Getting back to happy

Dayton Theatre Guild fills up for “Last Gas”

By Jacqui Theobald

“Last Gas” by John Cariani concerns a man who hopes to be happy, a teen son caught between his dad and his mom, and two women and a man who want him in both funny and serious moments. Director Debra Kent calls it “a dramedy.”

I saw a rehearsal early in the preparation. The process is fascinating and has a very different feel from a performance. An empty theatre with set building in progress has the faint smell of must and the new lumber set designer Brice Brown is using to create a typical gas station convenience store with a living space above.

“It’s the first time the Guild has ever done a true two-story set, in this space,” Kent said.

From the bare bones, it promises to be both functional and cleverly conceived to indicate the reality of cluttered shelves and all the stuff seen in a small gas station. Brown and stage manager Deirdre Root plan to stock the shelves.

At this point the theatre looks vast—high, dark perimeter walls diminishing the actors as the director shapes the characters, their movements, their motivations.

Watching the mobile face of teen Jack Lewis (the son Troy) as he responds to Kent’s suggestions is an acting lesson, as he listens to direction, and responds in character. The young actor is a junior at Stivers School for the Arts, and was recently a standout in the small but poignant role of Leather Apron in “1776” at the Dayton Playhouse.

Jared Mola plays Nat, the dad, a little naive, desperate to feel happy, unsure of why he doesn’t, unable to connect with any of the people in his life. He makes confusion subtle but apparent. The character is frozen in his indecision and his own isolation, a challenge for an actor that Mola handles well.

There is a scuffle between the father and son, and Kent wisely calls in certified fight and movement coordinator Teresa Connair to choreograph the scene, “to make sure nobody gets hurt and that it looks realistic.”

Nat’s best friend is his long-time buddy, Guy, played with salt-of-the earth simplicity by Rick Flynn. He gives Nat one of a pair of Red Sox tickets for his birthday and plans for them to drive overnight down to Boston for the game. Nat rejects the offer. Guy is used to the emotional state of his friend, saying, “We’re Red Sox people. We’re never happy.”

Conflict develops in the person of his long-ago girlfriend Lurene, returning to town for her mother’s funeral. They reconnect, even dancing a mad whirl of country swing at the community center. Kent also has a special choreographer, Stephanie Pratt, to design this. Angela Dermer brings a variety of emotions to the woman Nat didn’t follow to New York; enthusiasm turning to realization of the truth, hopefulness and then firm determination. Dermer is an experienced actor last seen in the Guild’s “Trip to Bountiful.”

There’s also Troy’s mother Cherry-Tracy, Rachel Wilson, a brisk forest ranger, controlling, especially of her son, keeping him from Nat, but hoping to recapture Nat. Some first class indignation and frustration give Wilson the opportunity for convincing anger. She’s devoted to making her ideas absolutely clear and also to protecting the local moose. This is, after all, the very edge of northern Maine, just below the Canadian border, the last place to get gas and perhaps the last gasp of failed relationships.

The cast is completed with David Williamson as Nat’s dad, Dwight. He’s a fine, lusty old codger with opinions, who is using his son to run the station and the store but gives him no respect. He does have high hopes that Nat and Lurene will reunite.

Does Nat’s happiness lie with Lurene, who he once abandoned, or Cherry-Tracy, who he never married, or his old buddy Guy? Well, old Maine wouldn’t actually talk about this, would they? The last scene says it all.

The director, cast and sound designer, K.L. Storer, sat together to note the many places that sound cues must be written in to their scripts.

“This show is very heavy on technology,” Kent said.

Storer is also producing and takes great pleasure in the challenge and constancy of the sound requirements. He’s artful in shaping specifics, and although he has an extensive sound library, he’s eager to create new ones.

In early rehearsals, the light design may be done on paper, but until tech week, it is not yet a working element of the show. Margie Strader is new to the Guild, but anticipating the challenge ahead.

This is John Cariani’s third play; each of his previous were set in Maine. His work, acknowledged for its realistic dialogue, has enjoyed widespread popularity in regional theatres. “Last Gas” premiered in 2010 in Maine. The playwright is also an actor, seen on TV as forensic expert Julian Beck in Law and Order for five years. In the 2004 Broadway revival of “Fiddler on the Roof” he played Motel the Tailor for which he won a Tony. He’s currently appearing in the prize winning musical “Something Rotten!” as Nigel Bottom.

“Last Gas” opens Friday, May 27, and runs for three weekends through June 12 at the Dayton Theatre Guild, 430 Wayne Ave. in Dayton. For tickets or more information, please call 937-278-5993 or visit
Reach DCP theatre critic Jacqui Theobald at

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Jacqui Theobald
Reach DCP theatre critic Jacqui Theobald at

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