You gotta ‘Hear’ this


Tribune Chronicle

YOUNGSTOWN – Everyone wants to be heard. No one has complete control over who comes into – or leaves – their lives.

Those are some of the realities Rick and Denise feel in “Can You Hear Me?,” a drama written and directed by Warren native Brian Lee that is getting its first local staging in nearly 20 years by the Rust Belt Theater Company.

The play is set in a federal asylum for the criminally insane. The solitary confinement area is where the men’s wing and the women’s wing connect, and the wall separating the men’s and women’s cells is unusually thin. These two lonely, damaged people realize they can hear the other one with little effort (whether they want to or not, initially) and they soon forge a bond, knowing they’ll never be able to see each other face to face.

Mixed with the scenes set in the present are flashbacks that show Rick’s and Denise’s lives before their crimes – Rick with his wife, Denise with her ex.

It’s a dark play, but Lee injects the work with plenty of humor and music (Rick has a classic rock soundtrack blasting in his head at all times and Lee put the audience inside his head with Jimi Hendrix, Warren Zevon, The Romantics and others).

Mainly what Lee has done here is create two tour-de-force acting roles that real-life husband and wife Craig Conrad and Liz Conrad fill spectacularly.

Craig makes Rick a manic ball of energy, playing air guitar along with the Hendrix in his head or reenacting “The Wizard of Oz.” He gives the show its rhythm and drives the story, pushing Denise to join him in his fantasies / delusions.

Liz’s Denise is apprehensive initially but falls hard for the promise Rick offers once she succumbs. She never tells Rick what she did to return to solitary with him (her stint in the “cooler” was 30 days; his was 60), but the audience can see her heavily bandaged wrists. Her Denise is raw and tender, like an open wound.

“Hear” is staged with minimal sets/props rectangular boxes that serve as cell beds, a couple chairs, trays. The rest is for the actors and the audience to imagine.

That leads to some sloppy blocking. In one flashback, Denise’s ex drags in a massive Christmas tree and then for the rest of the scene the actors walk back and forth through the space where the tree is.

And while it would have been limiting for the actors, it would have been more accurate to have confined Rick and Denise (and the Conrads) to the tiny stage in the small room at the Calvin Center for the prison scenes and used the space in front of the stage only for the flashbacks. The way the space is used now, this federal pen for the criminally insane has solitary cells bigger than some New York apartments.

But those are minor quibbles for a show that deserves to be seen, certainly by more people than were there for opening night.

“Can You Hear Me?” will be staged at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday at the Rust Belt Theater Company, Calvin Center, 755 Mahoning Ave., Youngstown. Tickets are $15 for adults and $10 for students and senior citizens and can be reserved by calling 330-507-2358.