Dayton Theatre Guild presents ‘The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin’

By Jacqui Theobald

Photo: (l-r) Ray Geiger as Tom, Ryan Shannon as Chris, Ryan Kelly as Katie, Tim Madden as James, and Karen Righter as Karen in ‘Unavoidable Disappearance’photo: KL Storer

When Tom Durnin comes home, he supposes his family has been unchanged over the past five years. His wife and son have moved on, as we all do, with their own issues. Steven Levenson’s play, “The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin,” poses essential questions about the effects of separations, obligations, and former attitudes.

When disbarred lawyer Tom Durnin returns home from a five-year prison sentence for committing a white collar crime, he finds his family busy dealing with their own problems. Tom’s desire for a cheery reunion seems like an insensitive intrusion. His son James is lost and sad, dealing with a failed marriage, an unsatisfactory job, and a deep, long-held resentment of Tom. James does take some pity on his father, allowing the now homeless Tom to camp out in his basement. Tom doesn’t know his wife remarried while he was in prison. His daughter, unseen, won’t allow her children to see Tom, which puts her husband Chris in an awkward position, because he owes his job to Tom.

Directed by Marjorie Strader, the cast includes Ray Geiger as Tom, Karen Righter as James’ mother; Karen, Tim Madden as James, Ryan Kelly as Katie, and Ryan Shannon as Chris; Tom’s son-in-law.

As rehearsals proceeded, a couple of weeks before opening, Strader worked on individual scenes between pairs: father and son, husband and wife, son and almost-girlfriend. After each rehearsal, she and the actors discuss and experiment with their delivery or interpretation, building a tone for the overall work in small bites.

“It’s a different way of directing for us,” Righter, a Guild regular, muses after a rehearsal. Many actors are accustomed to director’s notes at the end of rehearsals.

In other rehearsal snippets, Geiger is working to depict Tom with equal parts ferocity and vulnerability, focusing on Tom’s painful relationship with his son. Half of James is still a boy, longing for his father’s approval. The other half wants acknowledgment for his strengths and accomplishments. Forgiveness and loyalty between family members has been a theme in several of the Guild’s recent efforts–they are universal matters that occur often within families.

James has been attending a community college writing class and has several conversations with a girl he’s met there, Katie. As played by Kelly, Katie provides gentle, wacky humor, and a probing curiosity about James’ life. He squirms and avoids her questions because there are parts of his life he doesn’t want to share with her. Their scenes together are very natural and charming. They listen raptly as Strader reviews a scene with them.

Director Strader is new to the Guild, but very experienced, having spent 35 years teaching theatre classes and directing some 80 to 100 shows. She retired two years ago from Northmont High School and has been in demand as a guest director around the region. She will be in Tipp City for her next directorial experience.

Strader is an expert at lighting as well, and designed the lights for the last Guild show, “The Outgoing Tide.” As she moves around the not yet completed set, listening to the actors rehearsing their lines, she seems to be mentally setting lights for each scene. Later, she will design the lighting for this show, as well.

It may have been a challenge to create the image of a nearly full size SUV sturdy enough to support two actors, but designer Bruce Brown has solved the problem: “I found an image online and added and changed various parts of it” he explains. “When it looked just right I sent it to Digital Fringe and they blew it up to full size.” Brown also added real seats and created a steering wheel. The effect is a strong and imposing red vehicle, an eye-popping creative effect.

Brown also built five different areas on a single set to meet the needs of the play, without creating the necessity to physically change or go dark between scenes. It’s always a relief when a play’s action isn’t interrupted.

K. L. Storer is assistant director, Barb Jorgensen is producer, and Melanie Brenner is stage manager. These are the jobs that are enormously important. Though they are largely unseen, if they weren’t competently done, you would you would think something was missing. When these jobs are well done, there is little to cause comment.

Just before “The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin” debuted in 2013 at the Roundabout Theater Company’s Laura Pels Theater in New York, playwright Steven Levenson had a conversation with the Education Dramaturg Ted Sod. He said, “Writing a commissioned play, as this is for the Roundabout, somehow makes me want to change from the original proposal. It seems I have to rebel.”

The Dramaturg asked Levenson about the relationship between James and Katie because they are each bruised and damaged in their own way. Levenson responded, “They are each broken in different ways and trying to put the pieces together in different ways. When I began the play, it was Tom’s story. Now it’s a shared story and Katie helped unlock that for me….Can people change? Can people heal?”

The Dayton Theatre Guild has often been complemented for choosing strong plays. This fits that brave image of this season’s theme: what lies beneath the surface.

The Dayton Theatre Guild presents “The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin,” from Nov. 18 – Dec. 4. The show is held at the Caryl D. Philips TheatreScape, 430 Wayne Ave. in downtown Dayton. Ticket prices are $20 for adults, $18 for seniors, and $13 for students. For more information, please visit

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Reach DCP theatre critic Jacqui Theobald at

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