By Matt Mueller Culture Editor Published Jan 09, 2014 at 11:16 AM

Opening a new theater company can be a risky proposal, especially in a city like Milwaukee, where the generally older-skewing audience likely has their particular set of established companies and productions they’ve come to trust over the years. For Jim Farrell, however, that bet paid off last year when he launched the Splinter Group and directed their first production, "Kimberly Akimbo."

Now, with one show under the company’s belt and a higher set of expectations, Farrell is placing his bet for the company’s second production on an unusual topic: a trailer park psychic.

Charlie Wendel is the name of the clairvoyant star of "Trailer Park Prophecies," opening Friday night at the Splinter Group’s Marian Center home, located at 3211 S. Lake Dr. The show follows Charlie (played by Joe Picchetti) as his odd gift suddenly has him aiding a kidnapping investigation. Actor Bryce Lord plays the detective in charge of the case.

Don’t be fooled by the show’s somewhat eerie poster design on its website; "Trailer Park Prophecies" is a comedy in the vein of a much lighter, heartfelt rendition of "Fargo," taking place in "the same kind of world but with a different message," according to Farrell. And, much like the classic Coen Brothers film, it’s based on a true story … kind of.

"I had been reading a lot about this psychic in late 1800s by the name of Edgar Cayce," Farrell said. "He had this ability – allegedly – to go into a trance and give these really accurate readings, mostly about health issues. (The show) isn’t about him by any stretch of the imagination, but I started thinking, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if somebody had that power, but they lived in this low-income backdrop and were giving readings to their neighbors.’"

Even with its paranormal subject matter, in the end, "Trailer Park Prophecies" is about the relationships between Charlie and his loved ones (including his mother, played by Linda Loving), and the way fame affects them.

Though it's the Splinter Group's second show, "Trailer Park Prophecies" serves as a first for Farrell. It's the first time the theater veteran has directed a production he's also written. 

"I was terrified of it," Farrell said. "I didn’t think I was going to be able to be objective about it. I wasn’t sure I was going to enjoy this process, but I really enjoyed it a lot more than I thought I would. Because I’m the writer, I don’t have to stick to the script. We laughed a lot during the rehearsal process because we were sort of creating moments that were funny and some moments that were really moving."

"This play has changed a lot from the first read-through," said actress Emily Vitrano, who plays Chelsea Cisco, Charlie’s romantic interest, in the show. "We all read it and thought, ‘It’s quirky and fun.’ I think it’s become way more about these relationships than it was before. It’s way more about these people and the love they have for each other. Jim has adapted it to us, in some respects. He looked at ways in which we work better or ways a scene can work better based on our talents. And that’s been really cool, to see it take shape in a way that we didn’t know it was going to."

Vitrano is a Milwaukee local who went off to the University of North Carolina at Greensboro to study acting. After graduating in 2006, she went to pursue her big city acting dreams in New York City.

"The first year was fabulous and exciting, and every day was new," Vitrano recalled. "But by the second year, it slowly became reality. I wasn’t really enjoying my time there anymore, and I wasn’t working. And I came there to work."

Emily’s older brother Vince (yes, Vince Vitrano from TMJ4; some may even recognize Emily from some guest fill-in appearances on Daybreak) eventually helped talk her back home, where she’s been much happier, as well as much busier. In addition to working as an audience development manager for the Skylight, she’s appeared on stage with the Rep, Next Act Theatre and the Chamber Theatre.

Right now, however, her focus is on Chelsea.

"You could see her as maybe not the smartest person in the room, but I think she’s a very genuine and incredibly interesting character in that she loves these people so much," Vitrano said. "She’s just so much fun to play because she’s a little naïve. Everything is blowing her mind the entire show, and I think that’s so fun to live in that mindset."

To further help get into that mindset, she’s designated a song ("Closer" by Tegan and Sara) as well as a scent (perfume from the Gap; "it’s very fancy for Chelsea," Vitrano noted) to her character. It may sound a bit like off-kilter behavior for an equally off-kilter character, but that's also the kind of material that attracts Vitrano.

"My favorite experience seeing a play or going to a show is when you go in at one place, and you leave just, like, slightly to the left or to the right," Vitrano said. "You leave, and you can’t stop thinking about it. It haunts you, or you have to talk to somebody about it. I think that is fascinating."

Luckily, that’s the kind of material Splinter Group seeks out (its name, according to the company's website, comes from hoping to present material that "gets under your skin"). After "Trailer Park Prophecies," Splinter has two more shows scheduled for its current season, "Mr. Marmalade" and "Dog Sees God," a latter of which is a parody that imagines the beloved characters from the Peanuts comic strip as confused, disillusioned and troubled teenagers.

The group's main focus, however, is still to create an environment where all of the creatives – directors, actors, producers – feel comfortable and free to put ideas forward and help create a truly collaborative production. In the case of "Trailer Park Prophecies," the fact that the writer, the director and the company founder were one in the same helped accomplish that goal, but Farrell seeks to have similar experiences in future productions as well. 

"I want it to feel a little different to the people involved," Farrell said. "I really want them to feel that they have some artistic say in what’s happening, as opposed to just showing up, the producer is over here, the director is over there and the actors just kind of carry out their orders."

That extends out to the selection of many of the season's shows as well. "Dog Sees God" and an upcoming staged reading of Sam Shepard and Joseph Chaikin's "Savage Love," for instance, were chosen thanks to recommendations from interested local actors, looking for a place to present them.

It’s a strategy that Farrell and company hope bodes well for the future. As for the present, much like the play's detective, their trust is in a trailer park psychic.

"Trailer Park Prophecies" runs Jan. 10-26 at Marian Center. All performances are at 7:30 p.m. For more information, visit the Splinter Group's website

Matt Mueller Culture Editor

As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.

When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.