By Dave Begel Contributing Writer Published Dec 07, 2015 at 7:03 AM

The famed American writer Gertrude Stein lived in Oakland when she was growing up before she moved to Paris to develop her greatest works.

After decades, she returned to the California city, curious see her old home. She was disappointed in what she saw and uttered the famous line, "There is no there there."

That’s kind of  how I felt after seeing "A Kiss for the Prize Tomato," the world premiere of a play by Jim Farrell, artistic director at Splinter Group.

With a cast of accomplished actors and a record in its three year history of staging high quality works that might not be seen elsewhere in Milwaukee, I had high expectations. The production was directed by Jake Brockmann, who directed a spectacular production of "Dog Sees God" at Splinter Group.

Alas, the disappointment came early and stayed there until the very end, which, like most of the play, left me with a long list of unanswered questions. There was just no there there.

The play revolves around a 21-year-old girl named Emmy (Megan Kaminsky), who suffers from some unnamed psychological problem that causes her to act like a baby and move frantically through her life.

Emmy lives with her mother Hannah (Libby Amato) and her father Carl (Max Williamson) on a vegetable farm in upstate New York. Missing from this nuclear family is Stick (Claudio Parrone Jr.), Emmy’s older half-brother who has gone on to become a member of a successful rock band.

His absence and his impending visit are the seminal moments in Emmy’s life. When he left, she cut herself. She was institutionalized and now takes meds to keep her on an even keel. As his return approaches, she can’t contain her anxiety and joyful anticipation. She is so hyped by this whole thing that it’s hard to fathom why this is such a big deal.

Turns out, to almost no surprise, that she and her half-brother were doing the nasty before he got caught by Carl and decided that leaving the homestead was best for everyone.

Stick is driving from the West Coast with his ditzy, groupie girlfriend Orna, played by Emily Vitrano. She is a wonderful actor, and I hope that someday somebody hires her to play something other than a ditz or a flirt. She has a lot more to bring.

Anyhow, Stick arrives home, and the conflict between Orna and Emmy starts immediately. Emmy is jealous, and Orna doesn’t get it, drowning herself in wine and Emmy’s pills.

I suppose that somewhere in here is an interesting story, but I was hard put to find it.

There seemed almost nothing real about any of the characters. They talk like nobody I’ve ever heard before. There was almost no dimension. We never really were able to see what made them tick, what made them brave or afraid or weak or whatever.

It was almost as if it was a steady parade of cartoon characters. The country rube father. The diligent and determined mother (who by the way needed to be played by someone much older than Amato). The daughter who was high strung and volatile. The son who brooded and brooded and brooded some more. The girlfriend who was using her body and sexuality as an entrance pass into a world where she didn’t belong.

These actors struggled mightily during this performance. You could see them trying to wring something that made sense out of their characters. But time after time, they came up empty, leaving me empty as well.

I felt bad about all of this. Farrell has created just the kind of theater company that Milwaukee needs more of: brave and daring and not just willing, but anxious, to take risks.

The upside of all that is brilliant theater sometimes. Splinter’s production of "Bug" was one of the best I’d ever seen.

The downside is that sometimes even the best efforts of everyone involved don’t mesh into a cohesive whole. That is the case with this tomato for which there is no prize.

"A Kiss for the Prize Tomato" runs through Dec. 13 and information of showtimes and tickets is available here.

Production Credits: Director, Jake Brockmann; Lighting Designer, Ross Zentner; Sound Design, Jake Brockmann; Costume Designer, Nifer Clark; Stage Manager Tessara Morgan.

Dave Begel Contributing Writer

With a history in Milwaukee stretching back decades, Dave tries to bring a unique perspective to his writing, whether it's sports, politics, theater or any other issue.

He's seen Milwaukee grow, suffer pangs of growth, strive for success and has been involved in many efforts to both shape and re-shape the city. He's a happy man, now that he's quit playing golf, and enjoys music, his children and grandchildren and the myriad of sports in this state. He loves great food and hates bullies and people who think they are smarter than everyone else.

This whole Internet thing continues to baffle him, but he's willing to play the game as long as keeps lending him a helping hand. He is constantly amazed that just a few dedicated people can provide so much news and information to a hungry public.

Despite some opinions to the contrary, Dave likes most stuff. But he is a skeptic who constantly wonders about the world around him. So many questions, so few answers.