First Folio Theatre presents a play about interracial relationships and politics

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MELANIE LOREN AND Kayla Kennedy in a scene from “The Firestorm,” playing now through April 28 at First Folio Theatre. (Photos by Tom McGrath)

The New 411

By Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J.

The First Folio Theatre in Oak Brook presents “The Firestorm,” a play that explores the consequences of today’s info-saturated environment and highlights the repercussions that “call-out culture” has on relationships. The play also explores the challenges and triumphs of interracial relationships, and notes how couples can navigate the world together in a highly-politicized society. The production follows the story of interracial political power couple Gaby and Patrick during a time when they are hot on the campaign trail. The couple is thrust into the center of a media frenzy when a racially charged incident from Patrick’s past surfaces. As the pressure intensifies, the political campaign becomes explosively personal and the foundation of their seemingly picture-perfect marriage begins to fracture. The stunning production leaves audience members begging the question: when the past comes to haunt us, what do we do with the ghosts?

As the themes in this play are timely, and race and politics permeate news accounts, I reached out to the main cast members and the director of this play. Gaby and Patrick are played by Melanie Loren and Steve O’Connell, respectively.

STEVE O’CONNELL AS Patrick and Melanie Loren as Gaby have a conversation during a scene from “The Firestorm.”

Loren shared how she would handle a moral quandary that threatened her integrity. “I think the first instinct for many people, myself included, might be self-preservation. That said, at the end of the day, I need to be able to sleep at night! I can be over-analytical, and my conscience is strong. So, actually, I have made some risky/unpopular decisions, at times, because I knew it was ‘the right thing to do’ or was a decision I would not regret later. That was enough for me. I would hope that the need to be at peace would be the strongest motivator for how I’d handle a tough moral situation.” She added that putting weight on a public figure’s past deeds should be determined on a case-by-case basis. “It is hard to discount evil deeds in a public figure’s past, especially if there has been a pattern. I think someone’s past should be acknowledged if it’s relevant to whatever position they are in currently. If the past were not-so-relevant, maybe I wouldn’t put as much weight on it. If that person accepts responsibility for their ‘evil deeds,’ it’s easier for me to move past them.” She added that canned responses that point to indiscretions of a person’s youth shouldn’t be the catch-all answer. “I think the person should simply own it—without making excuses or trying to pass the buck. Admit out loud that they were wrong. Also, they should also acknowledge the hurt and trauma that their actions have caused and be willing to listen to what the impact of their actions has been.”

Loren spoke about how wives of politicians have to appear to be strong for the public and her decision to accept this role. “I was pleased to accept the role because it presents the challenge of so many layers for Gaby. I’ve always felt so much sympathy for the wives who have to stand up on the podium with their guilty husbands in the midst of some scandal. It was interesting to me the prospect of putting on her shoes and going through her journey.”

O’Connell shared his thoughts about the current racial climate in America and the denial of some whites about their privilege. “I would urge them to examine why they think this and then urge them to read about the social and economic impact of systemic racism and how it affects our country today. I would also urge them to have more conversations with people from different racial, cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds. Be curious, even if it may feel uncomfortable.”

He says that audience members should have different reactions to “The Firestorm,” saying: “An audience brings their own experiences to the theatre. Hopefully a play prompts a response from the audience that allows them to reflect on those experiences. I hope this play evokes that response and allows for conversations about a variety of topics, including, but not limited to, race, marriage, relationships and things left unsaid.”

The Playwright Meridith Friedman added her thoughts as well via an email to the Crusader. “I think the plays speaks to a kind of covert racism that is boiling just below the surface. It isn’t the in-your-face racism of unapologetic bigots, shouted on the streets, but rather whispers behind closed doors, from the mouths and minds of seemingly open-minded, tolerant people. It is a kind of racism that most people don’t recognize, or are unwilling to admit exists, within themselves.”

She also spoke about the fact that some feel that racism may have just recently raised its ugly head—post an Obama presidency. “I think those sentiments were there all along, but people feel emboldened now to express their racism out in the open. I think the divisive rhetoric coming from the top, under the current administration, has normalized reprehensible thoughts and actions.” Friedman also talked about the evils of social media posts, one of the themes addressed in the play. “I think there are very easy, and cowardly, ways to express yourself. You can send out a nasty tweet and hide behind a handle. You can spew hate without identifying yourself.”

Performances of “The Firestorm” take place at the Mayslake Peabody Estate, located at 1717 31st St., off Route 83, in Oak Brook through April 28. First Folio is easy to get to from via the East-West Tollway (I-88) or the Stevenson Expressway (I-55). Free parking is available on the grounds. Preview tickets are $25. Regular priced tickets are $34 Wednesdays and Thursdays (seniors and students are $29), and $44 on Fridays through Sundays (seniors and students are $39). Tickets are on sale now and may be purchased by calling the box office at 630.986.8067 or online at www.firstfolio.org.

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