GBPT’s World Premiere of “Public Speaking 101” Plays it Safe

Great Barrington Public Theatre’s world premiere of Public Speaking 101 is an example of a master craftsman working in a minor key. Mark St. Germain is the playwright of many accomplished plays such as Freud’s Last Session, Best of Enemies, Eleanor and Becoming Dr. Ruth. This play is an amiable, pleasant evening in the theater that won’t take the place of your favorite play by him.

Brendan Powers, Peggy Pharr Wilson, Nathan Hinton, Rachel Burttram, David Smilow

As its title makes plain, the play concerns a college course in public speaking. This course is an adult education class led by an adjunct, the invaluable Peggy Pharr Wilson as Sunny Strut. The class is made up of a quartet of public misfits who would like to acquire the skill of speech giving for various reasons.

Rachel Burttram plays Millie Harrow in a mousey manner who needs the courage either to comfort the guests at her family’s funeral home, or to stand up to her father and let him know she does not want to carry on the business. I’m not sure which. Brendan Powers is Fletcher Tuft, a phlegmatic geologist writer for Rock magazine who needs the skill as his publishing company branches out into podcasts. There’s Sergeant Mike Gallion, a tough, gruff cop who must address the Easter PBA. And finally Reverend Montavius Lister (Nathan Hinton), who breaks into song mid-homily because his nerves get the best of him.

I don’t quite buy these motivations to begin with. Is a podcast really public speaking, and if someone is comfortable singing a capella, I’m not sure that I believe they can’t speak a speech?

The cast is first rate and fully leans in with their commitment to playing these socially challenged misfits. They are great company for the audience even if it appears they would prefer not to leave their house.

Peggy Pharr Wilson, Rachel Burttram, Brendan Powers, David Smilow

Best of all, your teacher is played by Peggy Pharr Wilson who makes the most of her “amateur thespian working her money job”, with the minimum number of students to keep the class going. Her investment in this community theater actor with a huge heart and no health insurance is most moving and worth the price of admission.

The set by Jim Youngerman has a neat effect created by ropes that follow the frames of two doors and meet in a rectangle upstage center, creating the classroom’s walls.

Mr. St. Germain has employed many gambits to entertain the audience from funny names (Reverend Mo Lister), to the heightened stakes of a contest for Best Speech, to this production’s use of videos of famous public speakers played during the scene changes, from Dan Quayle to a beauty contestant.

David Smilow

I laughed frequently, and the thought of a cop discovering and taking offense to the Cat in the Hat’s transgressions was inspired. There is no shortage of enjoyment even if some of the punchlines could be predicted, as an audience member did vocally at least twice on Saturday. There just isn’t much there, there with this short play. When the student’s topic for speaking came up with the subject of “America,” the playwright punted…three times

Great Barrington Public Theatre has staged a very fine production of this world premiere that is harmless fun and pleasant company.

Through 7/24 @ Great Barrington Public Theatre at Bard at Simon’s Rock


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