Review: Claire Donaldson New Play Festival

The creativity of the Augustana Theatre Department was put on display last weekend as they hosted the semi-annual Claire Donaldson New Play Festival. Each night featured a different performance to provide a weekend of lively entertainment that could be had with a single ticket free to all those with an Augustana ID. Friday night opened the festival with a pair of dramatic readings. True to the festival’s name, all the featured plays were first-time performances. According to assistant professor and director of the festival, Jayna Gearhart Fitzsimmons, actors received revisions from the playwrights up until an hour before the performance began. 

The night began with a reading of “Silences” written by Richard Swanson, a religion professor at Augustana. 

The play starts with a brief dialogue about the importance and impact of silences. The word “silence” is frequently iterated by different combinations of the actors and came to define the play. 

The story begins from the point of view of a woman named Vee (Tilly Jagelski ‘22) and the start of her relationship with Heimer (Thomas Thvedt ‘23). Much of the dialogue focuses on Heimer’s experiences as a paratrooper in World War II.  

The second half of the play shifts to the perspective of Richard (Kale Hellman ‘21), whose story mainly revolves around his decision to be a conscientious objector of the Vietnam Conflict. Richard’s relationship with his father, Heimer, is deeply impacted by his resistance to the draft. It becomes clear at this point that the play is about Swanson’s own life and family. 

The reading of the play was just that, a reading. There were no fanciful costumes—all the actors wore plain, black clothing—and there was very little movement as the actors read their lines from scripts propped up on music stands. Each character was illuminated by a single spotlight, and there were no props to be seen. It is not meant to be a finished production. The dialogue, though delivered with passion and personality by the actors, is long and drawn out. At times, the audience feels as if they are intruding on a private family matter as the actors switch between addressing the audience to addressing each other directly. The silences, intended to be felt deeper by having several of the actors say the word, feel rushed as the next line of dialogue is delivered so quickly that the audience does not get enough time to really grapple with the silence. 

Despite a few issues in performance—which are to be expected with a first reading—the message of the piece is clear. There is never a time in the play where the audience questions the validity of the character’s statements. Each character’s experience, despite how different they may be from the viewer’s , is felt and understood. 

The evening continued with a reading of an original work by 2014 Augustana University graduate Katelynn Kenney called “Hollowman.” The cast introduced themselves, explaining  their role in the play and, of course, each character’s Hogwarts house. The cast also explained that there would be minimal props, leaving some actions to the imagination and stage directions would be read by Elizabeth Schumacher ‘20. 

“Hollowman” tells the story of Man (Dan Workman), a screenwriter and director whose career has plummeted since his semi-successful horror film by the same name. Man is haunted by Hallow, the villain of his movie, and the actor who played it, Kris (Kjersti Olson ‘21). Man’s troubles start affecting those around him, as his relationships with his son Jaime (Elizabeth Dobbe ‘22), his ex-wife Mel (Gearhart Fitzsimmons) and the child-actor that starred in his movie, Jordan (Ella Olsen ‘23) begin to crumble. 

The play is both engaging and uncomfortable. The Something Else (Ashlyn Himley ‘22) that haunts the stage is subtly terrifying as it refuses to let Man sleep. Himley works the stage beautifully and maintains a cool conviction about her role in Man’s agony. The Something Else says no more than 12 words in the first three scenes, yet its power is immediately felt. 

Workman augments Himley’s performance through his own frantic portrayal of Man. Workman is almost constantly moving or fidgeting, pulling at his hair and waving his fingers  above his laptop as he struggles to produce words fit enough to be typed in his exhausted and anxious mood. Jordan’s appearance adds to the layer of nervousness as Olsen tremulously delivers her lines and shakes her leg. The scenes between Man and his son Jamie show a father/son dynamic that has the viewer feeling sympathy for both parties until Man’s final breakdown and subsequent tirade against his son. 

While the story and the acting can’t help but pull the audience in, there are some parts of the play that just as easily push them away. As a tool to clue the viewer in on Man’s many regrets, the play contains scenes within scenes. A younger version of Man (Coleman Peterson ‘21) appears with Kris and a young Jordan multiple times. Peterson’s performance perfectly portrays a man in the height of his success and all the arrogance and entitlement that goes with it. These flashbacks are meant to provide insight into Man’s past actions that fuel his present ghosts. However, they leave the viewer more confused about what is happening, when it is happening and whether or not it is reality. Sometimes the flashbacks appear as dreams. Sometimes they are played out like a movie by The Something Else. Sometimes Man can interact with the flashbacks to make corrections or denials. Sometimes all Man can do is sit and watch in horror. 

The pacing of the play is a drawback to the dramatic reading. While the reading of the stage directions is helpful to clue the audience into what is happening on a set with minimal props, actions take longer than words. It sets up instances where the actors are hurrying to make a cup of tea or check something on their phone in order to stay in time with the stage directions and not be late for their next line. In a play that contains a complex and, at times, uncomfortable plot like “Hollowman,” rushing the action only seems a detriment to the story. 

Regardless of the bumps in the road, one thing is clear: the students, professors and alumni of the Augustana Theatre Department deserve more credit than they often receive. The Claire Donaldson New Play Festival was a showcase of immense talent that rivals that of professional productions. Augie’s theatre season continues with Augustana Collaborative Theatrical Society’s (ACTS) production of “Laugh out Loud (Cry Quietly)” by Stacie Lents to be performed November 1-3 and “The Thanksgiving Play” by Larissa FastHorse November 21-24. If the play festival is any indication, these performances are sure to impress and entertain.

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