An Interview with Jamie Prahl, Director of Saint Sebastian Players’ ‘Lefties’

Jamie Prahl, director of Saint Sebastian's "Lefties."
Jamie Prahl, director of Saint Sebastian’s “Lefties.”

In Lefties, a play by Chicago-area playwright Leigh Johnson, a Russian-born father (who’s also, by the way, an avowed Communist who loves baseball), clashes with his son, a gifted semi-professional pitcher who has become entranced by capitalism and its prospects. Set in McCarthy-era America, this play covers some big ground, including themes regarding family pride, fathers and sons and the damage done by the secrets we keep from each other.

It’s also a milestone for Saint Sebastian Players, which is presenting this world-premiere play Feb. 15-March 10. Saint Sebastian, which has been around for 32 seasons, infrequently produces new works, aside from the occasional compilation of existing pieces, such as their evening of Chekhov comedies presented a few seasons ago.

I sat down with the show’s director, Ms. Jamie Prahl (who also happens to be a dear friend) to get her take on this exciting new work and what audiences can expect.

Communism and baseball: two things I know you’re an avid fan of. So, what drew you to this story?

Hey now – I played softball in my junior high years! No, you’re right. I’m not an avid baseball fan, and I’m not a real-life communist. I was attracted to this story because, despite the whole “Baseball and Communism!” thing, it’s really the story of a family through four decades – the thirties to the seventies.

When the show begins, it’s 1975 and the World Series is taking place. Ivana, the family matriarch, has been dead for three years and Vladmir (the father) and Alex (the son) aren’t on good terms. Ivana’s ghost rises from her slumber and demands to know why. By doing so, she sets off a memory play where she relives the events that got her “pig-headed husband” and “stubborn mule son” to the point they’re now at. Ivana and Vladimir might be big scary communists, but the play sort of strips that away from them and shows how, despite political beliefs that were deemed evil and threatening, they’re just people and parents. I liked the humanizing of it all. I also think it’s quite relevant to a lot of our modern time and politics.

As a director, does the story pose any particular challenge or opportunity?

Covering four decades in a play is a challenge — especially when your leading lady never leaves the stage. I’m fortunate to have a really smart and clever production team, and we’re taking an abstract/minimalist approach to a lot of things – one set covers all these different locations, and costume pieces, sound, lights, and acting choices will take care of scenes jumping around in time. Memories aren’t solid, they change over time, so it’s a very flowing piece of theater. My job, as the director, is basically to make sure all the pieces fit together.

Also, several of our cast members are playing multiple roles, so it’s fun to let them delve into playing such different characters. One of our actors plays a character who is the epitome of idealism and goodness, then returns as a particularly nasty dude. This cast is really talented, though, and they’re more than up to the challenge.

How would you define your directing style and rehearsal process? What makes a “Jamie Prahl-directed play”?

Well, I like to hire smart and talented actors and then set them free on the script to do their work. Good actors don’t need a director to tell them to turn left or turn right all the time, and the things actors come up with are often better than anything I could tell them to do. I’d rather suggest things and guide them to realizations as opposed to being a dictator.

I like shows that aren’t too literal — I really hate going to shows where all the action stops so a set can change. It reminds me too much of the high school shows of my youth, I guess. I like non-literal performance spaces a lot, too. We’re setting the world of Lefties within the confines of Ivana’s sort of memory/purgatory — so it’s filled with Russian and American images and suggestive of places like a factory and a ballpark, without actually BEING a factory or ballpark. Our set designer, Lauren Angelopolous, totally understood what I rambled about in our earliest meetings — and I have to say, she came back with a set design that is absolutely amazing. I’m so excited to see it.

This is a world premiere production. What’s that like as a director, given that you’ve no other template to draw from? And how involved is the playwright, Leigh Jonson, in the process?

There’s a freedom in staging a world premiere. There’s absolutely nothing people are expecting. I always think of The Wizard of Oz, and how if you stage The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy practically HAS to be a in a blue and white gingham dress and god forbid the Wicked Witch isn’t green. That’s an extreme example — but I like having a clean slate. We’re free to do whatever we want, really.

Leigh is wonderful. He’s from Aurora, so he’s around at rehearsals and has tweaked a few things for our production. In addition, he drew inspiration for the piece from events in the lives of people he knew, so we can ask him anything, anytime, which is really nice. He’s blogging about the show on the “Lefties” facebook page — Heck, he’s even helping with props! I think he’s having fun watching it all come to life, and it’s my plan to knock his socks off with the finished product.

Why should audiences check out Lefties?

Lefties is a really touching family drama, and while you’re being moved by the story, you’ll get a dose of American/Russian history, too. There’s baseball and FBI agents and it’s all being performed by a cast I couldn’t be prouder of. We’re opening during Chicago Theater Week, and I hope people turn up to see the show!

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