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Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The History Room





Playwright:  Charlie Thurston


Venue:  Ruth Humphreys Brown Theatre, 120 South Main Street, Creede, Colorado 81130

Running time:  2 hours, 5 minutes (includes 15 minute intermission).

Date of Performance:  Saturday, July 23, 2016. 


This is a World Premiere production of the Creede Repertory Theatre’s Headwaters New Play Program.

It’s a new work and it’s a World Premiere.  There’s something magical about that.  With no expectations beyond a one paragraph blurb in the program, everyone comes to The History Room with no biases, no preconceived notions, and few expectations.  All that changes immediately as the show begins.

A latecomer rushes in just before the curtain; the ushers have already closed the doors.  He’s looking for his seat in the second row, but doesn’t find it.  He looks at his ticket again and sees that his seat is in the front row.  He sits down just as the lights go down.  When they come back up, he gets out of his seat, walks onto the stage, and starts to tell his story…the best he can remember it.

Stuart Rider as Steve.
His name is Steve, and he’s in the history room.  He’s also in The History Room.  In fact, he’s the central character, a man with a mission but carrying a boat load of doubt and guilt.  He starts to explain why he’s going to kill his long-time female friend.  It’s because she made him promise to kill her if she gets dementia like her mother.

As the story unfolds, this opening scene is reenacted multiple times as Steve remembers the moment he promised to commit murder.  Whether those memories are accurate is debatable.  

It’s hard to know, as a reviewer, whether the playwright (Charlie Thurston) or the Director (Pesha Rudnick) put Steve in the front row to begin the show.  Whoever did it, it was brilliant.  Steve is one of us.  He’s still one of us even after he takes the stage.

I may not know for sure who put Steve in the audience, but I do know this:  Thurston’s script is superb storytelling. It’s a multi-level story, covering issues of grief, loss, love, and the deep seated unspoken guilt in being a caregiver for a dying loved one.  Despite the depth of these issues, Thurston somehow manages to inject some laughs into these very dark places.  The humor is not the message; it’s the salve that helps us deal with the deep wounds of grief and loss. 

Thurston’s script makes excellent use of music.  Pink Moon (a 1972 track by British singer/songwriter Nick Drake) is used repeatedly to stimulate Helen’s lost memories.  Likewise, The Beatles tune With a Little Help From My Friends brings Helen much joy, even if the memories are still remote.  Lyrically, the song reinforces the caregiver theme, reminding us that there are always going to be times when we’ll need “a little help from my friends.”  There are times when music can literally trigger memories that take us back to an earlier time in our lives.  Thurston has baked that trigger into The History Room.

The History Room benefits greatly from the accomplished cast.  Stuart Rider plays Steve with an authentic sincerity.  He extends his 10 seconds in the front row to 2 hours of being a protagonist we know personally.  We know him, and like him, because he’s just like us. 

Graham Ward as Peter.
Graham Ward does his best acting in The History Room without saying a single word.  Think about that…it’s remarkable.  He elicits laughs.  He taunts.  He pleads.  He dies a dramatic stage death (actually, several) and brings the house down.  No words are spoken, but Ward steals the scene every time he plays Peter.

Kate Berry (Young Helen/Jeanne) is rock steady as Young Helen, replaying the opening scene every time with precision.  Seriously, it’s like watching a video.  Every detail (the blocking, the timing, the lines, the expressions) is perfect every time.  Berry really comes to life, though, as Jeanne.  A confident, successful woman, she inserts
Kate Berry as Young Helen.
herself into her mother’s life, reversing the roles.  She becomes the parent, her mother becomes the child.  Jeanne won’t admit it, but Berry shows it to us:  she feels guilty because she has neglected her parents.  She tries to make up for the neglect in a single but doomed attempt at being a caregiver.  All those in the audience who have been care givers can relate to Berry’s tortured attempt to redeem herself from her self inflicted guilt.

Ron Clark as Robert is as real a human being as ever took a stage.  Clark embodies the essence of a care giver, to the point where I started seeing myself in him.  Clark deftly displays the urgency of giving care to a loved one, if only to atone for his negligence in the past.  What really hit home for me, though, is his devotion.  His focus is on Helen, to the utter and complete detriment of his own health.  For me, it was like looking in a mirror.  I have walked a mile in his shoes, and I’m certain I’m not alone.
Ron Clark as Robert.


