When None Too Fragile chooses a compelling play to produce, the Akron theater doesn't care if the play has been "tested" or proved itself financially successful in other markets. It also doesn't give a hoot if the playwright is well known.
When co-artistic directors Sean Derry and Alanna Romansky chose DC Fidler's two-man drama "Boogieban" for a world premiere in Akron, this husband-and-wife team was drawn to its gripping storytelling of two veterans, separated by generations, who end up helping each other through the lingering trauma of different wars.
"It's a powerful script. Any time when you come across a script that says so much in such a short amount of time, and the effect that it had on us, we had to do it. It wasn't a question of if, it was when," Derry said.
In this story, young Spc. Jason Wynsky is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder after serving in Afghanistan and seeks treatment from Lt. Col. Lawrence Caplan, a military psychiatrist. The two at first dance around each other but gradually build a bond in five sessions in which the young soldier slowly unveils the root of his nightmares.
Playwright Fidler has personal experience with PTSD, having treated veterans suffering from it at Ruby Memorial West Virginia University Hospitals in Morgantown, where he was a professor of psychiatry in the medical school.
None Too Fragile believes in the drama so much, it not only will offer its world premiere in Akron beginning Friday, it also will produce it in Chicago and New York in August and September 2019. A $75,000 Knight Arts Challenge matching grant is funding the local premiere, while the matching funds the theater has raised will pay for the tour.
Taking the work to larger markets was an important part of the grant proposal.
"They want Akron to be headlined with Chicago and New York," Derry said of the Knight Foundation.
At the 80-seat None Too Fragile, which focuses on character-driven theater with great stories, audiences trust the company's Off-Broadway, guerrilla-style work so much, they keep coming back to see plays by playwrights they've never heard of.
"Once you experience that type of theater, you have a hunger for it," Romansky said.
Derry and Romansky heard about "Boogieban" from Paul Jeffery and Judy Casey, season members at None Too Fragile who saw an early reading of the play years ago in West Virginia with her nephew Maj. RJ Casey, a military consultant for the play who's friends with Fidler.
"We read it and loved it and immediately started working on putting it into our season and this project," Derry said.
Derry has talked at length with Fidler about his play and also hired an actor who has deep roots with the work: Travis Teffner of Morgantown originated the role of young Jason six years ago in an earlier version of the script. The actor went on the road with Fidler to perform "Boogieban" excerpts as a teaching tool for psychiatry medical residents at schools across the country, from Alaska to Harvard.
Teffner was eager to be involved with the rewritten play, which now fleshes out the psychiatrist's lingering trauma, too: "Just to tell some version of the truth to get the message out [about PTSD] and to shine awareness onto something that often gets swept under the rug is important."
The mental health connections go further: Actor David Peacock, who plays psychiatrist Lawrence, is a drama therapist who has worked with combat veterans with PTSD and written a thesis on the subject. Peacock, who has traveled from his native Scotland for the Akron project, formerly ran the Valor Home homeless shelter in Akron. He also served as a chef in the U.K. Forces from 1976 to 1986.
"The quality of the writing interested me. The emotional depth interested me," Peacock said.
Fidler, 70, a retired psychiatry professor based in Morgantown, W.Va., and Charlotte, N.C., has also written a seven-person stage version, a novel and a screenplay for "Boogieban." Robert Horwell, a movie producer from London who's interested in turning the military drama into a film, will attend the live show multiple times in Akron.
"The two-person version is so much like a rapid, high-speed chess game," between the older and younger soldier, according to the playwright, who said he wrote the original play in just three days in 2011.
When soldiers experience a flashback, which happens in "Boogieban," they think they're in combat. Psychiatrists know not to get too close or touch a patient when that's happening.
"You have no idea where the brain is going to go. That's dangerous," Fidler said.
None Too Fragile, which opened in the Merriman Valley adjacent to Pub Bricco in 2013, has grown from 60 season members in 2013 to 400 now. Its budget also has grown from $35,000 to close to $200,000 in that span. The small professional theater began awarding Equity actor contracts in 2015 and now has a resident lighting designer (Marcus Dana) and a resident stage manager (Margene Rannigan).
Producing out-of-town runs for "Boogieban" is an important part of the theater's growth. The drama will run Aug. 8-31 in Chicago at the 80-seat Chicago Dramatists Theatre. Then it will run Off Off-Broadway at the 65-seat 13th Street Repertory Theatre in Greenwich Village Sept. 6 through 29.
"We like the energy of that area. The New School's right across the street, NYU's right around the corner. Washington Square, Union Square, it's all right there," Derry said of the heavy foot traffic around the 1972 theater.
"We want a comparable size to what we have here so it's a None Too Fragile experience in New York City," Romansky said.
By bringing "Boogieban" to larger markets, the None Too Fragile founders want to draw artists, unknown playwrights and out-of-town patrons to Akron for theater.
"It's kind of a secondary goal of the theater ... to establish Akron as a theater destination. To do that, we can't think of a better way than to get it known that we do great work. Playwrights can see that we're producing their work in a dynamic and powerful way," Derry said.
"To find new and good stuff, you gotta be willing to produce new and good stuff."
Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her at @KerryClawsonABJ or www.facebook.com/kclawsonabj.