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When Playwrights Play With History



The job of theatre

Back when I used to write theatre reviews in the early 80s Theatre by the Sea director Jeff Rosenstock told me bluntly that "Theater is hard work." Rosenstock (now at Queen’s Theatre in New York) was talking about the audience. It is enormously taxing, he said, to dress up, buy a pricey ticket, and sit for hours in a crowded room where real people are laying their emotions on the line. Easier just to veg-out in front of the TV.

That was especially true of the intimate 100-seat Theatre by the Sea back when it was located in the basement of an old grain warehouse on Ceres Street. The audience sat crammed in uncomfortable chairs packed so close that we all knew what everybody else, actors included, had eaten for dinner. I was once wedged so tightly into the front row that the cast of Edward Albee’s Tiny Alice had to step around my knees.

Stephens has turned the work of theater into forced labor. Audience members must walk from the Tyco Center at Strawbery Banke to the six houses were the plays are performed. And they must do this outdoors in the dark following a tightly timed schedule. Because the venues are small, the audience is divided into three groups and led by three guides. The actors perform the first three plays three times in a row. Then they change costumes, change roles, change houses and do it again. Lamplight Dialogues is New England’s first aerobic stage production.

Alive and onstage

lamplight_Dialogues_AldrichBack in the late 90s Strawbery Banke president Denny O’Toole invited Seacoast Rep director Roy Rogosin and I to join a panel offering creative new directions for the 10-acre museum. "You’ve spent 30 years building a beautiful stage," we told the nonprofit board of directors. "When does the show start?"

Historic houses, after all, are filled with beautifully restored rooms in which nothing ever happens. Life, for the most part, has gone out of them. Tourists file through in season, stand behind the velvet ropes, and file out. The rooms sit empty at night.

Last year museum president Larry Yerdon gave Stephens the green light to craft a series of plays around dramatic moments in the life of Puddle Dock, then stage them right where they occurred. That is even harder than it sounds. All you need to powerfully re-enact the assassination of Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre is a guy with a beard and a gun. Our memory and our emotions fill in the rest. But what ever happened at Puddle Dock?

Stephens dug deep and found gold. He says he was inspired by my book on the history of Strawbery Banke, and for that compliment I humbly thank him. But that’s like saying Sir Edmund Hillary was inspired by a day-hike up Mt. Agamenticus. I’ve seen a lot of theatrical productions based on local history over the years, but nothing like this. In scene after scene the playwright reaches into the past and pulls out a beating heart. I know these stories well, and Stephens gets them right.

Lamplight Dialogues manages to find the soul of each building within the characters who lived there. The language is artful and intelligent. The acting is top notch. The rooms are historic. The plots are revealing. The messages are clear. And like flies on the wall, we get to watch these characters work life out at close range in their own homes.

Most playwrights strive to create a world so real that audience members willingly suspend their disbelief. Stephens has gone a step further into the realm of invented memory. Which is why I am convinced that I spent an emotional Shabbat with Mollie and her father Avrum Shapiro in their kitchen one evening. And I clearly remember the day that Thomas Bailey Aldrich turned 16, and the night Leslie Clough got a raise at the Abbott Store. The mind knows what the mind knows. These memories are mine now.


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