Theatre Review: “Interpreting William” at the IRT

Delana Studi and Tim Grimm in "Interpreting William" at the IRT

On Friday I drove downtown to attend the opening night festivities of the world premiere of “Interpreting William” at the Indiana Repertory Theatre.  The play was written by James Still, the playwright-in-residence for the IRT, and directed by Lisa Rothe.

The show made me cry because it reminded me of why I majored passionately in history as an undergrad, and why I still enjoy reading, writing, talking, and hearing about history.  As the play’s youngest character, the defiant 19-year-old Naomi (Lena Hurt), says, “History is really about us!”  It is personal, it is relevant, and it is multi-dimensional.

In this show – which is also personal, relevant, and multi-dimensional – David Alan Anderson stars as a jovial history professor named Bill who is trying, here in 2009, to finish the definitive book on William Conner.  If you live in the Indianapolis area, you probably already know that William Conner was the man who in 1820 was helping to “settle” the area that eventually became the state of Indiana.  Bill has written quite a bit of the book, but he just can’t seem to nail the ending.  He visits his former teacher, his hero, a woman named Anna (Carmen Roman), for help. 

Tightly-wound Anna was loved by many students, but she had to leave teaching because of some controversy.  Bill doesn’t know the details.  She now works as an administrator at Conner Prairie, a living history museum just north of Indianapolis.  Her office is a mess because her young assistant, Naomi, refuses to file anything.  Anna keeps Naomi on, though, because Naomi is willing to bring Anna coffee, and Anna can’t do anything without coffee.

Anna doesn’t remember Bill – he is one of many former students who have made the pilgrimage to see their famous former teacher – but she takes pity on his writer’s block and gives him permission to hang out at Conner Prairie for a week.  She even lends him her assistant.

As Bill and Naomi “work” together, their conversations help both of them figure out what they are really doing there at Conner Prairie and on the planet.  Their exploration of Indiana’s history helps them better understand their own.

Woven seamlessly and sometimes simultaneously with the contemporary scenes are scenes of a very human William Conner (Tim Grimm), his non-doormat Lenape Indian wife, Mekinges (Delanna Studi), and his loving, but strong-willed brother, John Conner (Robert Neal), in 1820.  They, too, are trying to figure out what they’re doing there.  William has been with Mekinges for twenty years; they have several children together.  Yet William has also helped negotiate a treaty to make all of the Indians leave the area.  This means his wife and children have to leave, too.  Bill, back in 2009, is wondering why William would do such a thing.

Naomi tells Bill that the interesting question is not, “How could you?” but rather, “How are you doing?” She urges him to write, not the definitive book, but the interesting one.  Bill revisits the 1820 scenes.  We see them flesh out as he thinks and writes about them more personably.  At the same time, we learn more about Naomi’s deeper relationship to Anna, and Bill’s relationship to his wife, Liz (Delanna Studi.)

In other words, this is not “a play about William Conner,” or not just that, anyway.  It is something much more satisfying, much more artistically interesting.  It is a play about the way that learning about someone else’s history also deepens our understanding of our own history – the history that we are making with our loved ones in our own lives each day.  We are transformed by that deepening understanding and are then, paradoxically, able to let go of it.

Letting go, or leave-taking, is a big theme in this play.  Another theme, gently presented, is racism.  Yet another theme, connected to the idea of all history being personally relevant to those who study it, is the idea of history being much more chronologically layered than “then” and “now.”  When Bill refers to movie star Paul Newman, for example, Naomi says, “The salad dressing guy?”  There is a lot of wisdom and gentle humor in this play.

Speaking of humor…during the first act, I sat in my assigned seat.  It is usually a very good seat, but on this particular night I happened to be sitting very close to a woman with a sharp, overly-loud, honk of a laugh.  It made me jump every time I heard it, and took me out of the story again and again.  The pacing of the first act seemed a little slow, but I can’t say for sure because I found it hard to concentrate: I was continually tensing up against the invasiveness of that woman’s laugh.

At intermission, I moved to an empty seat in another part of the theatre.  Much better!  In the second act, I got completely caught up in the story and laughed and cried freely.  I hope I didn’t disturb anyone, but I guess you never know.

