FAMILY VALUES AND THE SUGAR RIDGE CLOTH at the LAB Theater Project
“There will always be wars, it’s human nature, it’s who we are.”- Hal Granger
“Whether we’re miles apart or in the same room, we’re two halves of the same man…just different beats…like ragtime.”-The Granger brothers in conversation
The Sugar Ridge Cloth a play by Phillip Middleton Williams premiered at the LAB Theater Project in the historic town of Ybor in Tampa on April 28, 2022. The story is a complex but simplistic study of the life of an average family in rural Ohio and of what is hidden deep within the family. values and the definition of true love.
17-year-old Pete and Dave Granger are twin brothers in rural northwest Ohio in 1970. Dave enlists in the army; Pete travels to Canada to pursue his career in music. Over the next five years, their lives are turned upside down by the Vietnam War and the choices they made. Deb and Hal, their parents, must deal with the consequences of their actions and their future as a family.
On May 4, 1970, now fifty-two years to the day, 4 Kent State students and nine other unarmed wounded were shot dead by the Ohio National Guard, during a peace rally s’ opposing the increasing involvement of the United States in the Vietnam War. This event marked the first time in US history that a student was killed at an anti-war rally. In 2020, fifty years to the day, Phillip Middleton Williams sat down to write the history of the Grangers. In his Notes from the playwright to the program, he explains his approach,
“Each of us has moments when our lives change course. How we handle that moment says a lot about who we are, where we will go and how it will affect those we love. For me, one of those moments was May 4, 1970, when four students were killed at Kent State University in Ohio during a protest against the war in Vietnam I was seventeen and lived to just over a hundred miles from the school. The loss hit me hard because these students weren’t much older than me, and at least one of them wasn’t even involved in the protest; he was just passing over there. The dead have divided the country again because of the war, wounds that have not yet healed. For me, the war has changed from being a series abstraction of grainy images on the evening news into something of real that I should face in four months when I am eighteen years old and I have to register for the repechage. he choice I made that morning in May 1970 changed my life forever.
The company of artists representing the Granger family is strong in intention and heart. Not a single weak link in the whole company.
Tyler Wood as Dave Granger is strong-willed and strong-hearted. He goes deep into his psyche to portray a young man haunted by images of war, and his moments of PTSD are heartbreaking to watch. I will say from an audience perspective that the use of facial expressions throughout makes it hard to find Dave believable at times. It was almost cartoonish, and I wonder if it was character choice or director choice, but it left me wondering the reasoning behind it. Some of his interactions with the other characters on stage came across as forced, and there were times when I wish he could find more time to ground his intentions.
Ricardo Fernandez as Pete Granger knows what he wants, and though he’s torn between his passion and love for his family, he stops at nothing to achieve his goals. He even goes so far as to distance himself completely from the family aside from the occasional phone call. He was afraid of the current political climate at the time, and the idea that he “dodged the project” to pursue music made his life even more complicated. You get a sense of real urgency in Ricardo’s portrayal and at times it’s captivating to watch. Add a little humor and wit and Ricardo’s performance as Pete Granger earns him the title of best of the series.
Like Deb Granger, Heather Cole is strong here. Recalls Laurie Metcalf in Ladybug, she is pragmatic and protective of her boys and wants the best for them. Heather Cole’s moments with Hal are great to watch, but it’s the moments with her boys that really pay off. The separate interactions at different times over the years really show the true depth of a mother’s love, and I’m sure they will resonate with mothers from all walks of life.
Nathan Juliano as Hal Granger is stoic and no frills in delivery and family values. He works hard to support his family and at the same time would give up everything for them. Having seen Nathan on stage in These shining lives, for me, it’s a much stronger turn for him as a performer. Hal wants the best for his two boys and loves them equally. Nathan should be commended for his excellent work here.
Director Caroline Jett builds a loving home with strong foundations by telling the story of Granger. Divided equally between the performers on stage and its team of designers and backstage helpers, there is no uncrossed “T”. She’s running a tight ship here. There are times when I can’t tell if the pacing feels long, or if it’s just a script issue, but the second act is shorter than the first in a way that feels a lot longer long. There were moments during the second half where the story seemed to move at a snail’s pace. Even a few times when the scene change happened and there were what seemed like minutes (but actually mere seconds) where nothing happened and the scene was dark, I didn’t know if it was a moment of costume change, but it left me confused. I was also a little confused about the use of nude colored sleeves on Dave. I wondered if maybe he had tattoos and that didn’t fit the character. With the help of Peter Zalizniak as assistant director and Beth Tepe-Robertson as stage manager, the brave people of LAB Theater Project set out to tell the story of the Granger family and in turn successfully delivered a story on a solid foundation of moral values, and that a family’s love will withstand anything it faces.
Technically sound The Sugar Ridge Cloth is beautifully captured in Scenic/Dressing, Lighting, Sound and Costume Design. Catherine Hagner beautifully blends the world of ragtime and 70s era music to place us convincingly in the period of the show. in set design and lighting design, Owen Robertson knocks it cleanly out of the park. The set is exquisitely designed and allows the eye to capture every part of the Grangers’ lives without being too busy, and the lighting effectively conveys the tender moments of their lives. Beth Tepe-Robertson’s Set Dressing is wonderfully executed right down to the box of cornflakes in the kitchen. The concept also perfectly mixes the exterior and the interior and makes it possible to focus on the place in which their life takes place at specific times. Costume design by Beth Tepe-Robertson, Roz Potenza and Caroline Jett seamlessly blends the world of show business and places it in a time period where the lives of these characters exist. Technically exquisite, the folks at Lab Theater have expertly crafted a feast for the eyes.
The Sugar Ridge Cloth connected most with me in the idea of being a twin. Although my brother and I are not as close as the two brothers portrayed in this show, we are identical in terms of similarities. I’m right handed, I went to college and play the piano, my brother is left handed and joined the military, and no matter how far apart we seem, we will always support each other.
Playwright Phillip Middelton Williams says it best,
“For a long time, I thought of writing about twin brothers taking different paths, each following what he believed to be his calling and what his decisions meant for the people he left behind. When the fiftieth anniversary of Kent State came in 2020, I got to hear the Granger family from Sugar Ridge, Ohio tell me about their memories of that time and how they handled it. wasn’t about politics or ideology or war against peace It was about how each of them learned that something as simple as being able to sit in the garden one evening summer and listening to a baseball game on the radio was what really mattered, and how loving each other was the most important thing of all.”
The Sugar Ridge Cloth is the perfect ticket to share with families near and far. On stage in person until May 15, 2022. If you can’t make it, LAB Theater Project is offering an on-demand option from May 12 through May 26, 2022. Tickets for both options can be found by visiting labtheaterproject. com. For seven years, Lab Theater Project has provided the Tampa Bay community with a chance to experience new works, and I for one am grateful to have them around.
PHOTO CREDIT: LAB THEATER PROJECT