FST's Visit Joe Whitefeather (and bring the family!) Delivers Good Humor
Florida Studio Theatre has rolled out another world premiere production (see Paralyzed), this one a play commissioned by the company during the pandemic, in a program to support playwrights. It’s called Visit Joe Whitefeather (and bring the family!), a rather unwieldy title that does, however, suggest the tone of the comedy by Bruce Graham.
If you remember the great Native American athlete Jim Thorpe, you may or may not know that, in real life, a small Pennsylvania town decided to rename itself after him, in an attempt to revive its economy. This despite the fact Thorpe had absolutely no connection to the town. That’s the inspiration for Visit Joe Whitefeather, in which a town struggling to drive tourism seizes on the opportunity to name itself after a recently deceased Native American war hero, as well as to bury him there and build a monument.
It may sound crazy, but the town’s dedicated if often clueless mayor (Kraig Swartz) is behind it all the way. We get the full story, told 50 years later by Lucy (played by Kim Crow in the present, Malka Wallick in the past), a newcomer to town in the 1970s who gets pulled into the renaming project, partly because she has a new shop she’s hoping will succeed if tourists come.
The effort snowballs, aided and abetted by the good-hearted local sheriff without a gun (Britt Michael Gordon), the undertaker (Jared Sellick) and by two diametrically opposed characters: the hard-drinking, foulmouthed librarian Abigail and the Nixon-supporting town secretary Joanie (both portrayed by FST associate artist Ellie Mooney). But, true to dramatic form, trouble arrives at the end of Act 1: A woman claiming to be Joe Whitefeather’s daughter (Anat Cogan) turns up and wants her father’s body back.
Graham and director Kate Alexander time the escalations of the plot’s contrivances to keep the audience interested and waiting for the next bump in the road. In Joe Whitefeather, the town citizens aren’t portrayed as scheming or greedy individuals, necessarily; they’re just human beings with needs and flaws that lead them to make some seriously bad decisions. You may see some of the plot twists coming, and the original conceit of the piece that a documentary filmmaker (London Carlisle) is shooting a movie on the story never rings true.
But there’s enough fun in the show, with good performances to enjoy (especially by Swartz as the increasingly frustrated mayor and Mooney in her dual roles), that Visit Joe Whitefeather should keep you entertained—even as it raises some still relevant questions about corrupt politicians and cultural appropriation.
The production continues through May 21 in FST’s Gompertz Theatre; for tickets, call (941) 366-9000 or visit floridastudiotheatre.org.