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‘The Sugar Ridge Rag’ launches at LAB Theater in Ybor

Bill DeYoung

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The cast of LAB's "The Sugar Ridge Rag': Heather Cole, left, Nathan Juliano, Ricardo Fernandez and Tyler Wood. Photo provided.

For decades, South Florida playwright Philip Middleton Williams had the germ of an idea in the back of his mind – a period drama about twin brothers, with opposite opinions on the Vietnam War, and the effect each one’s life choice has on the family.

The dramatic train started rolling in April 2020, on the 50th anniversary of the tragedy at Kent State University, when four students engaged in a protest were shot and killed by the Ohio National Guard.

Williams, who grew up in northwest Ohio, was 17 at the time, and remembered his dread, hoping his draft notice would never arrive.

The memories provided the spark for The Sugar Ridge Rag, a powerful, engaging drama being produced – for the first time anywhere – by Tampa’s LAB Theater Project.

It tells the story of brothers Dave and Pete Granger, who live with their parents – it’s not Ozzie and Harriet, but it’s a reasonably typical American household – and who must each make a tough decision.

“I think the Granger family is a combination of a lot of my friends’ families,” Williams says. “Including my own.  My older brother by two years got his draft physical letter in 1969, but since he was still in high school, he didn’t get drafted. I was – and still am – a conscientious objector.”

The Sugar Ridge Rag, directed by Caroline Jett, is onstage Thursdays-Sundays through May 15. On-demand viewing starts May 12 and runs through the 24th.

According to the theater’s founder and artistic director Owen Roberson, Williams’ play ticked all the boxes. ”With every submission we get, the primary question we ask is ‘Is there a good story being told?’ And with Sugar Ridge Rag, we loved the story. And as we dug deeper, we saw the parallels to what we’re living in today. And we thought it was a really nice way to use events of the past to speak to us now, through a really good story.”

In other words: “Anybody who has half a brain in this age knows we’re living in a massively polarized political climate.”

Williams was in attendance when the production premiered last weekend. “I was amazed at the closeness of the cast and how well they worked together, as well as the complete professionalism that I’ve seen ever since I started working with Owen and Caroline. 

“Everything about this production – the set, the lights, the costuming, the props, the sound effects, and most importantly, the portrayal of the characters – is what I thought of seeing on stage as I wrote it.  They are even showing me things about themselves that I didn’t see until they did it on stage.”

Williams, who’s written more than 50 plays, says that although the subjects are story arcs are diverse, there’s a commonality in his work. “I use humor as an integral part of the story, but the plots tend to depend on character interaction,” he explains. “The themes revolve around changes to the status quo for the characters, and a deep sense of uncertainty about their way forward in life.”

Uncertainty is part of the process for LAB, as producing only new, untried works carries with it the risk of audiences simply not showing up.

Says Robertson: “I don’t have the benefit of people going ‘I know that playwright’ or ‘I know that show.’ And theater is a risky venture on its own.”

Ah, but doing theater this way – walking the high wire – has its rewards.

“Audiences get to be contributors to the growth of this new product,” says Robertson. “Through their feedback, the playwright gains insights as the show goes forward.”

(Playwright Williams will hold a talkback after the performance this Saturday, May 7.)

And when The Sugar Ridge Rag is published – soon – it’ll say, right there in the script, that it was first produced by LAB Theater Project, Ybor City, Florida.

“Every season, without fail, there’s a member of the cast who realizes they’re the first one who’s ever done it,” Robertson adds. “As an artist in theater, that’s a rush. There’s a tremendous amount of pride that comes with that.”

Details and tickets are here.

 

 

 

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