Cohort Report: An Autobiographical Montage

Shakespeare. The name alone can transport one back to High School English class, your eyes glazing over at the barrage of Elizabethan prose.

Bluegrass. Now we’re talking. Summertime. Jammin’. Sing-alongs.

But what if you merged them together? Well, you would get The Heath, the latest World Premiere production from Merrimack Repertory Theatre. And maybe the two are not so incongruous, for there has always been a bittersweet, even tragic element to bluegrass. The lament of a lost love in a mandolin lick, a freight train’s mournful howl in the drone of a fiddle – or is that the cry of a diminished man who realizes he has lost his kingdom and his mind?

The Heath – an autobiographical montage by Lauren Gunderson – uses monologue, dialogue, projection and, of course, music to explore the author’s coming to terms with a relationship that never was. Like MRT’s recent Slow Food, regret – and how one manages it – underlies the emotions that drive the work.

And the banjo. Did I mention that?

Slated for the role of Lauren, actress Miranda Barnett picked up a used banjo in a shop near her home in South Carolina six months ago and learned to play. Its previous owner had passed away, and the instrument seems to have found the perfect new home with Miranda and MRT. But don’t think her musical skills are lacking. She has a fine grasp of the instrument, with clean fingering and precise rolls. But technical know-how isn’t so important in bluegrass. It’s all about the feeling. Because, as Lauren/Miranda says, “When you strum a banjo, you’re in the South.”

The attempt to recover a missing part of oneself, not only by learning the banjo, but by exploring that unknown lineage, makes The Heath an emotional rollercoaster. You will laugh, cry (do not forget the tissues), and sing along to classic and original tunes. George Judy, who plays Lauren’s “Paw Paw,” is an astonishment, as he moves from lucidity to – well – something else, denying her the opportunity to atone for past contempt and disinterest.

And Shakespeare. Let’s not forget that.

Judy also inhabits King Lear, who Gunderson uses to make sense of this great storm that encompasses her family. When Judy’s rich baritone fills the theater, you are reminded of why the Bard has remained relevant all these years. The vivid characters and stories of hopes and dreams, decline and death are universal, from the 17th century to the 21st.

So the story of King Lear fits these times well. Aging and going mad, Lear recklessly divides his realm between the daughters who shamelessly flatter him, leaving the honest Cordelia disinherited, thus setting in motion an epic tragedy, culminating in Lear’s dramatic soliloquy to the sky, with only the Fool by his side, briefly cognizant of his grave error, naked in the thunderous storm on the heath.

–Karla Sorenson, Cohort member

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The Heath runs February 13 – March 10, 2019.

mrt.org/theheath

 

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What is a heath?

 A heath generally refers to low, open wetlands. The word heath is more closely associated with Great Britain, South Africa, and Australia, but heaths exist worldwide. In America, the words marsh, swamp, and glade (or everglade) refer to the same types of land. 

In Lauren Gunderson’s The Heath, the playwright juxtaposes the struggles of her own grandfather, when he is in the late stages of Alzheimer’s disease, with those of Shakespeare’s King Lear. In Lear, the king rushes from a fight with his daughters into a raging thunderstorm on the heath. The elderly king proclaims the storm and the barren heath to be like the “storm” in his mind. Shakespeare makes the point that all humans, even kings, are vulnerable to the overpowering forces of nature, according to one source at the Folger Shakespeare Library.

In an interview with MRT, Gunderson explains her use of King Lear and the play’s storm in relation to her grandfather: “The storm represents the tumult and uncertainty of my grandfather’s Alzheimer’s disease, the damage that it can do to a family, the unpredictable sadness and ‘natural disaster’ of dementia.”

Since Shakespeare’s time (King Lear dates to 1606), the heath has served as a symbol of a haunted, bleak wasteland for countless British novelists, including Emily Brontë (Wuthering Heights), Frances Hodgson Burnett (The Secret Garden), and Arthur Conan Doyle (The Hound of the Baskervilles).

For more on The Heath, visit Lauren’s Tumblr page at theheathplay.tumblr.com, full of  research and notes.

 

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The Heath runs February 13 – March 10, 2019.

mrt.org/theheath

Miranda Barnett on Learning the Banjo for ‘The Heath’

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Actress and classically trained musician Miranda Barnett arrived in Lowell for rehearsal last week with banjo in hand––a difficult instrument she must learn for the first time for her performance in The Heath. A South Carolina native, Miranda and her husband, Aaron, and their two-year-old son, Wilkes, reside in Greenville.

Had you ever played the banjo before?
I had never even held a banjo until six months ago. I have beginner- level experience with guitar, and took cello lessons for a few months, but primarily I am trained as a pianist and singer. So, this prospect was certainly intimidating, but because I began studying music when I was four years old, and music had been around me my whole life, the challenge has been exciting.

