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Review: 'Stories' mixes sentiment, humor, nostalgia

Playwright Ted Swindley earns a lot of goodwill though his big-hearted mix of sentiment, humor and undiluted nostalgia in “Stories My Grandmother Told Me.”

This often charming but rambling piece is receiving its world premier at the American Heartland Theater and if I were a betting man I’d say that with a bit of pruning, condensing and careful rewrites, this could become a perennial favorite in the vein of Swindley’s “Always . . . Patsy Cline.”

This is Swindley’s valentine to his grandmother, an eccentric and highly opinionated southern lady who knows how to manipulate the men in her life. To a large degree, she controls her environment through sheer force of will. As played by the excellent Peggy Friesen, Gladys becomes an indelible character whose charms are impossible to resist.

Swindley structures the piece as reminiscence from John Mark, Swindley’s alter-ego played by Kip Niven. He reads from his collection of tales about Gladys while sometimes interacting with her and a teenage version of himself (Dylan Paul).

This is less a real play than a long narrative with breaks for exchanges of dialogue and a handful of old hymns and pop songs. The good news is that this cast is musically gifted. Niven stands at a lectern most of the time and appears to be literally reading from the script, although at times he gets more directly involved in the action.

The show is basically a series of anecdotes and ultimately does leave us with a sense that we’ve brushed up against a unique personality. But it also leaves us — or me, anyway — wishing for more.

The young John Mark experiences happy, sad and comic moments with his grandmother, from crazed church revivals to her boasts about the family tree (through her ancestry she somehow connects the War of the Roses with the founding of the American Rose Society). He recalls her charming way of telling fibs and her dismay that John Mark failed to fulfill her dream of him becoming either a governor or a preacher and instead entered the theater to become “show trash.”

Director Donna Thomason does a nice job, as usual, of getting the most out of the material, but some of the structural obstacles are stubborn enough that even Thomason can’t gloss over them. The biggest problem is the sheer, rambling nature of the material. One anecdote doesn’t necessarily inform another and at the end of the night we’ve experienced the theatrical/literary equivalent of a string of popcorn.

Actors Charles Fugate and Candice Bondank are saddled with the responsibility of playing multiple small roles, including John Mark’s grandparents, his sister, his mother and father, his grandfather, a society matron, a stump preacher, a drug-crazed burglar and the doomed, alcoholic Uncle Billy. The Billy sequence is the darkest of the show, depicting a lost soul beyond salvation. It’s disturbing but poignant, thanks to Fugate’s performance.

For the most part, however, Fugate and Bondank face an impossible burden. They can only do so much. The show itself is frustrating because we can sometimes glimpse just how much potential this piece contains. Ultimately the heart of the production is Friesen, whose evocative portrait of Gladys is funny, touching, maddening and highly memorable.

“Stories My Grandmother Told Me” runs through Feb. 24 at the American Heartland Theatre. Tickets: $12.50-$33.50; 816-842-9999; ahtkc.com.

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