I’ve made a challenge to myself in the new year to see as many new works as possible. I’d like to see more theater in general, but I’m especially interested in supporting new playwrights and theater companies that produce new work. Sandbox Theatre is one of those companies. Dedicated to creating new plays and developing artists, they focus on visual dramaturgy (storytelling through design and movement) and divisive theater which creates shows through collaboration of the artists performing the shows.
Big Money is a great example of this work. Staged as a live taping of the game show Press Your Luck, the show explores the life of Michael Larson (Peter Heeringa), a game show contestant who won over $100,000 on one episode of the show in 1984. A resident of Lebanon, OH, Larson looks to get rich without work, saying, “I don’t do jobs.” This real-life story follows Larson’s clever methods of finding loopholes in the rules and shortcuts through the system to make money. He knows how to play the game and he plays it well. At home, his wife Theresa (Sarah Parker) struggles with his scheming and obsessive game-show watching, feeling torn between the love she has for him and the turmoil his actions cause. Both Heeringa and Parker are absolutely wonderful in their roles and bring a great emotional depth to both their characters and the relationship they share. Also marvelous are Derek Meyer as host Peter Tomarken, Emma Larson as Michael’s daughter, Eric Weiman as Michael’s brother, and Cameron Mielicke and Cortez Owens as Technicians who, along with the other cast members, create the environment of the game show and keep it moving smoothly.
Because the show is staged as a game show, there are some really fantastic technical elements at work. Synth-styled music, designed and performed by Tim Donahue, capture the feel of Press Your Luck while also aiding in creating Larson’s mindset. Heidi Eckwall’s lighting design creates a game board full of wins and whammies and also produces the wide emotional shifts that occur throughout the show. Mandi Johnson’s costumes keep us rooted in the 80s while also helping us clearly distinguish the actors when the take on multiple roles. And Leazah Behrens’ set design works to move us from the game show set to Larson’s home with ease. I also greatly enjoyed that the soundboard and the lighting board were at the front of the theater, both to heighten the feel of the game show set but also as a nice way to highlight the work the real-life technicians were doing.
Long after seeing this show, my heart still aches for Michael Larson. There are moments where he appears greedy and conniving, almost Trumpish in his attempt to evade and escape the rules. But there are also moments where he is just a person fighting to escape a system and succeed at winning the American Dream that has been proclaimed to be his and everyone’s. Everyone’s a winner, Press Your Luck states. But not everyone wins. And even Larson, who walks away with more prize money than the show had ever given out before, loses everything, including his family. At times it reminds me slightly of Assassins in its struggle with what happens when the American Dream fails us and might not be true at all, as well as what happens when those who are not traditionally seen as winners fight for success as Larson was – Theresa tells us multiple times that he’s not handsome, his refusal to hold a job and work hard outrages his brother, and, while his attitude towards being rich are part of the success narrative we all know, his methods at getting it are not. This heartbreaking story reveals what happens to a clever mind caught in the wrong place and how a need for monetary wealth and squelch out everything else. As a kid who was overly fascinated with getting rich quick and hoped to find “pirate treasure” one day so I wouldn’t have to worry about working, Larson’s anxiety about monetary security are all too familiar. And for those of us that now know how difficult or even impossible to have monetary security (such as myself), Larson’s story still resonates in a different way. There’s a strong difference between him and the billionaire who’s about the take the oath of office this Friday. The play shows this, in the scene where Larson is told by real estate consultants how he should use his money to invest. However, they’re the ones who see the profits rather than Larson. While Larson might claim that he doesn’t do jobs, he puts an immense amount of work into trying to play a game in a system that ultimate screws him over. The timing of this show is perfect and asks questions that will only continue to be more important in the days to come: what does it really mean to be a winner? A loser? If we play the system, can we every really break out of it? And what do we sacrifice to do it?
Big Money is directed by Theo Langason and created by the ensemble, led by Derek Lee Miller. It is playing now through January 28th. Ticket and show information can be found on both Sandbox’s website and Park Square’s.