh out loud the entire time, it is so funny, very witty, and it’s really a favorite of mine.”
It is challenging, though. To play Missy, Carol and Deb — stay-at-home-moms with various levels of confidence, expertise and integrity — the Los Angeles native (who stayed in the D.C. area after earning a bachelor of arts degree in theater from the Catholic University of America) treated Morogiello’s script like a puzzle to be solved.
“You’re seeing them just trying to be a human, trying to be normal, while also carrying around the duty of trying to be a parent,” she said. “They’re taking the ‘parent mask’ off, if you will, and struggling to remain themselves.”
On one level, there’s physical comedy and mistaken identity and unexpected people behind doors, as it should be in a farce. But Burri sees “Play Date” as a journey of self-discovery for its characters, too. “It’s about trying to stay true to yourself, and not lose your uniqueness.”
Something “Play Date” Director Melissa B. Robinson knows a bit about. The Silver Spring resident, an editor at Bloomberg Law, said that working with Best Medicine is part of a lifelong avocation. “I always had an affinity for literature and a knack for writing,” said Robinson. “Theater was always a huge love of mine, but it never occurred to me to make a career out of it.”
Instead, the Upstate New York native used her degrees — bachelor’s degrees in biology and English from Boston College and a master’s in journalism from Columbia University — to forge a career as a journalist and nonfiction book author. Robinson got back into theater and had an epiphany: “I realized, and a light bulb went off, that I forgot what a big part of myself this is!”
So, she got back on board and started directing “little by little. “With Best Medicine, I’ve known Artistic Director John Morogiello and his wife, Betsy, for many, many years,” Robinson said. She met Morogiello through colleagues at a reading of one of his plays; when he started Best Medicine, he asked her “to direct a few things, which I did. Then I acted in ‘Engaging Shaw’ in the fall. It’s been kind of a gradual migration into directing, but I haven’t left acting behind.”
Acting is her first love, she admitted. “There’s sort of an X-factor, a magic that happens. Just being onstage is so gratifying and exhilarating.” While she was unsure, at first, about directing, Robinson soon realized that “I really had a good knack for looking at the stage and seeing how a scene should go. There’s something very fun about looking at the whole thing and knowing what to change or put in place so that the scene works.”
Fun for her as director, and very funny for the audience: like every Best Medicine show, “Play Date” is designed to make ’em laugh. “It’s been a while since I did a really fun, wild comedy,” said Evan Crump, 38, the actor who compares his portrayal of Blaine, Trent and Rowan in “Play Date” to his madcap turn as Clown 2 in the Next Stop Theatre Company’s production of “The 39 Steps” back in 2013. “I probably played 15 or 20 characters over the course of the two hours, constantly running around and changing,” he recalled. “In some ways, it’s pretty similar to this play.”
Quick changes, character switches, different accents: “I really enjoy that stuff a lot,” Crump said. But while he relishes acting in Best Medicine’s two-hander, performing is just part of what he does. “I came to it a little bit late in life, actually,” he said. “I thought I was going to be a poet.”
Crump, a Montgomery Blair High School alumnus, earned a bachelor’s degree in English at the University of Maryland College Park and a master of fine arts in Shakespeare and Renaissance Literature in Performance (Acting Emphasis) at Mary Baldwin University. Now he is pursuing a doctorate in education at George Washington University.
A professor in Montgomery College’s English and Theatre departments, Crump expressed admiration for the playwright behind “Play Date.” Morogiello, he said, “is just a really gifted playwright. He manages to make the play funny and zany and sort of Noel Coward-esque, while also being full of three-dimensional characters, some of whom you come to care about over the course of an hour and 15 minutes. I was really impressed by that.”
“Play Date” runs from April 4 through May 5 at Best Medicine Rep Theater in Lakeforest Mall, 701 Russell Ave., Suite H205, Gaithersburg. Performances start at 7 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. There will be no performances April 18-21. Tickets are $25, $23 for seniors. Visit http://bestmedicinerep.org.