Encore Michigan

Joe Z’s latest, ‘New Releases,’ at The Williamston

Review May 23, 2019 Bridgette Redman

WILLIAMSTON, Mich.–Joseph Zettelmaier has a knack in his works of making you laugh all night—until he punches you in the gut and you cry.

Except usually slightly less violently than that.

The world premiere of New Releases opened at Williamston, the tenth time they’ve premiered one of Zettelmaier’s works at the 13-year-old theater company. And the show really can make you laugh and make you cry.

This one opens at a video rental store, a relic in these days, and one that has only five months before it closes its doors for good. Jen, the 21-year-old clerk played by Jamie Lien, has closed up early because she’s eager to get to her Halloween party. But Carol, played by Sandra Birch, is pounding on the door insisting that she get to use the 10 minutes left before closing to find a video.

The sarcasm-laden exchange between these two fine actors launches an ongoing, odd relationship between them. Jen is mesmerized by what she doesn’t know about Carol and Carol seems to need something from the exchange as well. Over the next several months, Carol returns and Jen tries to learn more about her, growing more excited about each visit.

Entered into this mix is Bob, the store’s owner, played by Scott Norman. The shop was the fulfillment of his dreams and he fondly remembers the days when video was king and the Sex Pistols were hot.

There is much to love about this play and Williamston’s production of it.

The dialog is witty, fast, and smart, but always accessible and easy to follow. The play is richly layered with multiple themes that explore relationships, commitment, expectations, lost dreams, hopes, and the bitterness that comes from things not turning out the way you wanted them to.

Lien is a BFA acting student at Michigan State University, but she holds her own on stage with a veritable legend such as Birch. She is intense. She sparkles and carries herself with a confidence that makes Jen likeable even in those moments where she slips into the hostility that has kept her isolated from her peers.

Lien provides Jen with a lot of spunk and gives glimpses of how endearing she can be, despite her prickliness and tendency to push others away.

Birch succeeds at retaining an air of mystery while never being even slightly dishonest about who she is and is not. She’s often bemused, but each of her choices make things pull together at the end.

Watching these two women connect and build an odd sort of relationship is the backbone of the show and Lien and Birch make it blossom beautifully.

Norman and Lien also have wonderful scenes together, with Norman finding a balance between being a washed-up child of the 80s whose dreams belong to another time and being a sage who has learned from life and is sanguine about what it has to offer.

Director Paige Conway makes good use of her stage crew to provide the nameless customers who help change the set and provide transitions between scenes in a way that keeps the energy level high and the activity constant. While this is Conway’s directing debut with Williamston, it is clear she has worked with them many times as she perfectly understands the company’s artistic language and has directed a show that looks and sounds like a Williamston show.

Zettelmaier’s shows often explore the unusual, the comic or dramatic extreme, or some piece of actual or literary history. By contrast, this show seems surprisingly pedestrian at first, with its characters all very normal people in normal circumstances. In creating that setting and those characters, Zettelmaier takes the audience on a journey that gives three generational perspectives on what to do with a life that seems either devoid of excitement or filled with disappointment. It ultimately gives this show incredible heart and a story that anyone can relate to.

The ending is extremely powerful, and it’s only a bit of a spoiler to suggest you bring tissues. More importantly, it is a well-earned ending. It is a moment that the play has built to in sometimes unexpected ways and it brings together its themes and the character’s conflicts in a way that is touching and beautiful.

The teamwork of Bartley Bauer’s scenic design and Michelle Raymond’s props design created a video store that was authentic in appearance, covered in movie posters, filled with shelves of videos, and reminiscent of video stores with the counter of candy and the bulletin announcing store policies. The room of X-rated videos was covered in appropriate posters and a video-return box got frequent use.

New Releases is an emotionally satisfying and authentic show executed with grace and a commitment to sharing the lives of these characters in a way that they get under your skin and into your heart.