It is Christy Brandt, though, whose star shines brightest in The History Room.  Brandt plays Helen, an aging woman losing control due to her Alzheimer’s disease.  Brandt is alternately confused and lucid.  She’s in decline, but still in a cognitive purgatory.  Balancing the extremes of Helen’s condition is a delicate dance for Brandt.  It turns out that she can dance very well, turning in a performance that is familiar, feisty, charming, and always riveting. There’s not a false note or flaw in any line she delivers.  Whether she’s losing control of her bodily functions or fiercely fighting against going to a care facility, Brandt always reminds us of the strongest women in our lives.  We love those strong women.  We want to give them the care they deserve, even when it infuriates them. 
Christy Brandt as Helen.

Pesha Rudnick’s direction is both subtle and strong.  She uses wind chimes (sound design by Jake Harbour) to symbolize significant memories.  It’s a perfect audio symbol for those memories.  Rudnick literally hangs those memories onstage; a brilliant device to remind us that we are in the history room.  The talk back after the show was remarkable for what Rudnick did not say.  In my experience, directors love to talk about their work.  Rudnick said nothing for the entire twenty minutes, letting her actors do all the talking for her.  That level of restraint and respect for actors is commendable.

Thurston covers a lot of ground in The History Room.  So much so that it can’t all be summarized easily here.  Suffice it to say that he made me think about profound matters:  the guilt I experienced after losing my late wife, the loss of control that we all will face eventually, and even what Salvador Dali was showing us in his masterpiece “Persistence of Memory.”  Thurston reminds us that memory is much more subjective than we realize.  Distorted by time and experience, memories may be to truth as Dali’s painting is to reality.  

"Persistence of Memory," Salvador Dali, 1931.
I can’t remember (pun intended) the last time a play generated so much deep thinking for me in the days after the performance.  Thurston provokes important questions for all of us, and expects us to find our own answers.  Perhaps the most important question I asked myself after seeing The History Room is how do I want to be treated if I have untreatable dementia?

You might want to ask yourself the same question.

When I walked into the Ruth Humphreys Brown Theater, I had few expectations.  When I walked out, I realized that no matter what expectations I might have had, they would have been greatly exceeded by this production of The History Room.


NOTES:

The words The History Room do not appear in the script, save for the title.  Normally, I find that annoying.  In this case, there is no need to say those words on the stage.  There is never a question where the play takes place.  It’s in the history room.

Creede is about 4 hours from Colorado Springs and 4.5 hours from Denver.  That makes a trip to Creede a big commitment if you live on the front range.  Still, there is little doubt that the rewards are well worth the trip.  We made a mini vacation out of the trip, spending the weekend at the Arbor House Bed & Breakfast (highly recommende) in South Fork.  If you’re serious about theater, and serious about the best theaters in Colorado, you need to get to Creede.  

This show closes on September 15, 2016.

Photo Credit:  Creede Repertory Theatre & John Gary Brown, photographer.

TICKETS HERE:  


CREATIVE TEAM:

Director:  Pesha Rudnick

Scenic Designer:  Kathryn Kawecki

Costume Designer:  Kathryn Kawecki

Lighting Designer:  Jacob Welch

Sound Designer:  Jake K. Harbour

Stage Manager:  Jean Egdorf

Assistant Stage Manager:  Lucas Bareis-Golumb


CAST:

Steve:  Stuart Rider

Young Steve/Peter:  Graham Ward

Young Helen/Jeanne:  Kate Berry

Robert:  Ron Clark

Helen:  Christy Brandt


2 comments:

  1. An absolutely fabulous play, in every sense of the word: script, direction, staging, and oh my god the acting...! What an ensemble.

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    Replies
    1. Hank: Obviously, I am in complete agreement with your comment. After I wrote this review, I was surprised to discover that Charlie Thurston, the playwright, is a young guy. Maybe 30, I was told. He exquisitely captured the agony of getting old and losing control, a task that would be well beyond the experience of most people his age.

      In every sense, "The History Room" is an amazing production.

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