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September 20, 2013

Trinity Repertory Company Is Golden

The moment I walked in, I found myself smiling broadly.

Yes, Trinity Repertory Company of Providence was beginning its 50th anniversary season in apt style. As usual, a production here would not be business as usual.

The show was Frank Galati’s adaptation of Steinbeck’s THE GRAPES OF WRATH. Nevertheless, Michael McGarty’s set rather resembled the environmental display of off-Broadway’s recent MURDER BALLAD. This time, however, the long, liquor-stocked bar bisected the house, allowing a few rows on each side for theatergoers, not unlike a football field. In front of the bar was a strip of playing area and in front of that was a DOLLY-like passerelle.

Leave it to Trinity to find its own unique way when mounting a production. But I learned long ago that my favorite of all regional theaters has always shown great imagination.

My first visit to Providence came during the troupe’s fifth season, when it was known as Trinity Square Repertory Company. Friday the 13th of January 1967 turned out to be one of my luckiest days. I drove from my Boston home to see the world premiere engagement of THE GRASS HARP, a musical that would take almost five more years to get to Broadway. Yes, it had more book problems than BUTTRIO SQUARE, but oh, what a score!

And what a big cast came to Little Rhody! Barbara Baxley was Dollyheart and Carol Bruce Verena -- not to be confused with Carol Brice who played Catherine. Brice was the only Providence cast member who’d make it to Broadway, and while Karen Morrow would eventually be sensational at the Martin Beck as Babylove, even she might concede that Elaine Stritch in Providence was even more right for the role.

From the first moments of the overture, I heard a distinctively different sound. “Who did these orchestrations?” I said to myself, and my program showed me the name Jonathan Tunick for the first time.

THE GRASS HARP was directed by artistic director Adrian Hall, a true visionary. That the show required a tree house didn’t deter him from doing it. He had one built and displayed in all its study glory. More impressive still was BROTHER TO DRAGONS the following year. Robert Penn Warren’s play required an earthquake, and Hall and his game actors delivered it so effectively that I truly felt as if the theater shook.

A year after that, Hall delivered a fine MACBETH which also featured an ancient corn-shucking machine. The device was about four feet tall, metallic and circular. The actor stuck an ear of corn in the hole at the 12 o’clock position, turned a handle, and from the four o’clock position came a naked cob while the now-liberated kernels poured from the eight o’clock position.

Does one need this machine to do MACBETH? Of course not. And yet, it admirably served as a period detail. I envisioned Hall sauntering through antique stores or prop shops, spotting this unusual item and saying, “Oh, I’ve just GOT to have that and use it someday.” And he did.

In late 1968, after Hall had read Herman Melville’s novella BILLY BUDD, he decided to investigate the well-received if short-lived adaptation that had played Broadway in 1951. Once he read it, however, he thought it was a little dull. (It is.) So he had his company devise its own BILLY BUDD.

It’s a story of a by-the-book ship captain who endured less-than-zero disobedience. So when one sailor was found wanting, Hall had two other sailors strip off his shirt, tie each arm to a nearby mast and had the recalcitrant whipped. And this actor was WHIPPED for a good two minutes straight in what sounded like a genuine flogging.

When I later asked Hall how he accomplished this, he told me that a certain material was used that wouldn’t hurt all that much. Then he added that one of his actors was a masochist. “Some nights,” he said, “we have to keep him from saying, ‘Harder! Harder!’”

Now, almost 45 years later, I’m still not certain if he was kidding. But if it’s true, leave it to Hall to get the actors with the precise skills he needed.

I marveled at Hall’s industriousness in purchasing the pre-fabricated ANTA-Washington Square Theatre where MAN OF LA MANCHA met with success, and had its components shipped to Providence. I never heard why he never had it reassembled, but perhaps he preferred revamping the fallow downtown Majestic Theatre into two spaces.

Upstairs in 1973 -- long before Kathy Lee Gifford thought that Aimee Semple MacPherson was a good subject for a musical -- William Goyen and Worth Gardner did. AIMEE was a freewheeling show that certainly didn’t feel as if it were a Broadway musical; it wouldn’t have been a bona fide Trinity production if it had been slick and formulaic. But Pamela Payton Wright would have won a Tony had her Aimee been seen on Broadway.

When Tom Stoppard’s JUMPERS opened on Broadway, it concluded with a female singer warbling a rendition of that 1944 hit song “Sentimental Journey” with some new Stoppard lyrics. The B-section started, “Heaven? How I can believe in heaven? Just a lyin’ rhyme for seven.”

