Local theater in Jacksonville gets a bad rep, when it’s paid attention to at all. Those outside of the theater community think that all this town has to offer is rotating performances of My Fair Lady or Little Orphan Annie at the Alhambra. But there are local artists and producers that are taking chances, and doing theater that is thought-provoking, unconventional and daring, at least by Jacksonville standards.
33 Variations, produced by The 5 & Dime, a small Jacksonville-based theater company, is one of the best productions I've seen in town. Drawing from a fantastic script by Moises Kaufman, author of The Laramie Project, the play tells the story of Beethoven's obsession with a seemingly pedestrian waltz, a dying woman's journey to understand that obsession, and her daughter's attempts to be close to her mother despite their distance. In lesser hands, it might have come off as prosaic or overly sentimental, but here it's played gently and honestly. It's touching, funny and beautifully acted, with a minimal set and lighting design that somehow manages to weave three stories from two time periods into one cohesive narrative.
“[The set] is very minimal and almost jarring at first glance,” says Joshua Taylor, a founding member of The 5 & Dime who plays Beethoven's biographer and friend. “But it has been my experience that more minimal sets tend to pull less focus from the audience during the show and really serve to allow the work on stage to shine through.”
With only a backdrop of music sheets and a few tables and chairs, the play goes back and forth between Beethoven's time and the present day. The main character, a musicologist too preoccupied with discerning Beethoven's motivations to spend time with her daughter, is played deftly by actress and former public radio host Sinda Nichols. Her performance is captivating without being over the top. I don't know if it was the pre-show wine, but at one point I noted, “I'm in love with Sinda Nichols.” She has a way of pulling the audience in just with her eyes, and you feel close to her despite her seemingly selfish motivations.
Solid performances are also given by Jeffrey Wells as Diabelli, creator of the mundane waltz, and Jason Woods, who plays the maestro himself in a somewhat distracting large gray wig.
Although a smaller narrative, the relationship between the daughter and her boyfriend, superbly acted by Kristen Walsh and Franklin Ritch, serve to ground the play, and the awkwardness of young love offers the audience comic relief in a story centered on death.
Despite knowing how good 5 & Dime productions are, I expected a play based on Beethoven's life and work to be pretentious and bogged down in boring music theory. Luckily I was wrong, and it was anything but. I found myself able to relate to the characters and the themes, even tearing up a little in the end (again, maybe the wine). Even the little bit of music theory that was included turned out to be fascinating, and I left wanting to learn more about the mysterious variations, and the biographer who accounted Beethoven's life during his writing of them.
And of course I shouldn't have been surprised. The 5 & Dime has done consistent, amazing work in the local theater scene. With just a small team of dedicated members, the company has managed to put out some of the most interesting and boundary-pushing theater in Jacksonville, with a cohesive vision for the projects they take on.
“The stories we choose have to be strong, whether comedy or drama,” says Lee Hamby, 5 & Dime co-founder and vice president. “And this one is extremely strong as you saw.”