by Brian Clarey
Among the notable absentees at Saturday night’s Evening of Short Plays at the City Arts Drama Center was playwright Grace Ellis, a former theater writer whose short work, “In Retirement,” was the seventh play on the bill. Even more noteworthy was the absence of Stephen Hyers, the longtime City Arts director now in hospice care after an 18-year battle with brain tumors.
Hyers led the Greesboro Playwrights Forum, the Greensboro Children’s Theater and every other branch of the city’s Drama Center. He even wrote one of the pieces on the evening’s bill, “Heroes.” The crew came into his hospice room to perform it for him last week.
Hyers has always understood the “community” aspect of community theater, said the center’s Booster Club President Dave Burr in his tearful opening remarks. Hyers encouraged everybody he met, regardless of age or experience, to trod the boards in one of his production from the moment he came on to City Arts in 1990, becoming its managing director in 2005.
“He understood that theater is a great vehicle to teach us about our families, our careers, our lives,” Burr said.
It was Hyers who first encouraged him to go on stage, Burr said.
And before he opened the 31st Evening of Short Plays, the first one without a Hyers introduction, he again quoted the man who made this all happen: “The show must go on.”
Most of the ensemble cast came together for the first piece of the superhero-themed night by Jini Zlatinski, wherein city councilmembers lecture an avenging team of heroes about the taxpayer expense of their latest saving-the-world brawl. Spoiler alert: In the end, they all hook up.
Hyers’ piece, “Heroes,” added heft to the first set, a dramatic late-night encounter between a wannabe hero and a lovelorn lady that charmingly wends its way into romance.
Among the scenes of note in the second half of the evening was “The Rejects” by Cari Hopson, in which a cadre of heroes with relatively unimpressive superpowers — Larry Horn’s “Mr. Obliteration” can erase the last half-hour of someone’s memory, though it wipes out the last 24 hours of his own. In the end they realize there’s only one true application for their combination of powers: marriage counseling.
“Wet Stuff” by Tim Daniel was an ambitious scene ultimately stolen by Axel Tolksdorf as Johnny, a Shakespearean superman in an opera cape given to grand gestures and proclamations.
Ellis’ “In Retirement” was the story of an aging Lois Lane and Clark Kent — but in this version of the DC universe, Lane is still unaware of her husband’s alter ego and carries a torch for Superman, who has not been seen in 30 years.
The evening wrapped in a delicious bit of improv by Terry Power, breaking the fourth wall to invite audience members to put questions to his enlightened spirit.
And then everybody danced.
Most of the 40 or so folks in the room had some attachment to the players, or the writers, or to Hyers himself, who before that night had never missed a performance on this stage that, after this week, will bear his name.
This was not the most polished of the events under Greensboro’s 17 Days banner. This is community theater, put together on evenings and weekends by people who feel compelled to do it. The writing can be spotty, the acting inconsistent, the costuming purposefully ridiculous. But this is the city’s theater, open to all. And everyone has an actor or playwright hiding inside, according to Stephen Hyers, anyway. And there’s a place for all of them on his stage.