“Into the Night” is a unique theatrical collaboration • St Pete Catalyst

There’s an extraordinary confluence of good stuff on stage this weekend at Studio Grand Central in St. Petersburg – a perfect storm of story, screenplay, positivity and performance skill.

In the night, an original play by Rosalind Cramer and Linda MacCluggage, is performed inside the intimate theater this weekend, Friday and Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons.

It is the story of widow Claire Fallon and her son Benny, who has Down syndrome, an intellectual disability caused by a genetic disease. Things are happening in the lives of mother and son, things that are sure to change their relationship and their respective futures.

In the night is a collaboration with Theater eXceptional, the Pinellas-based organization that produces theater with adults with disabilities, with the aim of educating the public and eliminating the stigma that tends to surround intellectual disabilities.

And actors love to do it.

MacCluggage, a Sarasota resident, met Theater eXceptional director Brianna Larson several years ago when they were both cast in a play. Larson explained what his company, founded in 2015, does.

“I started thinking, ‘Let’s tell a story about some people with cognitive disabilities,'” McCluggage recalls. “We never, ever hear their stories.”

Attached to the project from the earliest days was Ryan Prince, a regular performer in Larson’s productions. Prince, who has Down syndrome, was McCluggage’s first and only choice to play Benny. He is 27 years old.

“I have no direct experience with a family member with Down syndrome,” she says. “I did a lot of research and we definitely met Brianna’s students, took a few classes…and then when I started working with Ryan, we became good friends.

“His passion is acting, the same way Benny’s passion is art. And he’s a huge movie buff. The first time I met him, I was directing Harvey; He tells me what year the movie was shot and who was there.

The Bear character in In the night bears more than a passing resemblance to Harvey, the Invisible Rabbit.

In this production, the cast includes several familiar faces, professional actors from both sides of the bay – Nicole Jeannine Smith (who plays Claire), Roz Potenza, MacKenzie Aaryn, Ward Smith and Matthew Frankel.

Their interaction with Prince’s Benny, with each other, and with Sally Norris, another outstanding performer in the theater, drives the story forward at a brisk pace. “To me, it’s just a realistic story – as much as possible – of a young adult’s coming of age,” MacCluggage says. “But a young person whose history we don’t see.”

Potenza plays Benny’s grandmother, Rose.

MacCluggage says she named the character after her co-writer Rosalind (Roz) Cramer, who died of cancer in 2017, while In the night was in its infancy.

Cramer, like MacCluggage, a veteran “theater man”, was undergoing treatment when they began working on the story. “I would come, we would sit at the kitchen table and talk about it. It was a great way to kind of be with a friend who was going through something.

“And we did a reading before he passed away, at the Sarasota Art Center. Her kids came, and it was wonderful, and I remember her daughter saying to me, “That was awesome — my mom was a writer tonight, and not just a cancer patient.”

MacCluggage promised her friend that In the night would continue.

Equal parts drama, comedy, fantasy and reality check, In the night unlike anything else on the Tampa Bay stages in recent memory. It will affect people in different ways.

“In many ways, the story is Claire’s story,” says MacCluggage. “It’s about how she changes. Because Benny isn’t really changing – it’s just that Benny is finally able to say what he wants, and his mom sees it.

“I had a couple moms come up to me after the premiere this week and said, ‘Oh…that was so real. Because that’s a problem when you have an adult child with a disability – helping him find his independence, or putting up barriers for him because we’re too afraid of him finding his independence.

And the playwright/director has a wish for her audience. “I hope it’s a chance for them to open their eyes a bit and say, ‘Oh. He’s just a different person. A young person who probably wants the same things that all young people want.'”

Find tickets here.

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