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