Gamm Theatre's closing show of their 2006-07 season is the world premiere of "Radio Free Emerson" by Paul Grellong, originally commissioned and produced by Gamm Theatre. Grellong, a Brown University graduate who is a writer for the hit TV series 'Law and Order : Special Victims Unit", was inspired by Henrik Ibsen's "The Wild Duck", sets the show in Rhode Island in 1999. It is a raw, complex and very humorous examination of the naked truth and its consequences. A young man returns to Rhode Island to take the reins of his family's radio station following a solitary stint in Maine. Armed with his rising star power as a talk show host and a dubious understanding of American transcendentalist philosophy, he dispenses self-serving self-help over the airwaves to the lovelorn, depressed and needy of his home state; and, in the process. cunningly exposes secrets and lies within his own family. While not a strict adaptation of "Wild Duck", "Radio Free Emerson" follows several plot points. Al Gregory returns to RI following a stint on a fishing boat in Maine for the funeral of his estranged father, Edward Gregory. Edward, owner of the radio station, WRIT, was a much-loved radio personality, know for his brand of folksy wisdom. Al discovers that during his absence, Edward mediated a marriage between family friend Henry Dale and Gina, a woman Al desperately covets. Moreover, Al learns that his father generously ( and with dubious motives) established Henry in the construction business. Al takes over the radio show while blackmailing Gina for a past indiscretion. He seduces his listeners with interpretations of Ralph Waldo Emerson's writings on self-reliance, truth and idealism. But what is truth without self-analysis or self-awareness? Al's idea of "truth'' translates into easy, instant, sexual gratification, choosing the truth that appeals to their vanity, to their versions of self. Paul delivers a well constructed and thought out play with many one liners amid some poignant ones along the way. The talk radio segments contain some of the most hilarious lines in the play. Peter Sampieri, the director chooses the best performers to fill these roles and this original show is rewarded with a standing ovation at the close of the night.
The show takes place in a house, radio station, an apartment, a bar and a construction site. Peter blocks the show beautifully so everyone in the theatre especially on the two sides, can see the actors at all times. His stage crew moves the set pieces on and off the stage with ease, keeping the action flowing smoothly from one scene to another. Steve Kidd is fabulous as Henry Dale. His one liners are perfect as are the poignant scenes where he breaks down in tears and in the final confrontation scene with his wife. Henry has been used by Edward as a dupe and Al continues to misuse his supposed friendship with him to take Henry's wife and business away from him. His radio producer wife, Gina, is wonderfully played by Tanya Anderson. She comes off as a hard ass when Henry tells her about an affair that he is having, only to learn he is describing a dream. Her character softens towards him as the show goes on with the best one being the final confrontation scene and whether it will lead to a reconciliation or not. Tony Estrella is dynamite as Al Gregory, the conniving bastard who sets out to ruin Henry and Gina's lives by revealing hidden secrets about them. He charms the radio audience with his platitudes and interpretation of Emerson which leads to a eventual tragedy. An earlier tragedy is what made Al leave RI many years before. Tony oozes a smarmy captivating air that pulls his victims into Al's web of deceit. A big boo and hiss for his playing this villainous role perfectly.
His bitchy, heavy drinking mother, Marilyn is played splendidly by Alyn Carlson. Her first entrance is during the funeral scene where she makes some ethnic slurs and she insists on selling the radio station. Al's supposed memorial show dedicated to his father brings in big ratings and her hopes are dashed. Alyn's character is redeemed in Act 2 when she comforts Henry and tells him not to trust Al while revealing why he left RI in a hurry. Another hard ass character, Dr. James Bentham is wonderfully played by Richard Donelly. He runs roughshod over Henry's continually delaying the construction on his house in Charlestown and hooks up with Marilyn to gain an interest in the radio station. The radio engineer, Fred is beautifully played by Tom Gleadow. Fred is one of the nicest people in the play and Tom's reactions to all the wildness around him are right on the money. Rounding out the cast are two URI students, Josh Short and Amanda Ruggiero who play a young engaged couple, Chris and Carrie. They come upon Henry and Gina's final confrontation scene and lighten it up by their youthful exuberance and loving behavior. (Karen Carpenter who has appeared in several shows at Gamm, does some hilarious voiceovers including a depressed woman and a happy woman who sounds sorrowful like Bea Arthur as Maude.) So for an exciting new look at an original script which takes place in RI, be sure to catch "Radio Free Emerson". You will enjoy many laughs while watching a talented cast perform a topnotch script. Tell them Tony sent you.