But in Word Baker’s 1975 Trinity production, the line became “Just a fuckin’ rhyme for seven.” After Margo Skinner sang the changed lyric and shrugged her right shoulder with ease, a long second passed before the audience realized what it had heard. Today, the word is used at each kindergarten recess, but then it was comparatively rare, especially in Providence. The audacity and Skinner’s at-home ease made the audience roar with approval.

Later that season came a new musical of TOM JONES with book and direction by Larry Arrick and music by Barbara Damashek. People are always asking me what recordings I’d love to have in my life, expecting I’ll say LOVE LIFE, but I say TOM JONES far more often. Damashek’s music was so memorable that even 38 years later I can still sing snatches of the songs (but will spare you).

The Oscar-winning 1963 film of TOM JONES featured Tom and Mrs. Waters enjoying a wild ‘n’ sloppy dinner. Arrick had bread represent every course, and had the two tear into piece after piece and stuff it into their mouths. While that action may not sound equally funny and erotic, please trust me that it was.

Who else but Trinity would do Lillian Hellman’s ANOTHER PART OF THE FOREST and its companion piece THE LITTLE FOXES in rep, allowing us to see that the FOREST prequel was just as good a play if not better? These were the last shows I saw at Trinity before I moved from Boston to New York, after which, sad to say, trips to Providence were too few and much too far between.

But in recent years I’ve made time for Trinity. THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR was set in a suburban motel and had an expansive exterior as well as a dynamic performance by longtime company member Fred Sullivan, Jr. as Falstaff. I wrote that he maneuvered his 300 pounds beautifully, only to be later told that he wore a fat suit. Sullivan made it seem as if it were his own comfortable skin.

Coming full circle with musicals, WEST SIDE STORY was set mostly in the playground, where Jets and Sharks would paint graffiti on the pavement to set the scene. YOU NEVER KNOW was a Charles Strouse musical that had one of his best songs simply called “Music.” I’d love to hear it again.

And Brian McEleney’s THE GRAPES OF WRATH? In one corner of the stage, he put a mounted elk’s head and sports trophies near a country band that provided the bar’s git-fiddling live music. Some audience members who had been seated at nearby café tables eventually had actors sheepishly approach them and give the type of smiles that said “May I sit here?”

The Trinity audience has been primed for years to show appreciation at bare-bones theatricality. After a table and a bunch of chairs were assembled to make a truck on which the Joad family would make its trek from the Dust Bowl to California, theatergoers smiled and applauded warmly.

None of these effects would matter if the show stunk, but McEleney’s production offered solid acting. Anne Scurria as Ma Joad showed a level-headed folk wisdom that suggested she could have been a captain of industry had she been born in another time and place. She looked careworn, to be sure, but how her youth returned when she waded into the water for a swim.

Joe Wilson, Jr. played Casy, the ex-preacher who proved that secular matters were worthy of a sermon, too. Stephen Thorne was a resolute Tom, especially when realizing that “The government has more interest in a dead man than a live one.” Stephen Berenson’s Grampa showed his belief in California when he sighed, “I can pick an orange any time I want.”

As a result, all the Joads expressed denial when told en route by a disgusted returnee that California hardly had streets paved with oranges. As Uncle John, a thinner Fred Sullivan, Jr. expressed frustration through eloquent body language. Still, Jessica Crandall’s Rose felt secure that she’d have benefit of doctor and hospital when time came to deliver her baby. And when they finally reached their promised land, little lights in the ceiling became stars, which allowed us to see their hopeful faces as the first act ended.

Soon after the second act began, the Joads met another itinerant who told them the same doleful news they’d heard earlier. Now they had to believe it. By now, those theatergoers sitting at the tables looked weathered and brow-beaten themselves. So when the Joads were offered manual labor at wages a slave wouldn’t even accept, they jumped at the chance – even Rose, in her advanced state of pregnancy.

THE GRAPES OF WRATH has always concluded with a never-to-be forgotten ending, albeit not an unmitigated happy one. Luckily for Trinity Repertory Company, it’s had a far smoother ride than the Joads had experienced.

I wish it at least 50 more years of wonderful productions and equal success. How I envy kids in Providence and beyond who’ll experience them. Nevertheless, I feel privileged to have witnessed dozens of unforgettable visits.

And if someone knows the truth about that alleged BILLY BUDD masochist, DO let me know.

         — Peter Filichia

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