Frank, personal 'Stove Toucher' at Buffalo Theatre examines skater kid's past from middle-age perspective
"Stove Toucher" -- ★ ★ ★
If candor makes you uncomfortable, "Stove Toucher," the new autobiographical play by Kurt Naebig may be too frank for you.
A combination coming-of-age, cautionary tale and redemption story, this solo show by the longtime Buffalo Theatre Ensemble member is a deeply personal, painfully honest account of addiction and recovery about a onetime teen skateboarding phenom whose dreams were upended by drug use. In the play, Naebig recounts how he achieved success as a 13-year-old entrepreneur, how he squandered that success and the lessons he learned as a result.
The Lombard actor/director performed an early version in March 2020 for a few friends and fellow theater professionals. But the COVID-19 pandemic derailed any subsequent productions until early this year, when Naebig's self-directed, film version of the play premiered during Lifeline Theatre's virtual Fillet of Solo Festival.
Now comes BTE's in-person premiere, the opening production of the ensemble's 35th season. Directed by managing artistic director Connie Canady Howard, "Stove Toucher" is a humorous and heartwarming examination of a man determined to keep alive his youthful dreams and passions albeit in a healthier, more productive fashion.
For the curious, the title refers not to skateboarding, although Naebig introduces many skateboarding terms over the course of the 90-minute, intermission-less show. Stove toucher is literal. As Naebig explains, it refers to people like himself, who cannot resist doing what other folks caution against, like touching a hot stove.
Standing on a sparsely decorated stage (set and properties designer Michael W. Moon includes only what is necessary to suggest Naebig's teenage haunts, including the skate parks where he developed his skills), beneath Smooch Medina's projections (Polaroid photos from Naebig's collection), the playwright shifts between the present to the recent past to the distant past.
He begins his memoir describing in vivid detail how it feels to ride a skateboard: the click-click of the wheels on concrete, the feel of the wind in his face, the surge of adrenaline as he speeds down a ramp, the exhilaration upon becoming airborne.
"I like to get as close to the edge as possible," Naebig says early in the show recalling how he resumed skateboarding as a middle-aged husband and father after years away from the sport.
It quickly becomes clear that statement doesn't apply to just athletic pursuits.
His description of the serious injuries he suffered following a 2017 skateboarding accident prompts the 58-year-old Naebig to reflect on growing up in Cicero and Oak Park, a lonely boy who was last to be picked for teams and first to be bullied by neighborhood kids. Getting his first skateboard at age 11 ignited Naebig's lifelong passion, introduced him to new friends and sparked his entrepreneurial spirit. He began selling skateboard parts out of his house and by age 13, he and a fellow enthusiast opened Wheels of Progress, an Oak Park skateboard store (under a lease signed by his parents) and established their own competitive skateboard team. Print articles, television appearances and a measure of fame followed. His first year in business, he grossed $50,000, which allowed him to buy the drugs that consumed his life over the next few years.
Naebig describes his escalating addiction, run-ins with his parents and the police and his eventual commitment to a residential treatment facility in Des Plaines. Unflinchingly thorough, Naebig's forthright, guileless performance makes his account that much more compelling. One moment in particular during an unsettling confession late in the play, a hush fell over the audience. There was nothing calculated about that moment. Powered by simple honesty, it was among the play's most memorable.
That said, there were several times when Naebig lost the narrative and had to check the script located on a music stand on stage. Those glitches interrupted the flow. Tightening the script might resolve that problem. But those are minor issues in this compelling tale, which concludes not with a definitive answer but on a hopeful note.
Naebig has physically recovered from his 2017 accident, but he has not yet resumed skateboarding. Someday he may.
"I'm taking it one day at a time," he said.
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Showtimes: 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday through Dec. 19
Running time: About 90 minutes, no intermission
Parking: In the lot adjacent to the theater
Rating: For teens and older
COVID-19 precautions: Proof of vaccination and masks mandatory