Friday, February 1, 2013

REVIEW: Prairie Ground Drama, You Can't Get Any More WILDER Than This

"Because so many of the plays we see nowadays are really suited to the small screen, it is easy to forget that a stage, no matter its size, can contain the cosmos. No one understood this better than Thornton Wilder, whose plays show us how to see the infinite in the utterly mundane."
                                                    ~Howard Kissel, New York Daily News

"WILDER, WILDER, WILDER" (three one-acts by Thornton Wilder) was first presented on Broadway in 1993. Perhaps you, like me, are most familiar with Wilder's Pulitzer Prize-winning three-act play "Our Town" about everyday lives in an everyday town. (He also wrote "The Matchmaker" and "The Skin of Our Teeth".) His plays are indeed about the mundane...and death. Okay, not my cup of tea.

The Long Christmas Dinner

Of the three plays presented by Prairie Ground Drama, I liked "The Long Christmas Dinner" the best. The play was first produced November 25, 1931 in a joint performance by the Yale Dramatic Association and the Vassar Philalethis at the Yale University theater in New Haven, Connecticut.

It is a thirty-minute one-act play covering nine decades, show-casing moments in the lives of several generations of the Bayard family. In it Wilder breaks the boundaries of time presenting one long Christmas of past, present and future. Generations are born, grow up, have children, age and die within a matter of minutes right before your eyes. Without a break, the generations come and go in one very fascinating presentation.

Concerning "The Long Christmas Dinner" Thornton Wilder wrote (in a letter written April 11, 1960): "Of all my plays it is the one that has found the widest variety of receptions. At some performances it has been played to constant laughter; some listeners are deeply moved and shaken by it; some find it cruel and cynical."

The play was artfully presented. The set, while simple, was perfect and well lit. The symbolism presented by the white and black-sparkly drape legs worked really well and there was elegant beauty in the blocking and delivery. A challenging play, the young actors did well in their transformation from youth to old age with Josh Snider (Cosmo Brown, Singing in the Rain) and Calin Breaux particularly standing out.

Pullman Car Hiawatha

"My earlier one-act plays, before "Our Town," were free of scenery too and things went back and forth in time...In my plays I attempted to raise ordinary daily conversation between ordinary people to the level of the universal human experience." ~Thornton Wilder, 1974.

The first licensed production of "Pullman Car Hiawatha" took place March 19, 1932, at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Set in a Pullman car on a train traveling from New York to Chicago in December, 1930, it was the first Wilder play to introduce the minimalist techniques he would use in future three-act plays. The stage is virtually bare, with only a raised platform and two flights of stairs. Black risers were used in this production. The play is narrated and set by a Stage Manager. The actors perform on chairs arranged to represent the berths.

Of the three plays presented, this is the most experimental and bizarre. While it must certainly be an interesting showcase for character study and as a literary piece for "high-brow" thespians, I found it dull and difficult. It was just too "out there" for me. "It is a metaphorical journey by train through the American landscape, a diverse band of travelers encapsulated in a Pullman car hurtle through time, space and a range of emotions."

Two archangels, played by Nick Hulscher,
and Tristan Decker, come for Harriet
played by Sarah Russell (center).
The script calls for actors to personify the hours of the day, the weather, the planets, and archangels. Swirling lighting represented the planets in this production. The angels reminded me of Men in Black. "Conventional time is suspended, and the only true measures of existence are life and death."

I didn't really see the point of the hours and the planets (and some other things "outside the car" for that matter). In fact, I'm not really sure about the point of the play, unless it is to contrast the unimportance of earthly existence to the singular transcendence of death and the afterlife. The axis of the play seems to be the character Harriet, played nicely by Sarah Russell (Lina Lamont, Singing in the Rain). However, Olivia Riggs nearly steals the show--even when she's "sleeping." I loved the inspired blocking (in fact, that's what kept me awake) by director Claire Verity, but I liked this play least of the three.

The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden

"The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden" was first produced November 25, 1931, at the Yale University theater in New Haven, Connecticut, by the Yale Dramatic Association and the Vassar College Philalethis (with "The Long Christmas Dinner" and other Wilder plays). Like the other Wilder pieces, it requires no scenery; just an empty stage.

In a nutshell, a family of four travels by car to see their married daughter who recently lost her baby in childbirth. The play is all about the things they talk about on the journey. "In this family drama, nothing much happens, and yet everything important happens." As Ma Kirby (Olivia Riggs shined in the starring role) says, "There's nothin' like bein' liked by your family." In this play Ma Kirby is like a planet about which three moons revolve, her gravity keeps them in orbit and she is the center of their universe.

"It should constantly be borne in mind that the purpose of this play is the portrayal of the character of Ma Kirby...the director should constantly keep in mind that Ma Kirby's humor, strength and humanity constitute the unifying element throughout. This aspect should always rise above the merely humorous characteristic details of the play." ~Thornton Wilder, "Notes for the Producer," 1931.

Skyler Verity and Olivia Riggs.
Riggs delivers a nearly non-stop string of dialogue with the other characters chiming in from time to time. With that said, Skyler Verity nearly steals the limelight from her with his charming antics and comic relief. The piece was well staged and my only criticism is: Hot dogs don't just conveniently disappear and car doors are always there, not just sometimes.

Note: I feel that "Leaving Iowa," by Tim Clue and Spike Manton, as presented by Woodland's Love Street Playhouse, was a much more appealing, interesting and better written "driving-in-the-car-journey."

Other Notes

I realized I just dissed on one of the great playwrights of the 20th Century. While I may not have liked the material so much (with the exception of "Christmas Dinner") I loved the direction (all by Verity) and the overall acting. It has been fun to watch many of these students in a variety of roles over the course of a year and a half. Many of those appearing in these three plays have had previous moments where they shined in starring roles. I have especially enjoyed the varied characterizations and growth of Olivia Riggs, Austin Foley and Diana Ferar since first seeing them in "Get Smart."

All three plays dealt with the concept of death and will be hard to follow for children. While there is some humor, the plays are quite serious and younger children will likely find them difficult to sit through.

Remaining shows are 7 p.m., February 1, 2 , 7, 8 and 9 at Prairie High School. Tickets are available here or at the door.

Review by Gregory E. Zschomler
All photographs provided. More can be seen the PGD Facebook page.

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