(Wednesday, Oct. 6) Bill Bannon, Aral Gribble and John Lepard are drinking their lunches. The three sit around a flimsy-looking card table, guzzling beers, stacking up chips, laying down cards and, once in a while, laying into each other.
Off to the side, Kristine Thatcher watches them closely. If their conversation sounds familiar to her, it should: She wrote it. Thatcher is the author and director of “Among Friends,” the first fully staged production of Stormfield Theatre, which Thatcher founded last year after she was let go as the artistic director of BoarsHead Theater in a budget move. BoarsHead has since folded.
Thatcher and her staff have remodeled a former judo studio in Frandor to serve as the headquarters for Stormfield. As of right now, Stormfield only has the space until Nov. 7, but Thatcher is crossing her fingers and hoping the theater will be allowed to stay.
During a break, she walks into the performance space and looks at the newly installed stage and freshly hung black curtains. “Every day, it’s looking more and more like a theater,” she says, with a proud smile.
When the first Stormfield patrons show up Thursday night, they’ll be seeing a show with a history. “Among Friends” was written after Thatcher won the Scott McPherson Award (named for the late playwright) in 1997. Dennis Zacek, artistic director of Chicago’s Victory Gardens Theatre, made the proposal.
“He wanted a play with three men on a unit set,” Thatcher recalls. “He gave me the assignment, and after a few false starts I came up with these guys.”
Early drafts didn’t pan out, and Thatcher’s confidence was shaken. Then she ran into an acquaintance who told her about a long friendship that was now in jeopardy because one friend had caught the other shaving points off his score in a golf game. Something clicked.
“I knew I couldn’t put golf on the stage,” Thatcher said. “But I started to think … ."
'Among Friends' unfolds through the poker games of Dan (Lepard), Will (Bannon) and Matt (Gribble). They’re close, but they’re operating on different socio-economic planes. Dan’s a wealthy property developer; Will teaches high school and directs student shows; Matt sells appliances at Sears and is facing foreclosure, just as his wife is about to have their first child. Their evenings together are full of comfortable conversation and gentle joking, until Will catches Dan cheating.
“In real life, any time I’ve ever had to call someone on something like that, I’ve been able to do it immediately,” Bannon said of his character’s predicament. “But with the way my relationship with Dan is, I don’t call him on it. I’m shocked into inaction. Whereas if it had been Matt, I would have smacked him behind the head: ‘What are you doing?’”
“It’s not that Dan’s a terrible guy, he just does a stupid thing,” Lepard says. He studied his brother-in-law, who actually is a land developer, to “try to channel that energy” of a rich go-getter. But Lepard quickly adds that his brother-in-law is “a great guy — and I can’t imagine him cheating.”
As for Gribble, he says he “can definitely relate to Matt being the guy in the middle. In many of my friendships, I’m often the third guy, the glue in the middle.”
Thatcher freely admits she knows more about friendship than she does about cards. “I don’t play poker,” she confesses. “So I had to have some assistance. We’ve made a few changes during rehearsals.”
“Yeah, my character’s a man now,” Bannon chimes in. “Originally, it was going to be a bigger acting challenge.”
Whatever conflicts may be brewing on the stage, they aren’t evident in the rapport between the director and her cast. There’s more teasing than tension in the rehearsal room.
“Aral has come up with a great promotional idea,” Thatcher announces.
“I’ve always thought if I ever got stuck anywhere in Lansing, Frandor would be a great place to be shipwrecked because everything is here,” Gribble explains. “So I thought I could do some shorts for the Internet as Frandor Man, tying in with local businesses … .”
“Do your Frandor Man stance!” Thatcher commands, and Gribble instantly leaps up from his chair and strikes a Supermannequin pose. Everyone laughs.
“You’ve gotta do this now before someone else does,” Bannon warns him.
“Yeah,” Gribble growls. “Next thing I know, Lepard’s gonna be walking around with a cape on.”