The backlit white drapes obscuring chairs and other pieces of furniture make for a pretty compelling metaphor. Much in the way the props hide objects, the characters are hiding secrets, which is a pretty big deal when one of them is a paragon of neighborly living and maintaining joy in even the toughest times.
Based on the 2006 book of the same name, Circle Theatre’s production of I’m Proud of You recounts the friendship between Fred Rogers from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and Tim Madigan, a former Star-Telegram reporter and the book’s author.
The play begins in 1995 Fort Worth. That’s when Tim (Richie Haratine) reached out to Mr. Rogers (Randy Pearlman) for the child guru’s thoughts about the influence of TV violence on kids.
“You know him, at least if you are of a certain age, as Mr. Rogers,” Tim says. “I knew him as my friend, Fred.”
Haratine narrates the bulk of the story, and he never loses energy throughout the 90-minute production describing his growing friendship with Mr. Rogers through phone calls, emails, and personal visits. The two soon open up about their own losses. Just five months earlier, Fred’s close friend died from cancer. The second half of the play focuses on Tim’s life, with Fred, who lived in Pittsburgh, taking on the role of long-distance mentor as the reporter rekindles ties with his estranged younger brother Steve (Gabe Whitehurst).
Pearlman captures Mr. Rogers’ iconic grandfatherly inflections perfectly, and the play balances the television star’s affability with friendly jabs by Tim, who frequently reminds the audience that Fred could be such a nerd at times. Whitehurst masterfully plays several roles, including Tim’s young son and stoic father. Rounding out the troupe is Lisa Fairchild, who adeptly and alternately portrays Fred’s wife and Tim’s mother.
Any portrait of Mr. Rogers could easily devolve into a vortex of sentimentality, based on the tropes we associate with him. I’m Proud of You reframes them by discussing Mr. Rogers’ troubled childhood, his insecurities, and his notorious off-stage cursing. (His favorite word was “shit.”) The results are both entertaining and life-affirming.
Circle Theatre artistic director Ashley White said audiences have responded to the play that runs through Saturday by consistently packing the house. Launching in February, the 2024 season will focus on the idea of thriving in a world where many are simply trying to survive, she said.
“Every play has a beautiful human element to it that is really focused on defining what it means to thrive when you are given certain circumstances,” she said.
Season opener Artemisia by Lauren Gunderson is a new work about the Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi.
“She fought for her art,” White said, adding that Gunderson’s treatment of the historical figure is humorous and warm but loaded with heavy themes.
Mid-March will see the regional premiere of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize-winning Water by the Spoonful by Quiara Alegría Hudes (In the Heights). The work alternates between physical and virtual spaces while following the story of an Iraq War veteran.
“We also get a glimpse of an internet chat room that is a survival space for recovering addicts,” White said. “Looking at it in a post-2020 world, we see that we still rely on online communications to fulfill a need in ourselves. It is lovely and poignant.”
White said theater troupes like hers have to work hard to entice new audiences.
“My friend and fellow producer Rebecca Lowrey says it takes nine months to build a habit,” White said. “We had two to three years to build the habit of staying home [during the pandemic]. It’s still very new to all of us to get out of our houses and do things like consuming performing arts. Theater and storytelling are all about relationships and sharing raw humanity and experiences. That is something beautiful and something that we have all been missing. A lot of us are working hard to get people back in theater spaces.”
I’m Proud of You closes with Haratine describing Rogers’ death from stomach cancer in 2003. The heartfelt reflection on the great man’s life was a call to action for everyone to find time for acts of kindness.
I’m Proud of You
Thru Sat at Circle Theatre,
230 W 4th St, FW. $37-40.