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The Son of Redhead
Browncoat Pub and Theatre
111 Grace Street
3/18-20 & 25-26, 8 p.m.
Tickets: $10

DYEING BEHIND A SECRET: Melissa Stanley and Amber Sheets flesh out their characters with staggering professionalism in Guerilla Theatre’s world premiere, ‘The Son of Redhead.’ Courtesy photo.

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Browncoat Pub and Theatre has been honored with the opportunity to present a world premiere of the deceased experimental playwright Leonard Melfi. “The Son of Redhead” offers a special opportunity for Wilmington’s theatrical community, mainly because it’s a rarity to produce a world premiere of a work by a deceased playwright (“Rent” being a notable exception with the extenuating circumstances of the playwright’s death the night before the show opened).  Melfi’s brother John relocated to our area; impressed by Guerilla Theatre’s work, he offered three scripts to the theatre for original production.

During his lifetime, Melfi worked closely with the La MaMa Experimental Theatre in New York, dedicated to producing original scripts. When a playwright works with a director on a premiere, there is a refining process that takes place during rehearsals. It is not unusual for entire scenes to be added or deleted, as each has opportunity to see the work take on life. For anyone familiar with Melfi’s plays (most successfully “Birdbath” and “Oh, Calcutta!”), “The Son of Redhead” is yearning for his final chisel of perfection. That is not to say it is not a good script; only a few rough edges remain.

From the moment the lights come up, a horror show of human ghouls unfold. The terrifying action takes place in a beauty parlor in the basement of the Time family home. Owned and operated by Virginia “Redhead” Time (Melissa Stanley), Redhead embarks on a very stressful, important day at the salon. She has booked a 9 a.m. appointment to dye the hair of Rose Lynch (played by Amber Sheets). The two women are both on edge: While one is headed for a train wreck, the other convinces the audience she has already been there and done that, and is still shaking from the aftershocks. Redhead’s son, Garnet (Dillon Maurer), has been out all night—likely up to something of grave importance and possible danger. In his opening monologue, he prays to “Dear God” for strength and support for him and his mother, as he sets out to accomplish a task. The audience is left to squirm while Redhead delays dyeing Rose’s hair red, leaving Rose increasingly uncomfortable with the situation. Finally, Garnet arrives, shovel in hand.

The often referenced Garnet Sr., newly deceased, is revealed to have been a grave digger. Both he and Garnet Jr. are members of the union, which is currently on strike. Garnet Jr. has just turned scab and buried his father, while being watched by fellow union member Edgar Beats (Charles Auten). The fear of Beats and reprisal by him and other union members seems overblown—until Beats exacts revenge in a long-staff fight using shovels as staves.

The cast more than meet the challenges of this script. Dillon Maurer rides waves of terror, dependence, lunacy, heroism and martyrdom, all with an ease that must be seen to be believed. This is a demanding role with multiple levels of emotional challenges and psychological twists. His embodiment of it all, especially in its perverse glory, is frightening to watch.

Melissa Stanley’s portrayal of Redhead is appalling from the moment the lights shine on her. Her makeup is extremely pale, making her already thin body and face gaunt. The light and shadow combine to sculpt her hollow and skeletal. She is on stage for the entire show, proving it a demanding role which requires her not only to feel and react, but to plot and scheme as the action around her swirls. Stanley’s well-developed craft, fine-tuned body and voice hit every note, and grip the audience in horrified fascination.

Charles Auten portrays Edgar Beats, the most straightforward character on stage: He has been wronged and is determined to exact his revenge. He is scary, committed, brash, loud and ultimately brought down by the frailest and weakest character.

Rose Lynch, the mystery woman, is truly brought to life and fleshed out by Amber Sheets in ways surprising of the script. A fairly enigmatic character—a barmaid at a night club who parties too much, drinks at 9 a.m. and is addicted to sleeping pills—she has very little dialogue to reveal her character, but Sheets has given her three-dimensional life. She is still a shallow, poorly educated tramp, but she has nuances and innuendo. In scenes with Maurer, even in her silence, her gaze and reaction speaks volumes. She’s not upstaging, she just pulses with an energy that demands attention.

Experimental theatre seeks to push the envelope of societal expectations: political, religious, moral, etc. An aura of other-worldliness seems to surround “The Son of Redhead.” That the production would inexplicably be timed with the landmark union battles we are seeing in the midwest right now could not have been planned. But the importance of unions—familial, marriage and societal—is pivotal to the script. To have such a heated discussion occurring on a larger scale is a context any experimental playwright would leap at undertaking.

The additional aspect of this script is its focus on the final repository for the body and the burial experience. Garnet moans that due to the Grave Digger’s Union strike, they were expected to leave his father’s body in the morgue for a month! In 2002 The New York Times reported that exactly had occurred to Melfi. He died at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, where he was held for a month before being buried in a mass grave pit of 150 corpses. His brother John finally succeed in getting Melfi’s body exhumed and transported to the family plot near Binghamton. Seemingly, “The Son of Redhead” is a painful and striking foreshadowing of Melfi’s family’s struggle with his own burial.

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