Blake White is striding boldly into October. Indeed, Lean Ensemble Theater’s artistic director has stepped out of his safety zone. He could have played the theater company’s fifth season risk-free, packing the house with feel-good comedies and old favorites. Instead, he’s chosen a series of plays that, he confesses, “make the hair on the back of my neck stand up.”
That daredevil feeling is the prelude to Lean’s upcoming regional premieres of five award-winning plays — productions that present challenges to director, cast, designers and crew that go beyond anything the company has done before.
It promises to transport theater-goers out of their seats into new territory with thought-provoking, immersive experiences and engaging characters that bring joy and laughter to topics and ideas that normally defy such categorization.
In Lean’s season opener, “The Humans,” Stephen Karam’s searingly funny yet poignant Tony and Drama Desk winner for Best Play, we’re dropped into New York’s Chinatown to share a Thanksgiving meal with a boisterous family jousting for each other’s acceptance. A dramatic two-story set with the fourth wall peeled away invites us to be the extra guest at the table as they chow down on turkey while serving up side dishes of commentary on each other’s missteps, foibles and dreams.
A warm, funny play about depression and suicide? In “Every Brilliant Thing,” Lean’s December offering, Ensemble member Matt Mundy charms as he takes us on a roller coaster ride through the turbulent landscape of mental illness. But this is no passive sit-and-be-talked-at experience. And, astoundingly, it’s no downer. Once again, the fourth wall disappears, and the audience becomes part of the witty yet riveting conversation.
The new year ushers us into the pews of a megachurch that’s splintering from a theological clash in Lucas Hnath’s “The Christians.” “Everyone in the Southeast who hears that a New York playwright has written a play about a Southern megachurch is probably thinking it’s going to judge their religion,” says White. “Instead, the play asks questions that will leave you affirming your beliefs, or taking a second look at them. But,” he adds, “it won’t offend your beliefs.”
In March, we pull up a seat in a grassy patch of a small Long Island backyard to explore the joys and — oh, yes — the trials and tribulations of new parenthood in Molly Smith Metzler’s lively comedy “Cry It Out,” as three mothers and a father navigate the minefield of life changes that come with a baby.
The season races to a rip-roaring end in April, carrying us down to New Orleans’ French Quarter with “The Death of A Streetcar Named Virginia Woolf.” A wacky mash-up of classic American theatrical characters the parody sweeps up a can’t-get-no-respect Willy Loman from “Death of A Salesman,” the combative combustible duo of Martha and George from “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” plus “A Streetcar Named Desire’s” fantasy-drenched (I’ve always depended on the kindness of strangers) Blanche Dubois along with Stanley Kowalski (Stella!) of ripped T-shirt fame. “It’s ‘The Avengers’ of American drama wrapped in a comedy,” declares White.
Summing up Lean’s new season, White points out that the best things that are worth doing are hard. “We’re trying to tell these intricate stories, but we’re not trying to intellectualize you to death. Instead, we’re aiming to be interesting, charming, funny and delightful. And unpretentious,” he goes on, “while giving you the plays you didn’t know you wanted.”
If you go
What: Lean Ensemble Theater
Where: HHPS Main Street Theatre, 3000 Main St. on Hilton Head Island
When: Oct. 17-27: “The Humans” by Stephen Karam; Dec. 12-22: “Every Brilliant Thing” by Duncan Macmillan & Johnny Donahoe; Jan. 23 to Feb. 2: “The Christians” by Lucas Hnath; March 19-29: “Cry It Out” by Molly Smith Metzler; April 23-May 3: “Death of a Streetcar Named Virginia Woolf” by Tom Ryder & Tim Sniffen
Tickets: $40 evenings and matinees; $25 preview nights; $15 students/active military. Group rates and season subscriptions available.
Info: www.leanensemble.org or 843-715-6676