Two Very Different Types of Plays Debut in October

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Spencer D. Meredith, Tim Kennard and Owen Merritt go through rehearsals of "Pillowman."
Spencer D. Meredith, Tim Kennard and Owen Merritt go through rehearsals of "Pillowman."
Spencer D. Meredith, Tim Kennard and Owen Merritt go through rehearsals of “Pillowman.”

Off the Rails is a professional theater troupe that focuses on slightly off-beat, less known adult oriented plays for the most part – and Pillowman fits right into that niche.

Written by Oscar winner Mike McDonagh (he won an Academy Award for a short film), Pillowman is a four character, three act play based in an unnamed, tolitarian state where the author of macabre short stories may or may not have been involved with the murder of young children. One act, where he is interrogated by two policemen doing the bad cop-good cop routine will set viewers on edge.

Pillowman opens a two-weekend run at Community High School on October 15, a run which also includes a Sunday matinee on the 18th (see the Off the Rails Facebook page for more details). Director Miriam Frazier says “there are a number of stories inside the play that are very horrific and twisted. A lot of important themes [like] freedom of speech.” Perfect for Halloween says Frazier – who adds that there are comedic elements as well. “A darkly funny play,” she notes; “a really great story. There is strong language and violence in Pillowman, but nothing worse than an R-rated movie promises Frazier. “This will give audiences plenty to think about. It’s risky to take on.”

Tim Kennard is a detective investigating the short story writer on possible murder charges – he’s the good cop. “A laid back but strict investigative detective. Not afraid to bend the rules when he has to.” Spencer Meredith is Kennard’s bad cop sidekick: “It’s challenging … not something you are going to see in the Roanoke area very frequently. That’s one of the reasons I like working with off the Rails.”

Meredith has appeared in previous Off the Rails productions, including Middletown last spring. “Easily one of the more challenging roles I’ve ever played,” says Owen Merritt, who plays the writer suspected of murder.  He notes the “shear level of emotional turmoil that this character goes through.”

Meanwhile Roanoke Children’s Theatre opens the 2015-2016 season this month at the Dumas Center on Henry Street with live stage plays geared towards children and families. Artistic Director Pat Wilhelms, now in her 8th year at RCT and the third at the Dumas Center, says she is “excited” about the new season that begins with James and the Giant Peach, based on the Roald Dahl book. The RCT production is filled with “over the top humor,” promises Wilhelms, who calls Dahl “a really smart writer who uses … great descriptive words.”

“Peach” debuts on October 1. Dahl’s “Matilda” is now a big hit on Broadway notes Wilhelms, who started Roanoke Children’s Theatre at the Taubman Museum after leaving Mill Mountain Theatre.  RCT just outgrew the space at the Taubman before moving over to the Dumas Center. People “love that it’s easy to park,” near the Dumas she notes. The Christmas show this year is Shrek, which runs December 3-22.

“The music is pop, it’s trendy,” says Wilhelms of the Tony Award winning Broadway show. “It’s all about being unique,” adds Wilhelms, who directs all four productions for RCT this season. (see the Roanoke Children’s Theatre website for more information.) Next March The Ice Cream Man focuses on issues that are “hard for families to tackle.” In this case the issue is heroin abuse. The RCT partners with local social service organizations every year to tackle a subject that impacts mainly teenagers; school kids will come see the play and talk backs are scheduled afterwards.

Gene Marrano