Keith Garsson and his Primal Forces theater company are on the move again.
After a season and a half at Delray Beach’s Arts Garage, which then dropped its theater program, he returned to Andrews Living Arts in downtown Fort Lauderdale. But after one show there, it too suspended production. So Garsson packed up again and moved across town to Empire Stage, where he opens the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD)-winning Communion by Daniel McIvor this weekend.
Did Garsson feel he was being sent a message to leave the precarious theater business? “I get that message regularly. Fortunately, it’s not my main source of income. We do it because we love it,” he insists. “That being said, if audiences and critics send a message, ‘Man, you just haven’t had a single thing worth watching,’ that might be the time to get out. But so far that hasn’t happened.”
Indeed, Garsson has had critical and popular success with such edgy and provocative works as Sex with Strangers and The Mystery of Love and Sex. And ever the optimist, he feels certain he has another winner in Communion.
The play centers on an aging alcoholic (Kim Ostrenko), who seeks advice from her therapist (Jacqueline Laggy), who is also a lesbian. Later, the born-again daughter of the alcoholic (Jenna Wyatt) arrives and their tense relationship is explored, as the mother tries to protect her child from the perceived calamity ahead. Ultimately, Communion is about “what is needed to repair a familial bond under the pressures of religion, recovery and a ticking clock.”
Garsson has long been a fan of McIvor. “He writes amazing women’s roles. Given the tenor of what’s going on with the #MeToo movement, I thought this would be a good time to focus on women,” he says. “And I’ve got the actresses to show off his writing well.”
Acccording to Garsson, “His language and his characters are more natural, but he uses the same structure that (Harold) Pinter and (David) Mamet use. He likes to hermetically seal off a scene. It should be very stark, so you shouldn’t be distracted by props and sounds. And he uses pauses and silences very eloquently.”
Communion has its share of plot twists and traps, but Garsson cautions prospective audience members that it is also the most conventional play that Primal Forces has ever produced. “People will be surprised, this one is a lot more normal than what I have done in the past,” says the director. “The edge comes from three characters who love and respect each other, but just can never find the right words to say.
“People who saw ‘The Good Girl’ (Garsson’s most recent production, last year at Andrews) may be surprised that I pulled back so far. But do not let down your guard.”
Laggy, who appeared in Sex with Strangers at the Arts Garage, is a favorite actress if Garsson’s. “I never thought about anybody else (for the role),” he says. “She can’t wait for the next challenge. She’s someone I keep pushing and pushing and she always rises to it.”
This will be his first time working with Ostrenko, a veteran of South Florida’s theater community, but Garsson is already a fan. “She owns this part, a very difficult part,” he says. “I like female characters who are facing horrible odds and still find a way of retaining their dignity and not be needy, not be desperate. Kim is superb at that.”
Wyatt is a new discovery of Garsson’s, a recent graduate of Florida Atlantic University’s drama program. “Her role is very tricky. She plays an evangelist, but it is incumbent on her to make sure that she’s not a monster, that she gets her day in court.”
The theme that Garsson responds to most personally in Communion is “we may not agree with each other, but we are all obligated to understand each other. This play does not have a neat, simple ending. But with each scene, we realize that the characters now understand each other.”
If you have yet to see a Primal Forces production, Communion could be the one to correct that oversight. Why? “A) It’s relevant now. It touches on the divisiveness of the country and offers some hope. And B) I never use anything but the best actresses. This is a chance to see three top-notch performances,” Garsson insists.
“And C) This is not the kind of theater you’re going to see anywhere else.”
COMMUNION, Primal Forces at Empire Stage, 1140 N. Flagler Drive, Fort Lauderdale. Friday, Jan. 26–Sunday, Feb. 11. $30. 866-811-4111.