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Omaha Magazine

Back to Benson: Theater’s First Play Attractive to Many

Nov 08, 2021 11:27AM ● By Daisy Hutzell-Rodman
overhead shot of Omaha's Benson Theater vertical sign

Photo by Paul Weishapl    

Turning onto Binney Street off N. 60th Street to park my car on Friday night felt like going back 20 years in time. In the early 2000s, I spent quite a bit of time in Benson. As a 20-something, 60th and Maple streets was a pretty cool place to hang out: Backshelf Books had quirky and popular used books; Leo’s Diner had great, cheap breakfast; and Hargiss Stringed Instruments was full of musicians waxing philosophical, led by luthier John Hargiss. My favorite place, however, was The Pizza Shoppe, a relaxed pizza joint serving 20-something singles, families, teenagers on dates, and more. It was my favorite place in town to drink a glass of wine and eat a vegetable pizza with artichoke hearts and olives.

What made the place truly special, however, was proprietor Amy Ryan, who put her heart and soul into making that business a place for the community. Ryan is now part of a new venture, one that has been several years in the making—the Benson Theatre—and she has likewise put her heart and soul into this nonprofit.

The Benson strip now features more over-21 venues than it did 20 years ago, but the vertical sign on the white exterior of the theater proudly proclaims “BENSON,” with a modern marquee stating the name of the play. It’s the name of the theater, but also could be a tribute to the fact that this area is unique, and that this theater is here for anyone in the Omaha community and beyond.

Although the sign outside stands out, it doesn’t prepare one for the elegant inside. Stepping into the lobby of the theater, I became dazzled by the decor of black and white art deco-inspired designs with accents of gold. The bar in the lobby offers a wide variety of prohibition-era cocktails as well as pours of liquor, wine, and beer. 

Once inside the theater, I politely declined the usher’s offer to show me to my seat and began looking for my row. That was a mistake. The floor contains the majority of the seats, and they are mobile, as the plan is to allow for either theater-style rows of seats or cabaret-style tables. Therefore, the seats were numbered, but the rows were not labeled. 

The back of the theater contains one row of comfortable half-moon booths with tables and two rows of installed theater chairs. As people began to be seated, I heard one man ask to be shown to row G (the same row in which my ticket was for) and realized where I was to sit without going back to the usher.

The first show at the theater is Susan Miller’s off-Broadway production “20th Century Blues,” a production that touches on a wide variety of topics in order to appeal to many.

The plot revolves around four women who met years ago while in jail for protesting, and have since come together once a year for a day of camaraderie. Hold on to your hat, however, because within two hours, the play touches on issues of adoption, aging, caregiving, feminism, gender, image and copyright, LGBTQ, and race.

It’s a play that, if not done well, could feel messy instead of all-inclusive. Fortunately, this production was well done, thanks, in large part, to the casting director. The actors playing the roles in this production are all notable Omaha names: Moira Mangiameli shines in the lead role of Danny, Sue Mouttet performs well the role of Danny’s mother Bess, and Danny’s friends are played by veteran performers Rebecca Noble, Denise Chapman, and Mary Kelly. Rounding out the cast is Shae’Kell Butler, a recent UNO graduate who had no problem performing the role of a young 20-something man searching for who he is.

The theater has installed a strict COVID policy, with masks required at all times (except when consuming beverages) and proof of vaccination. The theater is as touch-less as possible, with ticket scanners, mobile tickets, and, sadly, digital programs. I appreciate the touchless experience in the bathrooms, but I miss paper programs that I can take home and place in my drawer with all the other programs from all the other theater shows I have seen in my life.

While the younger crowd outside darted into bars and taquerias, the crowd inside represented the community that, for me (and, I would wager, for Ryan), makes Benson what it is—inclusive and open to all.