Brian Lee has found a place where he can be heard.
The Warren native, who now lives in Youngstown, staged his play "Family Reunion" last year with Rust Belt Theater Company, and the Youngstown theater opens Lee's "Can You Hear Me?" on Friday for a two-weekend run.
"For the longest time in the area, there was no place to do original scripts, maybe once in awhile at the Oakland," Lee said. "My friend Sam Luptak turned me onto (Rust Belt founder) Rob Joki. I did 'Family Reunion,' and it was such a big hit at the theater, Joki said, 'You have an open door. You can do anything you want here."
Special to the Tribune Chronicle
Craig and Liz Conrad play Rick and Denise, who are in adjoining prison cells in the solitary confinement unit of a prison, in Brian Lee’s “Can You Hear Me?”
Lee first staged "Can You Hear Me?" with Youngstown State University's Black Box Productions in 1995 and as a summer show at Trumbull New Theatre in Niles in 1999. He picked it as his second show at Rust Belt because he thought it fit with the tone of Joki's work.
"I like his off-the-wall humor and his subject matter," Lee said. "He's one of the very few people in the area who did stuff that was very different, and this has some really dark comedy."
The play involves a man and a woman, Rick and Denise, who are in adjoining prison cells in the solitary confinement unit of a prison. They can't see each other, but they can hear each other through the wall and strike up a relationship in spite of the barrier between them.
When You Go
WHAT: "Can You Hear Me?"
WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday, Saturday and May 16-17
WHERE: Rust Belt Theater Company, Calvin Center, 755 Mahoning Ave., Youngstown
HOW MUCH: $15 adults and $10 students and senior citizens. For reservations or more information, call 330-507-2358.
Lee said the original inspiration from the play came from the Steve McQueen film "The Great Escape." In solitary after one of his many escape attempts, McQueen's character starts communicating with a prisoner in the adjoining cell and plotting his next escape. When they finally meet face to face, McQueen tells him he thought he was taller.
"We talk to people on a daily basis; we never see them but we imagine what they're like," Lee said. "I wanted to create a situation where two people could talk to each other but they never could meet - the woman would go back to the women's (prison) population, and the man would go to the men's."
The wall between the actors is imaginary on stage - "The sightlines would have been impossible with a real wall," Lee said - and there are flashback scenes that let the audience see Denise's ex-husband or how Rick met his wife.
"It's not just two people on two sides of a wall," Lee said. "Some of those scenes are very funny and sweet."
Lee was asked to tone down the adult language when he staged it at TNT. The Rust Belt production will restore that language (the production is not recommended for younger audiences). But except for some minor tweaking - Rick is now an Afghanistan war veteran instead of a Vietnam War veteran, the addition of some more contemporary impressions to the voices Rick constantly does - Lee made few changes to the play for the new production.
The cast features the husband-and-wife duo of Craig and Liz Conrad. Lee gave Liz Conrad a copy of the script when they were doing a show together at TNT in 2010.
"It never occurred to me until later that she would be perfect for the part," Lee said. "I precast her."
Craig came in for the auditions for Rick and impressed the writer-director. And the added benefit of casting the couple is that they've been running lines at home and bringing ideas to Lee about how to do certain scenes that he hadn't considered before.
Both "Family Reunion" and "Can You Hear Me?" were written about 20 years ago. Lee said he went through a writing drought for several years, but his interest has been rekindled and he is working on a couple of different ideas, including a sequel to "Family Reunion" set during Christmas and a three-character drama that would be set in an interrogation room that has the working title "Third Degree."