Metaphors & Fun: Tokens of Affection has it all

By Carrie Moore

In previous opening seasons, the Black Hills Playhouse (BHP) has started off with drama, adventure and family fun. But for the 73rd season, the BHP is stepping up their game – and running audience members through every emotion in the process.

“Tokens of Affection,” which will run through Sunday, June 17, tells the story of Frank and Jackie Garrett, two 60 year-olds contemplating divorce after 37 years of marriage. (He doesn’t send her flowers. “It’s a metaphor.”) Of course, that isn’t known until a third of the way or so into the show — which is probably half of the fun in itself. 

As “Tokens” opens, we meet Charlie (Jason Reuter), a Manhattan video game designer who works from home and is desperately trying to meet his deadline of designing sea turtles for a new video game. Sea turtles that breathe fire. Even though they live underwater. (You’ll see.) But Charlie is soon interrupted by an impromptu visit from his father, Frank (David Wintersteen), who claims to be on a business trip to the big city. Distraction one.

Then, Charlie’s sister, Claire (Josey Miller), calls from her Connecticut home, concerned that she can’t get ahold of their parents. Distraction two. Soon, Claire calls back to inform her brother their mother, Jackie (Carrie Wintersteen), is now at her house – cleaning everything in sight. Distraction Three. 

And then there’s Charlie’s neighbor, Rita (Justis Drake), brother-in-law Bruce Burnham (Ryan Adolph), a dead plant and some broken appliances, a ceiling fan and a door without a peephole. I think I’ve lost count on the distractions….

While at first not wanting to be involved in the ensuing drama, Charlie joins forces with his sister and attempts to help reconcile the older couple — for the sake of everyone’s sanity! And, as it always does, hilarity ensues, complete with witty and fast-paced jokes, laugh-inducing props (who knew an overly-iced freezer could be SO funny!?!) and a kinda—sorta Parent Trap twist.

And while numerous laughs will be had, “Tokens” does bring to light the plight many relationships have, especially the long-haul challenges that come with marriage. It’s a wonderfully relatable tale that shows with relationships — new or old — come complications.

“Tokens” was directed by the BHP’s artistic director Dan Workman, who masterfully crafted a production full of emotions and depth. Workman put together a great cast, who played off of each other marvelously.

BHP’s fan-favorite Reuter — dressed in video-game t-shirts and sloppy button ups — plays a easy-going Charlie, who really doesn’t want to get involved in the family drama. He has great chemistry with Drake, which shows right off the bat, when the two trade banter in the first scene of “Tokens.” But he really shines with his facial reactions, eye rolls and all! And it should also be noted that Drake brought a lot of life into Rita. She was snarky, funny and down-to-earth — the perfect charm the role needed. (My favorite of the two’s iteration was debating over spoiled milk: “Drink it. I need to see your face!”)

While not in a lot of scenes together, real-life married couple David and Carrie Wintersteen play the Garretts with a lot of heart. Their characters contemplate divorce after nearly 40 years of marriage, so naturally there’s going to be a bevy of emotions and the Wintersteens showed a lot of them. The audience was rooting for the couple; and we were blessed with a talented performance. (My most favorite description of Jackie has to be as “Martha Stewart on crystal meth.” Cue hysterical laughing.)

But perhaps my favorite character was Miller’s Claire, an uptight bundle of nerves who is FREAKING out and doesn’t want her parents to divorce. Miller nails the personality swings — directed mainly at Reuter, which is hilarious! —and expertly delivers her lines, all while having a breakdown. Hard to do, I imagine. Miller was funniest when she was barking orders to her brother (“Fix it. Fix it, Charlie!” or “Do, it! Do it! Do it!”) and even comical when not saying anything. Adolph was great as Miller’s on stage husband, Bruce, playing him as a likable guy, who means well but doesn’t want to overstep his bounds. He also has a face for phonebooks. You’ll see what I mean. 

In addition to the cast, the design crew is amazingly talented, creating a wonderful environment for a wonderful show. 

In my years of reviewing the BHP, this has to be one of the most detailed sets I’ve ever seen. It’s a marvel. Scenic designer RJ Fitzsimmons built a very believable Manhattan set, with a workable window, fire escape and appliances. There’s a freezer full of ice, a refrigerator not really all that full — despite a trip to Whole Foods — and a television on a roll away cart. There’s also Charlie’s work area, filled with turtle sketches and stuffed animals, wires and books for reference and, my favorite, Amazon boxes — because a graphic designer who works from home would have tons of things delivered from Amazon. A small detail that really made a big impact. And, a few other details I loved: action figures hidden throughout the set, empty take out boxes and a handful of beer bottles. All great details making it totally believable we are in a bachelor’s apartment. 

And another nifty design in the set is how we see the Burnham’s home in Connecticut. I won’t go into great detail, because that’s half the magic, but it’s a really neat way to drop in and see how Claire is handling her mother. And every time Claire is revealed, it just gets funnier and funnier. The reveal is also done well with lighting designer Stephen Azua, who also crafts lights in some fun ways, like in Charlie’s computer. 

Costume designer Christina Olson dressed the cast perfectly, all fitting with their personalities: Charlie’s casual style, Rita’s comfortableness and Frank’s work ethic and willingness to build (shown through a tool belt). It was also funny to see how similarly dressed Jackie and Claire are, despite Claire trying to not be like her mother. To me, that spoke volumes about their relationship and, really, many mother-daughter relationships. Despite trying to be different, it’s not such a bad thing to end up like your mother.

And while I don’t know who took care of the props for this production — kudos! There were a lot, but none so beaten up like the ferns and flowers. Hopefully there’s no such thing as PETP (People for the Ethical Treatment of Plants)?

Once again, the BHP kicks off their season with a bang. “Token of Affection” is a wonderfully sweet and heartwarming play that makes you examine your own relationships to see if the “flowers” are still ongoing. (It’s a metaphor.) But you know what’s not a metaphor…get to this show, before it’s too late!

For more information, visit blackhillsplayhouse.com.