How did you acquire the banjo?
When I received the offer to do the play, I borrowed a banjo from a friend, so that I could start tinkering immediately. Then MRT allowed me to shop around for an instrument that I could learn on and carry into the production. I found a beautiful vintage banjo from the early 70s at a shop in South Carolina. It had one owner, who bought it from that same shop, and when he passed away, his family brought it back for consignment. I love it, and I am grateful that I could bond with it before taking it on stage.

How did you go about starting to learn the instrument and the songs?
My husband, Aaron Brakefield, who is also an actor and musician, plays a number of––I’m not sure if I should be proud of this or not, haha––YouTube has been my greatest resource. For the gospel tunes, I found tutorials of arrangements in a Scruggs’ style that I liked and learned by watching and reading the tablature. For Lauren’s original songs, I’ve just followed her lead sheets and listened to a recording of her playing them during a workshop. Peripherally, I’ve also listened to the great players. Lots of Earl Scruggs, Bela Fleck, Noam Pikelny, etc.

And how is it going?
I would say I’m feeling pretty good right now! There’s only one song of Lauren’s that I’ve put on hold until we start rehearsals, because I’m just not sure what to do with it, but I think I have a good grasp on the others. I appreciate that she lets me off the hook by declaring right in the script that, “I don’t play that well.” There’s no expectation of virtuosic playing, thank God!

 

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The Heath runs February 13 – March 10, 2019.

mrt.org/theheath

Q&A: Playwright Lauren Gunderson

“I felt like my PawPaw, even though he was physically there, was no longer really there.”

Lauren Gunderson_smWhat compelled you to write the script? 

I started the script before my PawPaw died as it occurred to me that the only reference I had for his condition was the literary figure of King Lear. My PawPaw was suffering from extreme dementia and could no longer recognize me. I lived in California, far away from him in South Carolina, which made that worse. When he died I was instantly regretful of all the time I didn’t get with him and started writing this play. It’s a love letter to him, an apology, and a reckoning, as well as a chance to discover a man I thought I knew so well.

What does your mother, PawPaw’s daughter, think of the play? 

Mom has seen me perform it! She was moved and, I think, a little nervous. But the point of the play is to come together, to honor her father, and to confront the darker instincts we have, to turn away from illness and death. But by confronting them (even laughing at them as The Heath does), we can digest and dispel them.

What was the most important thing you learned in researching and discovering your grandfather’s life after he died?

So much! His war history is truly profound to me. What he managed to survive was unreal. I had never read his letters that he wrote from inside a POW prison during the war, which were chilling. I also never knew he called my grandmother “sugar babe” when they were courting. 

How did the addition of the banjo and the songs come about?

I was inspired to add banjo to the play when I remembered how much PawPaw loved Flatt and Scrugg’s bluegrass music. It felt like a crazy challenge to myself. The songs are simple but full of emotion and heart. The big ending song, Storm Still, was the most cathartic to write. It really allows me to say, “I love you, I miss you, I’m proud of you,” to my grandfather.

How does the raging storm in King Lear figure into the story?

The storm represents the tumult and uncertainty of my grandfather’s Alzheimer’s disease, the damage that it can do to a family, the unpredictable sadness and ‘natural disaster’ of dementia. It also represents what I feel as my betrayal of my grandfather by not showing up for him enough when he was sick. His disease and death was a storm, and survivors like me are often left with the emotional wreckage afterwards.

What goes through your mind when you realize that someone you’ve loved and known your whole life no longer remembers you?

It’s pretty shocking and terrible. I felt like my PawPaw, even though he was physically there, was no longer really there. He wasn’t the same man any more. In many ways I felt terrible for him because I know he’d not want to be remembered in such a state. It’s heartbreaking. This is the reality and urgency of Alzheimer’s and dementia research. If we could find a solution to these deteriorating diseases of the mind, it would be such a gift to the world. It would give dignity back to so many. It would save so many lives and families.

What advice would you offer a friend if she told you today that her grandfather had just been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s?

Show up. Be present. Play music. Tell stories. Get them talking and record it. Say I love you. Take care of yourself.

 

 

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The Heath runs February 13 – March 10, 2019.

mrt.org/theheath

COHORT REPORT: Slow Food

Pictured: Daina Griffith, Joel Van Liew, and Brian Beacock. Photo by Meghan Moore.

Comedy. It often seems like the poor cousin of the theater world, relegated to a position below serious drama and musicals. When was the last time a true comedy (even a bittersweet one) won the Pulitzer Prize? That would be Neil Simon’s Lost in Yonkers in 1991. At best, you might get “black comedy,” which is basically humor that no one thinks is funny. But Simon, Christopher Durang, and Alan Ayckbourn seem like anachronisms – okay maybe Ayckbourn should be an anachronism – in a world where theater companies favor plays about identity and personal crisis. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with plays that have real meaning, just as there is nothing wrong with wanting to laugh out loud and forget all your troubles.

