A Night at the Theater: Franklin Stein
Anton Koval as Franklin Stein (Courtesy of Franklin Stein/Photo by: Daniel Robinson)
What does it mean to be dead? That is the question posed in the opening of C.J. Thom’s biting dark comedy Franklin Stein, when the play’s titular character is diagnosed with a heart that will not beat. Despite this seemingly fatale condition, Franklin remains very much animated and the play is off on a farcical adventure that stares deeply into the black abyss of death and attempts to discern what is staring back.
As Franklin comes to grips with this startling diagnosis, the audience is taken on a tour of his trite marriage, trivial corporate job, and his futile attempts at finding happiness on a golf course while staving off his inevitable return to work and family. But the real fun doesn’t begin until Franklin’s heart condition causes the rest of his body to deteriorate and our protagonist is forced to return to the doctor from the opening scene for treatment.
Dr. Sam, cryptically played by Larry Greenbush, becomes Franklin’s physician, as the doctor employs unorthodox methods and procedures in an attempt to remedy our hero. As a fearful Franklin puts his faith in this foreboding doctor, the play shifts in tone, as we follow Franklin and his countless attempts to regain the life he once had.
The play’s success hangs on the brilliant performance of Anton Koval, who fully commits to both the emotional extremes and the physical demands of the play’s leading role. Following a failed suicide attempt, Franklin is left with several broken bones, leaving the protagonist a neck that can no longer support his head and forcing him to limp about his day. Koval nails every beat of this dark comedy, embracing every fall and physical deformity. As Franklin falls deeper into delirium and exhaustion from his frightening condition, so does Koval, drawing the audience to the plight of this working-class character.
Jennie West and Anton Koval (Courtesy of Franklin Stein/Photo by: Daniel Robinson)
The ultimate twist of the play comes in the 3rd Act, as the play’s underlying question shifts from “What does it mean to be dead?” to “What does it mean to be alive?” as we learn that Franklin’s seemingly unique condition is quite commonplace.
The penultimate cure put forth by Dr. Sam requires Franklin to harvest a beating heart of a living person. But as Franklin begins a kill spree in an attempt to save his own life, we learn that countless other characters are afflicted with a lifeless heart, revealing the playwright’s true underlying theme.
For Thom, life’s true horror is not the imminence of death, but rather the way people lead their lives in the run up to their big finale. As Frankin lures his aptly named friend Buddy (Brett Epstein) to a deserted golf-course, his friend espouses his belief that he is more alive amongst the sand traps and fairways than any other place on earth, to which Franklin replies, “Thanks for making this so easy” before knocking Buddy unconscious. In moments like this it becomes clear that living, in Thom’s world, is not defined by the beat of your heart, but by the quality of your life.
In the play’s climax, Franklin discovers who he believes to be the play’s sole “living” character, his loving wife, portrayed beautifully by Jennie West. A woman merely concerned with cultivating a marriage her husband has long since abandoned in pursuit of his career, Hope’s commitment to personal relationships makes her stand out in a crowd of petulant, and life-less, men.
If you have a love for works that question the meaning of life and death, or merely are infatuated with the genre of corporate zombies, be sure to pick up a ticket and stop by the Connelly Theater. But if you do, expect to be sitting are your work desk the follow day and feel the urge to check your pulse. And whether or not you feel those reassuring pumps of blood, be prepared to ask yourself whether you really are still living.
The show is running through September 14th, so make sure to get your tickets soon.