Tony Isbell: Discovering The Humans 

click to enlarge Tony Isbell, director of The Humans at Circuit Playhouse. - JON W. SPARKS
  • Jon W. Sparks
  • Tony Isbell, director of The Humans at Circuit Playhouse.
Tony Isbell is drawn to certain kinds of plays, those, he says, with natural, honest, and truthful dialogue — and relationships that are "juicy." So when Michael Detroit, executive producer at Playhouse on the Square, asked him to direct The Humans, Isbell said he'd give it a read. "I immediately fell in love with it. Playwright Stephen Karam has a way with dialogue that is maybe the most naturalistic that I've ever read or dealt with."

The play runs at Circuit Playhouse through September 8th and has lured a remarkable cast.
Jo Lynne Palmer, Christina Wellford Scott, Barclay Roberts, Lena Wallace Black, Brooke Papritz, and Steven Burk tell the story of a family that has gathered for Thanksgiving. It's a common storytelling device, but the execution of it is far from typical, Isbell says.

"On the surface it seems maybe familiar, like something we've seen before," he says. "It's like one of those slice of life dramas where we see a family get together and spend time together. There's a grandmother, parents, grown daughters, and one of the daughter's new boyfriend. But this is not one of those plays where there's a big astounding revelation that people then spend the next hour fighting over. There are a lot of smaller revelations that people deal with, like people do in real life."

For Isbell, this is the heart of the production, the relationships among characters. "I am less interested as a director in a spectacle and you know, cool sets and costumes. I mean, yeah, I like all those things, but I try to provide the best possible ground for actors to really shine and really dig their teeth into something. And these people do."

They're a blue collar, lower middle class family, recognizably Irish American Catholic hard-working stock. And there are pressures: an ailing parent, financial stresses, children who have strayed a bit from the church. "The most important thing about this play in one way is the fact that these characters all love each other," Isbell says. "They have some conflicts, they resolve them, they love each other, they make fun of each other, they laugh with each other, they occasionally cry with each other."

To know Isbell is to appreciate his passion for theater. He is a co-founder of Quark Theatre (its slogan is "Small Plays About Big Ideas") and as it embarks on its fourth year, it continues with its mission to get under the skin and make viewers feel and think and react. So while The Humans is not Quark fare, it is very much in that spirit. And you won't have to wait long for Quark's first show of the season. The Memphis premiere of Wakey Wakey by Will Eno opens September 20th at TheatreSouth.

For Isbell, having shows bunching up like this is next to normal. "I've averaged about three shows a year over the last 40 years," he says, "which seems unbelievable, but that's kind of what I've done." That's a long commitment to directing and acting at venues all around the area, and his devotion was noted last year when he was honored with the Eugart Yerian Lifetime Achievement Award at the Ostrander ceremonies. He is quick to point out that he's not the only lifetime achiever in The Humans. Jo Lynne Palmer received the award a few years ago and Christina Wellford Scott will take it home this Sunday from this year's Ostrander ceremonies.

So Isbell is confident that audiences will be drawn in to the play and will take something home. "It will probably leave you questioning some things and will probably have you discussing it with your companion saying, 'I think this was like this' and then 'No, I think it was like this.' It'll be that kind of thing."

The Humans
8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. The Circuit Playhouse, 51 South Cooper Street. Call 901 726-4656 or visit the website.

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