Performing Arts gets ‘Tough!’ | The Source | Washington University in St. Louis

Bobby, Jill and Tina gather around the picnic table. Their bickering drifts across Mudd Field. 

“You had to tell her,” says Bobby.

“Well, I thought about it all weekend,” says Jill. “I weighed the pros and cons. But then, yeah. I had to tell her.”

“Betrayal,” says Tina. “Do you know what that word means?”

Things get heated. Things get loud. But fear not, this isn’t some end-of-year meltdown — it’s a live, un-miked, guerilla-style performance of “Tough!,” George F. Walker’s provocative tragicomedy of youth, relationships and thwarted potential.

“Tina is angry because she heard Bobby was flirting with another girl,” said William Whitaker, professor of practice in drama in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, who directs the cast of three. “Jill is there to help Tina deliver some tough news. And Bobby, seeing his whole life about to change, is doing everything possible to escape.

“They’re all fierce and funny and almost preposterously editor-free,” Whitaker added. “Walker has a way of making you laugh and then making you feel a little guilty for laughing.”

Chloe Kilpatrick as Jill. (Photo: Jerry Naunheim Jr./Washington University)

A big experiment

Arguably Canada’s most celebrated contemporary playwright, Walker was born and raised in working-class east Toronto. He set “Tough!” in Moss Park, which has long had a reputation as one of the city’s roughest. But for Whitaker, who previously directed Walker’s “Gossip” and “Escape from Happiness,” the small cast, simple props — a picnic table and trash can— and outdoor setting seemed tailor-made for theater in the time of COVID-19. 

“It naturally came to mind as something we might do near the end of the season, should we get to be outside,” Whitaker said. “A bit of Moss Park on Mudd Field.”

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Whitaker emailed Walker for permission, and the playwright gave his blessing.

“This is a big experiment,” Whitaker said, and not without hurdles. In addition to being un-miked, actors will remain masked whenever they’re within 6 feet of one another — a blocking challenge for such an intimate play. Whitaker recruited local fight coordinator Shaun Sheley to help enact an episode in which Jill, exasperated with Bobby’s equivocations, physically attacks him. “How do you make a socially distanced fight scene that doesn’t look silly?”

And for all its slice-of-life simplicity, “Tough!” does call for one key sound effect: a series of low sirens wailing in the distance. “Whatever else is going on, Bobby always stops to listen to the sirens,” Whitaker said. 

In a theater setting, sirens can sound at the push of a button. On Mudd Field, they require a bit more coordination. “But don’t worry,” Whitaker concluded with a laugh. “We’ve given the heads up to campus police.”

Emma Flannery and Jason Lyons as Tina and Bobby. (Photo: Jerry Naunheim Jr./Washington University)

Tickets

Performances of “Tough!” will begin at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday, April 22, 23 and 24; and at 3 p.m. Sunday, April 25. All performances take place outdoors, on the eastern edge of Mudd Field, near Graham Chapel.

Tickets are free, but advance reservations are required. To comply with campus pandemic guidelines, tickets are limited to WashU students, faculty and staff, one ticket per person.

For more information, call 314-935-6543 or visit pad.wustl.edu.

From left: Emma Flannery, Jason Lyons and Chloe Kilpatrick as Tina, Bobby and Jill. (Photo: Jerry Naunheim Jr./Washington University)

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