Under Sean Daniels, Merrimack Repertory Theatre has been bucking this trend by presenting a number of indisputable comedies, most of them, interestingly, written by women. Because maybe we have we sold comedy short. Not only does it allow the audience to experience what Wendy MacLeod, the author of Slow Food, calls the “joy of shared laughter,” it shows that the best time to deliver a message is when the receiver isn’t looking.

Think about the satirization of American politics in Lila Rose Kaplan’s Home of the Brave or her attack on gender roles in the workplace and in comics (!) in Villians’ Supper Club. And while we were chuckling at the antics of the acrimonious neighbors in Native Gardens by Karen Zacarías, we were also immersed in a struggle between the “haves” and the “have nots,” the young and the old, the established and the immigrant – and pondering where we fit in. Comedy gives us permission to laugh at ourselves – and see the humanity in the other side.

And so in MacLeod’s Slow Food, as we howl in cathartic frustration, it doesn’t matter whether you identify with the hungry couple or with the put-upon waiter, you see yourself. For when the laughter dies down (and the food is finally served) the play reveals itself to be a cautionary tale, as the three characters take stock of their lives at the midway point, with lots of regrets but still many possibilities ahead. Carpe diem, the play seems to say, or you may end up an over-stressed man with a drinking problem (maybe), a woman who never reached her potential, or a waiter who is all he is ever going to be.

 

–Karla Sorenson, Cohort

 

 

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Slow Food runs January 9 – February 3

mrt.org/slowfood

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COHORT REPORT: Food, Love, and Respect

Pictured: Joel Van Liew, Brian Beacock, and Daina Griffith. Photo by Meghan Moore.

Merrimack Repertory Theatre continues its focus on new works with the World Premiere of Slow Food . . .

“World’s worst waiter,” says the ad – to which we all reply, “No way. One time . . .” But that’s the appeal of the play, the universality of being at the mercy of someone with passive-aggressive tendencies, who seems to be on “island time” while you’re in New York. So when the waiter in Slow Food introduces himself as “Stephen with a PH,” we all think we know what’s coming.

But there’s always another side, no? And if you’ve ever “worked food,” or know someone who has, you know that dealing with volatile chefs, hand-sy bosses, and the ever-capricious American public is its own special brand of hell.

The cleverness of Wendy MacLeod’s new play is not in the power plays that go on – although wildly entertaining. Denied sustenance, Irene and Peter descend into a primal state, where it’s every man or woman (or waiter) for themselves. It’s soon apparent that food is not the only thing missing from the couple’s lives, for this is a play about survival and what it takes to have our most essential needs – food, love, respect – fulfilled.

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–Karla Sorenson, Cohort

 

 

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Slow Food runs January 9 – February 3

mrt.org/slowfood

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Q&A: with Playwright Wendy MacLeod

“A Metaphor for Marriage”

wendy macleodPlaywright Wendy MacLeod is best known as the author of Women in Jeopardy! (an MRT audience favorite from the 2016-17 Season) and as a writer for the TV cult sensation “Popular.” She has also earned acclaim and awards for the plays Schoolgirl Figure, The House of Yes, The Water Children, and Juvenilia. The film version of The House of Yes, starring Parker Posey, won the Sundance Award and international acclaim. A professor at Kenyon College and Northwestern University, MacLeod regularly writes for The New York Times, Salon, McSweeney’s, The Washington Post, and “All Things Considered.”

What inspired you to write Slow Food?

The play was inspired by a family trip to Palm Springs, where we found ourselves waiting endlessly for dinner late at night in a Greek restaurant, trapped there because it was the only restaurant still open. Our waiter was maddening, and yet his need to be king of this very small kingdom was fascinating. I was reminded of how we become our best selves once we’ve been fed.

Is there a message you hope to impart to audiences?

As far as a “message,” I’m with George S. Kaufmann, that “if you want to send a message, call Western Union.”  A comedy
should entertain, and it does that by being recognizable—the audience needs to see themselves in the characters or the situation. I don’t pretend that I’m communicating “important ideas.” Rather,
I’m creating opportunities for gifted comic actors and allowing an audience to experience the joy of shared laughter.

How would you describe Slow Food?

This play is very much about middle-age and mortality. I call them Woman and Man because the play can’t just be about one couple trying to figure out how to be lovers again after being parents for so long. Over the course of a marriage we all can find ourselves careening between being lovers, co-conspirators, parents, friends, rivals, and adversaries. Being trapped in a restaurant, waiting to be fed, is a metaphor for marriage.

 

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Slow Food runs January 9 – February 3, 2019.

mrt.org/slowfood