On Jan. 18 and 19, Raleigh Little Theatre and Actors Comedy Lab will present a free staged reading Holding On, a new comedy-drama written by North Carolina playwright Christopher Shields and directed by ACL co-founder Bunny Safron, in RLT’s Gaddy-Goodwin Teaching Theatre. Admission is free.

Holding On began as an effort to come to terms with my parents’ advancing age and deteriorating health,” says Christopher Shields, a cum laude political-science graduate of UNC-Charlotte who has worked in international politics and civic development in six countries since 1994. “While the characters in the play are truly fictional, the environment and issues that surround such circumstances are very much the same,” Shields adds.

Bunny Safron says, “I love the honesty of the dialog and the way it flows and the fact that [the play] is pretty much autobiographical,” so [Christopher] is writing about something he understands intimately.

“My main challenge as a director of a reading,” she confesses, “is that I would like to be able to move the actors around and not have to read lots of stage directions. I think that becomes tiresome for an audience.”

Safron adds, “The actors have scripts in hand, and we [will] have only three rehearsals, none of which are in the performance space.

“I don’t have the time to work on characterization or use movement the way I would like,” she explains.

Christopher Shields says, “The physical journey of this play is almost a story in itself. The first seeds of the story germinated while I was working in Armenia, in the mid 1990s. Later, in Albania, I began sketching out its concept, began drafting the first scenes while working in Greece, completed a first draft while back in the U.S., and completed the current version while still in Tajikistan. So, in essence, the physical journey of this play reflects the reality of many families today… differing perspectives, great distances, and unexpected destinations.”

He notes, “In this age when the world gets smaller, more and more families find themselves flung further apart by their different destinies. Baby Boomers are now coming to grips with a situation that past generations never faced, i.e., the fact that the contraction of communications and travel has actually resulted in a greater distance between families as we find our skills applicable around the world, often landing us much further away than any previous generation has experienced. Coping with the struggle to maintain the emotional ties that bind a family during a time of trauma, even at great distances, is probably the best description of what this play tries to say.”

Shields adds, “Amid laughter and tears, Holding On takes you on a journey that every modern family must face. When Donald Clark’s failing health brings his three disparate and far-flung siblings of the Clark family back together in their North Georgia hometown, shadows of the past and the future threaten to divide them. Trevor, the world traveler; Ruth, the society doyenne; and Ronnie and his salt-of-the-earth wife, Annie, all try to cope with the issue of their aging parents in a throwaway society. They find themselves face-to-face with old prejudices and new battles to be fought. Bridging a distance measured in miles and years proves to be difficult, but the bittersweet resolution brings them full circle.

“The play opens in a hospital waiting room, and sets the stage for primary conflict between the siblings in residence and the siblings living out of town,” Shields says.

He adds, “In many ways, the challenges facing the participants in this reading may center on how immediately it touches them. Generally, it will be important for the actors to connect the emotional ties that exist in the script; the director to facilitate how those connections are made while maintaining the general informality of a staged reading; and, the creative time to assimilate both the performers and the audience’s response to the reading.”

Christopher Shields says, “It is a subject that is very relevant today. I can’t begin to count the number of people I know facing similar issues. The play does not pretend to give answers, just provide a window on the subject.”

Second Opinion: Alan R. Hall’s Preview in Front Row Center: http://hometown.aol.com/theonlyarhall/reviews.html.

Raleigh Little Theatre and Actors Comedy Lab present a staged reading of Holding On Sunday-Monday, Jan. 18, at 7:30 p.m. in RLT’s Gaddy-Goodwin Teaching Theatre, 301 Pogue St., Raleigh, North Carolina. Admission is free. 919/782-1331 (infomation only).