“Shepherd’s Bush,” a captivating, humorous, romantic, and heartbreaking look at the relationship between celebrated, closeted British novelist E.M. Forster and policeman Bob Buckingham in 1930s England, received top honors Sunday, July 24 at the 26th annual Dayton Playhouse FutureFest of new, unproduced plays.
Elegantly written with cinematic tendencies by Scott C. Sickles of Forest Hills, New York, “Shepherd’s Bush” daringly explored the love between two men at a time when homosexuality was illegal in Great Britain. As Forster and Bob’s fascinating relationship progressed, Bob grew fearful and married May, a young nurse. Still, even as the Buckinghams started their life together in the titular West London neighborhood, Forster and Bob’s bond remained strong for decades in spite of secrets and lies which brought Forster and May great heartache.
The production’s excellent staged reading, fluidly directed by Michael Boyd and stage managed by Logan Dabney, featured terrifically cohesive portrayals by David Shough as Forster, Scott Knisely as Bob, Ella Wylie as May, Playhouse board president Brian Sharp as Forster’s close friend J.R. Ackerley, and Bonnie Froelich as Forster’s mother Lily. As this promising play develops, Sickles should specifically consider delving deeper into Bob’s quandary of identity, sexuality and torment, but at the same rate, he has absolutely established an engaging, Oscar Wilde-esque foundation, particularly within his witty characterizations of Forster, Ackerley and Lily. In fact, the deliciously persnickety Lily recalls the domineering Lady Bracknell of Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest.”
“Sometime in the mid-‘90s, in a Barnes and Noble in downtown Pittsburgh, I happened upon a book called ‘The Gay Fireside Companion,’” recalled Sickles, a Pittsburgh native and the recipient of two Writers Guild of America Awards as part of the writing team of the daytime drama “General Hospital” as well as multiple Emmy and WGA Award nominations for “General Hospital” and “One Life to Live.” “It was an alphabetical listing of people, places and events in gay history. I came across the entry ‘Buckingham, Bob,’ thought it was an interesting name and began to read. I discovered that Bob was Forster’s much younger paramour and a policeman to boot, that he married a woman (whose name is not including in the listing) and that Forster eventually died in the Buckingham home holding the wife’s hand. My actual thought at the time was, ‘That’s how I’m going to die; holding the hand of the wife of the man I love.’ The rest is history.”
“Shepherd’s Bush” scored highest among six works presented July 22-24 based on judging criteria including dramatic concept, character/language, plot, page to stage, and the next stage. Forty percent of the vote was based on the judges’ initial reading of the script. The remaining 60 percent derived from the judges’ revised ranking at the festival. This year’s professional, New York-based adjudicators were journalist Peter Filichia, 1995 FutureFest-winning playwright Craig Pospisil (“Somewhere in Between”), actress/director/producer Jana Robbins, director/producer/writer Ashley Rodbro, and director/producer/writer Helen Sneed.
“‘Shepherd’s Bush’ is a very valuable play about the games people play and still have to play,” Filichia noted. “This is a play that needs to be seen.”
“There is phenomenal writing in this play,” exclaimed Sneed. “It’s fabulous and contains well-written symbolism.”
“I absolutely loved this play,” Robbins echoed. “I was deeply moved by it. It captures love that is a marriage of both the heart and the mind. This play has fully-fleshed characters and lovely dialogue. I see it as a film.”
“First of all, I am beyond honored,” reflected Sickles who received the top prize of $1,000. “It’s very exciting to receive recognition for a play I originally started writing in 1995. In the late ‘90s, we did a lot of readings of it, both for development and in hopes of getting it produced. While audiences responded well, producers and theaters were just not interested. I kept it on ice until two years ago when I submitted it to the Gulfshore Playhouse New Works Festival. Being selected for FutureFest gave me the opportunity to hear the new draft. The adjudicators gave me great feedback, so now I’m ready to make some adjustments and send it out into the world again. It’s my hope that having the Dayton Playhouse FutureFest win attached to it will encourage more theaters to read the play and consider it for their seasons. Bottom line, though, FutureFest confirms for me that after being dormant so many years ‘Shepherd’s Bush’ still has a life! That makes me so happy.”
