Having gotten into a prestigious theater program, young Thomas Sweitzer freezes up at its audition. “Remember to breathe,” the compassionate director repeatedly tells him. “Just tell us about your life.” Sweitzer, who has written and performs this theatrical exorcism does just that. It’s his own true story.
Tom grew up in 1970s Altoona, Pennsylvania, in the ostensible care of a sweet, 300 pound, diabetic, tobacco addicted mom who believed food solved everything. His illiterate father was distant, a paranoid schizophrenic, an alcoholic and abusive. Saturday nights, when dad particularly tied one on, Mrs. Sweitzer would take her son to a cheap motel while the drunkard trashed their home and occasionally did himself harm. Screaming was as anticipated as breakfast.
There was no organized religious teaching, yet having seen Laura Ingalls pray in the TV series, Little House on the Prairie, Tom began to emulate her. A Methodist church across the street beckoned. One day, the boy knocked. He was welcomed and taken under the wing of Erdine Grisinger who introduced him to music. “Watch my fingers, honey, that’s called a scale.” For years, she taught him piano and encouraged his singing. The church was a refuge. His parents never missed him. Eventually he played for services.
Mom made a deal with her husband; if Tom would stop “flitting around the house” and take up a sport, he could have singing and dancing lessons. The former, baseball, was a disaster, soon lied about, the latter, safe harbor. Erdine counseled Tom on anger and forgiveness. He wasn’t ready to hear. Violence, confrontation, heart attacks, and an apparent suicide attempt (not Tom’s) ensue. Every time you think it’s over, something else erupts.
Miraculously, Tom gets through college with the aid of extraordinary therapy. Eventually forgiveness finds its way into his heart. The (pivotal) twenty seconds comes in here.
Except for the need of some median editing, the piece flows. Neither songs nor some vocalized dialogue have melody which makes them difficult to let in, however. Humor is a bit too rare. Sweitzer’s story is harrowing yet he doesn’t tell it with self pity or histrionics. The playwright/actor is an appealing and sympathetic person. It’s a miracle to have not only survived his childhood, but to have turned his life around altruistically. There’s resilience and hope here for those struggling.
Director Jeremy Scott Blaustein is the producing artistic director of Shenandoah Summer Music Theater in Westchester. His protagonist uses the entire stage with variation and skill. Props are well employed. Characters are sufficiently differentiated without becoming cartoons.
Kudos to Bill Toles for sound design that’s immensely varied and timed to a T.
Tom Sweitzer is co-founder, creative director and head of music therapy at A Place to Be, a non-profit organization offering music therapy and expressive arts services in Northern Virginia. He holds three degrees. This is his Off Broadway debut. The artist is “dedicated to growing A Place To Be and its mission to create community, belonging and hope …” Sweitzer is a subject of the 2020 documentary “Music Got Me Here” on Apple TV and Amazon Prime.
Photos by Jeremy Daniel
Twenty Seconds – A Play with Music
Written and Performed by Thomas Sweitzer
Directed and Developed by Jeremy Scott Blaustein
The Pershing Square Signature Center
480 West 42nd Street
Through October 21, 2023