Robert Neal (John Conner) also plays Stephen, a man who contentedly works at the Conner Prairie living history museum as an “interpreter,” i.e. – someone who dresses like someone from the 1830s and who interacts with visitors as such.  He is not an actual person from history, but the composite he portrays is historically accurate.  I haven’t been out to the real Conner Prairie in a while.  This play made me want to visit it again.

But what really made me cry is that Naomi says she wants her historian, Bill, to help her “remember” what happened in history, to “remember” what William Conner was like.  When I first started working on my own stories about Abraham Lincoln, that was what my 20-something-year-old hairdresser said she would want from a historical stories program, too: the feeling that she had actually met these people and knew them like family.

In other words, teaching and learning about history is not just about getting the names and dates straight.

The set, designed by Ann Sheffield and lit by Mary Louise Geiger, is subtly beautiful and seen through literal mists of time.   The set is mostly black, with a large, flat stone on a higher level upstage, a large, wooden canoe submerged in the polished marble “water” downstage, and in the middle a very large, round “plug” of woodsy garden.  There is a mossy bank and a softly-painted row of trees at the very back.  Huge panels at the side serve as palettes for additional dapples of light.

Since it was opening night, we all got to go up on stage after the show and look at the set pieces up close.  I was surprised to find that the row of trees is further softened by the presence of a barely-there black scrim.  The garden plug moves forward and back on a silver cord that is completely invisible during the show.  Small platforms slide in and out on other invisible cords to incorporate Anna’s book-strewn office and other mini-sets.  Nathan Garrison is the stage manager for all this.

Kim D. Sherman’s lovely musical compositions for this show are both ethereal and well-grounded.  They are sort of “New Age-y” but more sophisticated than that. I liked them very much.  I’m sorry I don’t have the vocabulary to describe them better.  Todd Mack Reischman designed the sound for the show.

Alex Jaeger designed the costumes, including fascinating buckskin outfits for the Conners.  I don’t know who was in charge of props, but William Conner’s mile-long rifle was intriguing.  Imagine having to make your way through the forest with that!

I arrived at the theatre too late to hear dramaturg Richard J. Roberts’ prologue talk this time, but he said he would email me a copy.  I look forward to reading it.  He always has interesting things to say about a show’s background.

The opening night party in the lobby after the show featured traditional Indiana treats: cups of salty-sweet popcorn, white-iced cupcakes, chocolate-and-nut-dipped apple slices, and skewers of watermelon chunks.  There were cups of apple cider, I think, to drink, and glasses of champagne.  It was all very yummy and satisfying.

Best of all, though, was being able to raise a glass to the playwright, James Still, and the director, Lisa Rothe, and to all of the actors, designers, and other people that had made “Interpreting William” possible.

These include Duke Energy as the title sponsor. (I didn’t catch the woman’s name who was there representing Duke Energy, but I was glad for the chance to thank someone in person for not only sponsoring shows at the IRT but also for making “cheap seat nights” possible at the Phoenix Theatre.)

Dow Agro Sciences is the associate sponsor.  OneAmerica is the 2008-2009 season sponsor and will be next year’s season sponsor as well, according to artistic director Janet Allen’s and managing director Steven Stolen’s curtain talk.   Nancy and Berkley Duck, the sponsors of playwright James Still, were in the audience opening night, too, as was Ellen Rosenthal, president and CEO of Conner Prairie Interactive History Park.

“Interpreting William” continues at the Indiana Repertory Theatre through May 31, 2009.  To make a reservation, please call the Ticket Office at 317-635-5252.

Hope Baugh – www.IndyTheatreHabit.com

14 thoughts on “Theatre Review: “Interpreting William” at the IRT”

  1. Hope: Thanks for the very complete account of your evening. I saw you there and saw you move at intermission…fearing the worst, but as it turned out…encountering the best.
    Glad you had a good time…see you again soon I hope

  2. Hope: That is a very good review. It made me feel as though I were at the play. Thanks for writing it.– Marion Garmel.

  3. Huh….this show didnt seem very interesting from what I had heard of it but you made me change my mind Hope

  4. I’ve been looking forward to your review, Hope! We went during preview week and though I’m always eager to compare notes with someone who’s seen a show I have, I was especially interested in this one since I work at CP. There’s a lot in this show to chew on and it gave me a new way to look at William Conner’s situation. Thanks for your thoughts and all the little details!