Additionally, “Memories of the Game,” an emotionally gripping account of Alzheimer’s disease, euthanasia and addiction rattling an African-American family by Kristy Sharron Thomas of North Hollywood, California, was named Audience Favorite. The outstanding, fully staged presentation, directed by Robb Willoughby and accented with haunting transition music, featured knockout performances by Franklin Johnson as Kenneth McIntosh (an electrifying portrayal that will be talked about for years to come), Marva M.B. Williams as Karen McIntosh, Nabachwa Ssensalo as Sharon Evans, and Andre Reece Tomlinson as Michael McIntosh.
The remaining finalists chosen from across the country in a festival that notably embraced works about historical figures were: “N,” a study of race and theatrical history concerning Eugene O’Neill’s groundbreaking 1921 drama “The Emperor Jones” by 2002 FutureFest finalist Adrienne Earle Pender of Willow Spring, North Carolina and directed by Cara Hinh; “[Miss],” the story of Dr. Frances Kelsey’s struggle with the William S. Merrell Company over the introduction of thalidomide into the United States by W.L. Newkirk of Celebration, Florida and briskly directed by Cynthia Karns; “The Violin Maker,” a story of family and tradition by Christopher G. Smith of Rochester, Minnesota and co-directed by Saul Caplan and Debra Strauss; and “The Griots,” a story of race and legacy by Gwendolyn Rice of Middleton, Wisconsin and directed by longtime FutureFest planning committee member Fran Pesch. Each finalist was awarded $100. Also, this year marked the first time there were three female playwrights in contention.
The remaining casts comprised a refreshing, diverse blend of FutureFest returnees and newcomers. “N” featured Shaun Diggs as Charles Gilpin, Shyra Thomas as Florence Gilpin and Sean Gunther as Eugene O’Neill. “[Miss]” featured Jennifer Lockwood as Dr. Frances Oldham Kelsey, Ted Eltzroth as Dr. Raymond Stehle/Dr. Joseph Murray, Jon Edward Cox as John, Anna Masla as Betty, a scene-stealing Charles Larkowski as repugnant Dr. Raymond Pogge, Renee Franck-Reed as Gertrude, Jennie Hawley as Mary, and Mark Anderson as Dr. Eugene Geiling/Dr. Ray Nulsen. “The Violin Maker” featured an earthy Dave Nickel as Wilhelm Mosel, Jess MaGill as Karl Mosel and Bryana Bentley as Angela Brunelle. “The Griots,” authentically designed by Chris “Red” Newman and attractively costumed by Carol Finley and Sandy Lemming, featured David E. Brandt as John Holt, Judi Earley as Ada Coalson and a vibrant Annie Pesch as Lizzie Dupree.
“I was mighty impressed with the other plays and playwrights,” Sickles added. “There was a great eclecticism in the playwrights’ voices, subjects and styles. Best of all, we all got along and, despite it being a competition, were very supportive of each other.”
Most importantly, the Playhouse’s reputation for providing an extremely hospitable experience for the finalists hasn’t waned. Sickles says the dedication and commitment of festival volunteers left an indelible impression.
“I have friends who are past FutureFest finalists,” he explained. “They told me it would be a great experience and that the theater would ‘treat you like royalty.’ They undersold it! From my perspective, the whole festival ran like a well-oiled machine from the time I got picked up at the airport all the way through the post-fest shindig. They kept us incredibly well hydrated, well fed and well caffeinated. Royalty isn’t treated this well!”
Mark your calendars: The 27th annual FutureFest is slated for July 21-23, 2017. Anyone interested in submitting a play must do so before Oct. 31. For more information, visit www.daytonplayhouse.com.
My FutureFest Rankings:
1. “Shepherd’s Bush”
2. “Memories of the Game”
4. “The Griots”
5. “The Violin Maker”