To capture an off-Broadway play that partially takes place in St. Joseph, a playwright and actor had to return home.
In the play “Monkey Man,” Dana Block recounts her troubled relationship with her brother, Marc, in an empathetic, touching way. He suffered from untreated mental illness in a time when it wasn’t understood.
“Coming back to St. Joe to do this is very exciting, but also ... I think it’s somehow like I must feel that I want to go back and explain or complete the story, set the story right,” she said.
Performing the 50-minute play, Block will debut the future off-Broadway production at the Ruby Theater, 625 S. 10th St., at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 24.
Growing up in a Jewish family in St. Joseph in the ’70s, Block looks back at her time in both gleeful and grim memories. She loved making art with her family and remembers her father’s various business and artistic endeavors, like owning a furniture store and acting, with fondness.
“Growing up, it was like a ton of art in the house, always staying up all night making plays, putting out music and jokes,” she said.
She also remembers the struggles, like when Marc started slipping mentally. He acted differently than others, was prone to run away from home and, eventually, ended up living in a hotel room in Canada.
“In his early 20s, he took off hitchhiking across the country. That was the job he made for himself. He become a highwayman,” Block said.
Block’s family and friends couldn’t understand his behavior. They assumed it was drugs, but Block said it had to be mental illness.
“He’d take dad’s car, drive it out of town and just run out of gas. The sheriff or the troopers would find him and call my dad to say ‘Hey, there’s this kid. He’s got your car. He says he’s your son and he’s run out of gas and he’s talking about the men in the clouds,’” she said.
It broke Block’s heart seeing her brother struggle, but she had to eventually let him go in order to live her own life.
“He was this great kid, this really great, gifted kid,” she said.
To work through her relationship with Marc, Block took a deep dive into his life and came up with “Monkey Man.”
“I went to see him one time after he’d been gone for many years. He was living at the Trail’s Motel in Niagara Falls ... And that’s where the show starts,” she said.
Utilizing Marc’s notes and thoughts, as well as conversations shared between the two, Block jumps across timelines to show the person Marc was, who he is now and how his actions affected their relationship. Centering around the feelings she felt knocking on that hotel door, it captures the anxiety and love she has for her brother and their shared history.
“I go through all these hilarious stories back when we were kids and what my parents were like. It’s very entertaining, very funny,” she said.
In the middle, the show circles back to the motel and her memories of high school and the times when Marc’s behavior started changing.
“That to the end is him hitchhiking and using a couple of his monologues to very accurately portray his mental state, his perceptions and who he thought he was,” she said.
While Block has written other short plays, “Monkey Man” was so personal and emotionally raw that she wanted to take it back home.
“I discovered that I miss him because we were so close. That was my first best friend, my first love. He was my brother. It was like ‘What kind of mischief did we not get into?’” she said.
In November, Block will perform “Monkey Man” at the United Solo Festival at Theater Row on 42nd Street in New York City. Performing in St. Joseph means she’ll be able to raise money to advertise that show, as well as hone the production and get feedback.
“It’s New York, so you don’t put out something that’s raggedy. There’s so much competition ... And these festivals are an opportunity sometimes to get a show seen once for one night or five nights,” she said.
An actor with credits in New York and Chicago, as well as performing in regional professional productions, Block said there’s a lot of emotion built into returning to her old stomping grounds.
“When I grew up in St. Joe, there were two synagogues. Strangely enough, one of the synagogues is where this is going to be performed because (RRT) bought the (Ruby) building. That alone is mind blowing,” she said.
In addition to the performance, Block also will be having a “TalkBack with Dana” conversation after the show. And she’ll be holding a workshop, “Your Best 5 Minutes,” from 2 to 5 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 25, with admission being $25.
Admission to “Monkey Man” is $13 to $35. It is intended for mature audiences only.
— Andrew Gaug | St. Joe Live