Saint Paul’s newest troupe, Mariah Theatre Company will make its stage debut next month with a new play written and directed by company founder Patrick Coyle. The Big Blue River will be performed from March 4-27 at the North Garden Theater, 929 W. Seventh St. It is a darkly comic study of what can happen when a distraught therapist decides at mid-life to become a writer and draws on confidential material from her therapy sessions for her fiction.

Mariah Theatre
Gini Adams stars as Laura and Derek Long plays her confidante, Donald, in Mariah Theatre’s production of The Big Blue River. The new play was written and directed by West End resident Patrick Coyle. Photo by Keith Bridges Media

Mariah is just the latest venture for the multi-talented Coyle, a West End resident who has worked as a writer, director and actor in film and on stage. The company is devoted to performing “new work, original work, nothing but world premieres,” he said. “We have a mission to produce plays that deal honestly with issues of mental illness and addiction.”

For The Big Blue River, Coyle has teamed up with Twin Cities actress Gini Adams, who stars as the psychologist, Laura Grace. A native of Saint Paul and a graduate of Saint Catherine University, Adams has four movie credits to her name, including one film she made with Coyle.

Both Coyle and Adams come from families who have dealt with mental illness and suicide. “We don’t want to preach or teach,” he said. “We just want to honestly depict those issues so people can kind of look at them and bring them out in the open.”

   

Both Coyle and Adams come from families who have dealt with mental illness and suicide. “We don’t want to preach or teach,” he said. “We just want to honestly depict those issues so people can kind of look at them and bring them out in the open.”

Coyle has acted in many films. Just before the pandemic started, he received rave reviews for his turn as Willy Loman in Yellow Tree Theatre of Osseo’s production of Death of a Salesman.

Coyle has written and directed three small-budget films, all of them shot in the Twin Cities. The first was Detective Fiction (2003), which explores what can happen when a man facing court-ordered sobriety starts writing detective stories. What Coyle called his breakthrough film was Into Temptation (2009) starring Jeremy Sisto of “FBI” and “Law & Order” fame, Kristin Chenoweth and “The Office” mainstay Brian Baumgartner. Then in 2015, Coyle made The Public Domain, a fictional tale about four survivors of the 2007 I-35W bridge collapse who meet in the Northeast Minneapolis bar that gives the film its title.

 

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The title of The Big Blue River is taken from a Nebraska waterway that turns a perfect blue for a few hours each day. One character takes a plunge into the river and becomes “a metaphor for humanity,” Coyle said. The drama includes scenes of the psychologist in therapy with her patients and then replays bits and pieces of their lives with the fictional characters she creates. “Ethical boundaries are obliterated,” Coyle said, “and what’s real and what isn’t real becomes an issue even in her mind.”

Coyle wrote The Big Blue River during the pandemic and submitted it to the Script Readers of London, an affiliate of London’s Royal Stratford East Theatre. Of the 500 plays submitted, Coyle’s was one of 12 to be given a dramatic reading by the British troupe.

The cast of The Big Blue River includes Jim Cunningham, Sulia Rose Altenberg, Matt Wall and Derek Long. A Merriam Park resident, Cunningham plays Frank Dolan, a patient who suffered a breakdown and continues to suffer the effects of a troubled marriage, an unfulfilling career and a history of domestic violence.

“What’s most fascinating about this play, as an actor, are the times we actually see Frank and the times we see the version of Frank imagined by his psychologist,” Cunningham said. “She filters things he has told her into a fictional narrative of his life.”

 

Patrick Coyle Mariah Theatre
"The Big Blue River" playwright and director Patrick Coyle. Photo by Keith Bridges Media

Cunningham is perhaps best known for his role in the dramatic readings of It’s a Wonderful Life during the holidays at the Saint Paul Hotel. He said he was surprised when Coyle offered him the role. Cunningham has built his career playing funny people, not sad ones with psychological challenges. However, he is enjoying the opportunity to act against type, portraying a character who is caught between reality and the imagination of his therapist.

Long plays the role of Donald in The Big Blue River, a drag queen performer who goes by the name “Ma-Donnald” and serves as a confidante to Laura Grace. Long worked with Coyle on the film crew for Into Temptation, and after more than a decade in New York City has moved back to his native Highland Park.

Coyle and his family moved from Edina to Saint Paul a few years ago at the suggestion of his wife, Lily Coyle, who runs Beaver’s Pond Press. They bought a house in the West End, moved the business there and “fell in love with the neighborhood,” he said.

The Big Blue River will be performed at 7 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays. Tickets are $35 for reserved seating, $25 for general admission, and $20 for students. For reservations, visit mariahtheatre.com or call 651-805-3710.

— Frank Jossi

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