The Falls Church-based community theater company Providence Players of Fairfax has been considering staging “Side Man” for a few years now, but had shied away from taking on the gritty drama. The play shows the circumstances that faced the men who made their living playing jazz, a take which doesn’t ignore the struggles jazzmen and their families faced. The challenging nature of the material wasn’t lost on Jimmy Gertzog, but despite the demanding script, he wanted to take it on as his main-stage directorial debut.
“It was definitively on everybody’s mind, including my own, that this would be a tough play to take on for my first time,” Gertzog said. But the script spoke to Gertzog and he had a vision for the play, so he put in a bid to direct the production.
And so Gertzog embarked upon planning to stage “Side Man,” a play which tells the story of Gene, a jazz trumpeter for hire, through the recollections of his son, Clifford. Clifford, as narrator, directly engages the audience. He sets the scene with his words, but also does so in a more literal sense.
Gertzog said the script calls for Clifford to be something of a stage manager, who manipulates props and pieces of the set to best tell his tale, and move audiences through the story as time goes by.
“The stage is his canvas,” Gertzog said.
The plot covers three decades of Gene’s career through Clifford’s eyes. Delivering the story in flashbacks presented the directorial challenging of making the separation between Clifford’s narration and his enacted memories distinct, as well as showing how time has passed between scenes.
Gertzog said a good lighting design helped distinguish between scenes, and credits his father, Technical Director Chip Gertzog, for his efforts. His actors, too, meet the play’s inherent demands. As Clifford, actor Ari Post helped shape how Clifford should interact with the audience and present the character’s memories.
Gertzog says that the actors take up “the lion’s share of the work” in conveying the passage of time through changes in the portrayal of their characters (though topical script hints, like mentions of Elvis and the Cuban Missile Crisis help, too).
Hopping into the “capital ‘D’ director’s chair” is the latest step in a long history of posts with the company – a founding member of Providence Players, now in its 14th season, Gertzog is an experienced lighting, sound and staging worker with technical director and stage manager credits with Providence Players.
“You’re participating in creating a vision for the show,” Gertzog said, comparing his past positions with directing.
Currently a master’s degree student at Georgetown University studying linguistics, Gertzog said the play was the kind of “meaty” work he wanted to take on. While coarse language and mature themes like mental illness, marital distress, and drug use are part of that script, Gertzog sees these adult situations as a crucial part in realistically depicting the lives of jazz musicians, through the waxing and waning of their success and of the craft itself.
“It’s important to show the range of these people’s lives, the highs and lows,” Gertzog said. “They had good times and bad times, and there were consequences for both.”
“Side Man” will be staged Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. on March 23, 24, 29, 30, 31, April 5, 6, and 7, with Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. March 25 and April 1. Performances will take place at The James Lee Community Center, 2855 Annandale Road, Falls Church. Tickets are $18, and $15 for seniors and youth. Tickets may be ordered online at providenceplayers.org, by email to [email protected] or by calling the Providence Players ticket line at 703-425-6782.