Digging Deep into Characters

C. Michael Wright directs Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s “Slowgirl.”

Culture Club has a new format. Instead of offering short previews (The Friday Five), it will now highlight a few performances every month and talk with the artists about the ideas and process behind the performance.

The Milwaukee Chamber Theatre had been around for three decades when C. Michael Wright became its producing artistic director in 2005. But Wright’s sensibility is so perfectly suited to a “chamber” theater that it seems like the partnership goes back more than ten years.

“I love how “in-depth” you can go when you’ve got a small cast to work with,” he says. “That’s sort of my bag.”

Greg Pierce’s Slowgirl, which opens this weekend, is a case in point. Wright, who is directing the show, calls it “a real relationship piece.” There are only two characters: a American man who has lived in isolation in Costa Rica for 7 years (played by Peter Reeves), and his teenage niece (Sara Zientek), who he hasn’t seen since she was a young girl. “We find out,” as Wright puts it, “that they are both sitting on a lot of baggage.”

C. Michael Wright
C. Michael Wright

“So we have two flawed — but really identifiable — human beings coming together who really need each other. We see them slowly adjust to letting their walls down, peeling the layers away.”

For Wright, it’s Pierce’s rich and true characterizations make that journey a compelling story. “I was really moved by the piece when I first read it,” he says. “It’s really funny. The playwright really gets these two people and he gets the teenage voice.”

“She’s kind of a motor mouth — really funny, really vulgar. But also true to teenage rhythms and mindset—what they think about, what they talk about, and how they treat adults. Her uncle is a beautifully crafted character. They are two people who have a very different way of speaking and of seeing things, but are trying to get through to each other. Eventually, they find common ground.”

That idea may ring a bell for those who have followed Wright’s directing work at Chamber Theatre over the years. It’s certainly a big part of plays like Alfred Uhry’s Driving Miss Daisy (2011), about the relationship between a southern woman and her African-American chauffer; The Train Driver (2015), about two South African men on opposite sides of that country’s racial divide; The Lion in Winter (2011), about a fraught royal partnership between an English king and queen; and Collected Stories (2012), about the complicated friendship of two writers.

Peter Reeves and Sarah Zientek Photo by Paul Ruffalo
Peter Reeves and Sarah Zientek. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

“I always like to talk about it like matchmaking,” says Wright, speaking of his part at bringing a pair of interesting actors together to dig deep into character relationships and make discoveries.

“Some people enjoy the opposite,” he says, “bringing a lot of people onstage and creating a lot of interesting pictures. I just love digging. I love small cast pieces where you can find the right ensemble of people, all trusting each other and daring to go where they’ve never gone before.”

Slowgirl is now playing at the Broadway Theatre Center through March 20.

Also playing this weekend:



Paul Kosidowski is a freelance writer and critic who contributes regularly to Milwaukee Magazine, WUWM Milwaukee Public Radio and national arts magazines. He writes weekly reviews and previews for the Culture Club column. He was literary director of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater from 1999-2006. In 2007, he was a fellow with the NEA Theater and Musical Theater Criticism Institute at the University of Southern California. His writing has also appeared in American Theatre magazine, Backstage, The Boston Globe, Theatre Topics, and Isthmus (Madison, Wis.). He has taught theater history, arts criticism and magazine writing at Marquette University and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.