Clare McDonald and Malakhai Schnell in Treehouse

Out on a Limb

Cottage Theatre tells a tale of love and loss in the world premiere of Joe Musso’s Treehouse

It was a packed house at the Cottage Theatre this weekend, which is hosting the world premiere of Joe Musso’s play Treehouse. Cottage Theatre was picked to be just one of six theaters in the country to produce a new play from the American Association of Community Theater NewPlayFest, an organization dedicated to producing and publishing new scripts nationwide.

Musso’s script, which already won the Todd McNearey National Playwriting Award, was chosen from more than 300 submissions, and with the man himself in the house all the way from Birmingham, Alabama, the pressure was on for the cast and crew of the small-town theater.   

The nervous excitement was tangible in the first few minutes of the opening act: Arms and legs awkwardly moving about on stage to a rhythm no one has ever heard before, but director Tara Wibrew and the small cast of seasoned local actors managed to quickly establish their own beat, faithfully bringing life to Musso’s vision from Stone Canyon Road.  

Treehouse is the complicated, albeit sweetly simplistic, story of a messy haired teenager, Johnny (Malakhai Schnell), who is convinced that he is actually a 53-year-old Shakespearean scholar who has somehow traveled back in time from the present to 1980. Nearly the entire play is set in Johnny’s adolescent refuge: a four-limbed, sparsely decorated treehouse (set design by Kory Weimer) scattered with relics of a past that continues to haunt him.  

Musso’s story is filled with all the Shakespearean elements one might expect: tragedy, comedy, history, time travel; however, the heart of the story centers on the awkward silences and all-too-sudden movements surrounding the budding romance between Johnny and his Shakespearean muse, Alana (Clare McDonald). 

Schnell and McDonald are almost painfully charming as clumsy, skater-jeans-wearing teenagers navigating their way through the bog and the butterflies. 

Johnny’s relationship with his bewildered and concerned mother (Chelsey Megli) is also quite familiar for anyone who has been caught drinking by mom, and then immediately offered homemade lemonade.  

And what Shakespearean comedy is complete without a couple of crude fools playing air guitar in the forest? Blake Nelson and John Eckstine play Oliver and Ben, loveably vulgar friends of Johnny’s youth. Who knew the Bard was so fond of dick jokes?

Musso’s script and, subsequently, Wibrew’s beautifully somber interpretation are thick with symbolism: A single uneaten peach, a case of Coca-Cola and a busy rope ladder make up the innocence of Johnny’s youth. A bottle of whiskey, a handgun and a haunting alcoholic wife (Tracy Nygar), subtly sipping a cocktail in the dimly lit backdrop, represent an inescapably tragic life.

Sadly, Johnny remains stuck with one foot in his past and the other in his future, plagued by his own humanity, alcoholism and the events that leave him broken in an open field of milkweed on a stormy summer night.  

Ultimately, Johnny’s journey is neither redemptive nor restorative, but rather a tale of mere survival. The play neglects to answer the obvious questions or rather outwardly rejects them, opting instead for simpler summations and typical Shakespearean ambiguity. 

In fact, there is one moment near the end that seems a little too spelled out and yet loose in its explanation, disrupting the fluidity of the previous acts.  

All in all, though, Treehouse is as refreshing as a cool glass of lemonade from your mom, or a kiss from the weird lit girl at your high school. It is a must-see for anyone who appreciates the written word and the transcendence of the human struggle.  — Alexis DeFiglia

Treehouse runs through Aug. 26 at the Cottage Theatre in Cottage Grove; tickets and times at