Gorilla Theater amends Dennis Lehane’s Coronado 

Johnny Butcher and Jake Rakes plot scams in the gender-swapped version of Dennis Lehane’s Coronado, opening at Gorilla Theater Productions on June 13. Photo by Anna Lien Johnny Butcher and Jake Rakes plot scams in the gender-swapped version of Dennis Lehane’s Coronado, opening at Gorilla Theater Productions on June 13. Photo by Anna Lien

Nearly every Christmas, as the Stewart family unwraps its gifts, someone asks, “Who got the new Dennis Lehane book?”

The answer is usually “everyone,” says Kendall Stewart, exaggerating only slightly about her family’s Lehane“obsession,” which began more than a decade ago when Stewart’s mother photographed the Boston-born crime and mystery writer. They’ve read most everything he’s written—Mystic RiverGone, Baby, GoneThe Drop, to name a few—and seen the film adaptations and followed Lehane’s writing on HBO’s “The Wire” and “Boardwalk Empire.”

Stewart, an actress and on-air radio host for 106.1 The Corner, was 16 when Coronado: Stories, a book of five short stories and a play, made the family rounds in 2006. She loved the play and thought, “This is so messed up. This is so dark. I want to do it.” But the content seemed out of reach for a high school production.

“I forgot about it,” says Stewart, a company member of Charlottesville’s Gorilla Theater Productions, until last year, when a family friend mentioned Lehane’s Shutter Island in a social media post.

Stewart immediately proposed Coronado to GTP. Seven yeses, a year of planning and months of rehearsals later, the play opens Wednesday, prior to the company taking it to the Capital Fringe festival in July.

Stewart describes Coronado as “suspenseful, a thriller, a mystery,” its first act a series of scenes focused on three conversations. There’s Gina and her lover, Will, plotting to kill Gina’s husband; a psychiatrist and his female patient conspicuously meeting outside the office; and there’s Bobby and his dad, a career criminal who’s raised his son to swindle and run scams before running out of town—the two are looking for a missing diamond and Bobby’s missing girlfriend, Gwen (played by Stewart). 

The storylines intersect, and, as New York Times theater critic Neil Genzlinger pointed out in his review of the Invisible City Theater Company’s December 2005 production of “Coronado” at Manhattan Theater Source (in which Gerry Lehane originated the role of Bobby’s dad), “The playwright doles it all out at an admirable speed, so that you’re figuring the secrets out just about the time he’s revealing them—not an easy trick.”

And while the play text itself is “a roadmap, and it tells you what’s important,” says Jack Rakes, (Gorilla Theater’s tech director who plays Bobby), it’s the company’s job to look at the text and highlight the relationships and themes, while remaining true to the writer’s intention.

There’s something special about staging a play so focused on intimate relationships between characters in a black box theater, says Anna Lien, Gorilla Theater founder and artistic and managing director, who plays Gina. It keeps the focus on the actors and their characters instead of physical production elements. Rakes says it’s “always the hardest thing, to have private moments in public, and to forget that you’re on stage.”

In this production, the close-talking that happens in the stage bar mimics what happens in a real-life bar. A server, played by Charlie Gilliam, adds another level of reality—his character interrupts the conversations, walking in at inopportune moments, as often happens in restaurants and bars.

Gilliam’s waiter sets Gorilla Theater’s production of Coronado apart from the rest in a major way, one that Lehane himself had to approve before Gorilla Theater could proceed. Lehane wrote the part as a woman having an affair with one of the married men in the play, but because Gorilla Theater is committed to inclusivity and to LGBTQ+ positivity, Stewart wanted the waiter to be a man. Lehane approved Stewart’s proposed amendment to the script and wrote it into the contract that he and Stewart signed.

Though a seemingly small adjustment, “that gender swap amplified a lot of the tension and dynamic betwixt the characters in the love triangle with the waiter,” says Lien, particularly because a gay relationship is “so far outside societal norms from when/where the play is set” in small-town America.  

Most of the characters in Coronado are thrill-seekers trying to get away from the monotony of small-town life—they run cons, have tumultuous affairs and blur ethical lines. But, Bobby, tired of excitement, craves the mundane. 

This paradox is something Gorilla Theater knows fairly well itself, as it aims to stage the classics with a twist alongside “edgy contemporaries,” says Lien. In fact, many Gorilla Theater actors have found themselves a outside of their usual routines as Coronado’s content requires them to “go darker” than they’ve ever gone before.

The production reminds the cast and crew to return “to truth and essentials,” says Lien, to trust a script, revel in apparent simplicity and allow great complexity to reveal itself in moments of absolute truth. 

Place setting

The play is called Coronado, but it’s not set in the California resort city. Or in Kansas, Canada, Uruguay, Panama, Mexico or any other town, village or municipality called Coronado. Instead it’s a plot point in the play. Something happens in Coronado that creates a conversation that leads to—well, let’s just say, other things.

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