  5. You’re welcome, Debby! I had forgotten that you work at Conner Prairie.

    Thanks, Debby and Dane, for reading and leaving comments!

  6. I saw the show this evening and was disappointed. The manner in which this play was advertised on NPR gave me a completely different expectation as to what I’d be seeing. Maybe one day someone will give an honest account about the life and times of William Conner. It seemed like white wash mixed with soap opera to me. I would not recommend the play to anyone seeking to gain any historical insights, because they aren’t in this play in my opinion.

  7. Tonight I saw “Interpreting William.” This phrase is now, in my mind, akin to “tonight I stepped on broken glass.” The play was not meant to be purely comedy, but taking it any other way is too painful to bear.

    As, I am sure, most people who came to see this drivel, I wanted to find out more about William Conner. All we found out was that he never dreamed of an owl, but carried a long rifle, just in case. We did, however, found out more than anyone wanted to know about the various involvements of the fictional characters after whom the play, if honesty mattered, should really have been named.

    William Conner himself is reduced to a Daniel Boone impersonator, wandering aimlessly across the stage shouting the name of his apparently deaf wife. Oh yes, and his brother REALLY wants him to move on with his life, which, it turns out, means ditching his Indian wife and children for a new future with Indiana as a state, and a white wife. That’s it.

    I didn’t come to care about anyone in the play. I didn’t want to know what happened to them, unless, perhaps, one of them would have caught fire and burnt to a crisp, thus lending at least some drama to this weak, preachy presentation.

    If you are thinking about seeing this play, just send the money to me, and poke yourself with a pencil for a couple of hours. You’ll have a better time.

  8. Yikes, Leo and Edward! I’m sorry you each had such a disappointing experience at this show.

    However, I can’t help teasing a bit: Leo, what were you doing listening to NPR when _my_ review says very clearly that “Interpreting William” is NOT “a play about William Conner”?

    Still, even if you had both read my review first, I can see how you might go to the show expecting to have your questions answered about that elusive historical figure. Or just hoping for something other than what you got. I know what that’s like, so even though I loved “Interpreting William,” I sympathize with your disappointment.

    I admire you both for giving the show a try.

  9. PS – Anyone else who is thinking of seeing this show, I heard this morning that the final weekend of “Interpreting William” at the IRT is nearly sold out. My friend and fellow reviewer, Joe Boling, recommends trying for the Saturday matinee performance.

    As with any show, I recommend seeing it yourself and forming your own opinion.

  10. We went to this play May 30th, 1pm show. I was not impressed at all, and agree 100% with Edwards comments.

    I found it offensive that much time and effort was spent trying to come up with an excuse, ANY excuse, as to why Conner did not follow his wife and children, opting to stay behind (only to re-marry within 3 months).

    The line: “I CHOOSE to leave because my children need to be with their people”…is rubbish. They HAD to leave because of the treaty. The same treaty Conner was responsible for.

    I challenge a writer to come up with a story about the African American Community, or those from the Jewish community, or ANY other group of people, who were wronged in the past…and try to soften the truth with a fairy tale. I doubt any writer would have the courage to do so – the public would have their heads !!

  11. I saw “Interpreting William” three times, and each time I found new things to love about it.

  12. I hadn’t paid much attention to the IRT’s advertising for this show, but when I finally did see one of their ads towards the end of the run, I was appalled (sp?) that they had promoted the show as a way to learn more about who William Conner really was. There was some of that in the show, but it wasn’t the point of the show. The ads were misleading, so no wonder some people were frustrated by the show.

    Sheila, I have been percolating on your comments for several days now. I really respect what you said. When I saw the play, I saw the “I choose to leave” line as Mekinges’ way of telling Conner he was a jerk and of claiming her own power within a bad situation. But I also completely get what you are saying, and agree that there was no good excuse for his actions.

    I still love the show, though, and wish I had been able, like Wanda, to see it multiple times!

  13. PS – I really hope I get to see this show produced somewhere outside of Indiana some day. I think that would be very interesting, and also useful in terms of evaluating the play’s effectiveness as a play.

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