Review: Running at the Chester Theatre Company
by Gail Burns and Larry Murray
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Larry Murray: It was a real pleasure to finally see the work of playwright Arlene Hutton on stage, and from what I have heard, the Chester Theatre Company has had a long relationship with the writer. It was my first visit to this company, tucked away in a beautiful rural valley, and I must say I have never heard a quieter Main Street in my life. Even City Hall is closed on Thursday and Friday so the company can perform there undisturbed by the hum of small town business.
Gail Burns: Chester’s population was just under 1,500 souls in the 2010 census. Sandwiched between Becket and Huntington on Rt. 20, the town is equidistant from Pittsfield and Springfield. In 1990 Vincent Dowling and H. Newman Marsh started the Miniature Theatre of Chester in the Town Hall. Now known as the Chester Theatre Company under the direction of Byam Stevens, the company mounts four small-cast plays over the course of an eight week summer season.
Larry: They have a lovely little theatre right in town hall, with great acoustics, and some new comfortable seating. The sight lines are very audience friendly, too. Best of all, I could hear every word without straining. And it was air conditioned. All those little things make for a good audience experience.
Gail: I have many fond memories of the work they do. They produced the first of Hutton’s Nibroc Trilogy plays, “Last Train to Nibroc” (1998) in 2001. It was a big success and CTC mounted “See Rock City” (2003) and “Gulf View Drive” (2006) in subsequent seasons.
Then in 2010 Stevens decided to dedicate the entire season to the Trilogy, producing all three plays individually and culminating with a weekend in which die-hard fans could see all three in one day. This gamble paid off for the company, and local audiences are loyal. “Running” gave them their first sold-out house of 2012.
Larry: The premise is simple, and director Ron Bashford kept the play moving, and the dialogue natural. Stephen (Jay Stratton) lives in an apartment that once housed a series of roommates over many years. He is there alone, his wife being in London tending her art gallery business. Emily, a past roommate arrives in New York during Marathon weekend and finds herself rejected at the hotel she booked and calls the only number she can remember, that of her old residence, and she is given a place to crash for the night by Stephen. He’s prepping for the race and tries to settle her and get to bed to rest up. But she does not go gentle into that good night.
Gail: “Running,” which debuted at the 2010 NYFringe, has a lot in common with Hutton’s first and most popular work, “Last Train to Nibroc.” Both are 90 minute works about a man and a woman thrown together by circumstance at a crucial juncture in their lives. I have never seen “…Nibroc” but I am quite sure “Running” will not prove to be as enduring an opus, nor spawn another trilogy.
Larry: It seems to be less a traditional drama or comedy and more an improv whose premise is two people who don’t really know each other making conversation. They used to be roommates, once or twice removed but as they talk, the threads get alternately tangled, straightened out, and their conversation just sort of drifts aimlessly over the course of ninety minutes. In many respects I liked her style of writing, she has the ability to capture the inanity and non sequiturs of typical middle class folks.
Still, even with all the naturalness of the conversations, there is a structure. Over the course of the play the couple explores who they were decades back and who they are today, and each is at a crossroads in their life.
Gail: I liked Stephen and Emily. They are 50-somethings, like me, facing the results of the choices they have made and the hands life has dealt them. But we should be careful not to call them a couple, Larry. They really didn’t have a friendship/relationship years ago, and they don’t forge one over the course of this one night. We don’t know if they ever meet again after Stephen leaves the apartment at the end of the play. Hutton leaves many, many questions unanswered.
Although, having said that, these roles were written specifically for a married couple – Seth Barrish and Lee Brock – to play.
Larry: During the course of the play we do come to understand both the characters better. Stephen, like a lot of guys, seems to have stopped learning and striving and is currently unemployed, and rarely leaves the apartment. What we have here, is a failure to thrive, and it is all his own lack of curiosity and initiative. He is a very nice guy, a people pleaser even, but a total loser. Emily seemed to have rapid mood shifts and no sense of boundaries. Was it the acting, or the writing that made them such fascinating characters?
Gail: This is what Hutton does best, write character.
Larry: I kept trying to see parables, metaphors, irony, or simple insights into why these two characters were on stage. What was the whole purpose of sitting into he dark for 90 minutes, no intermission. We wandered all over their relationships, but to what purpose? Am I missing something here? Do people just enjoy plays because they contain people they are comfortable with, to pass the time, to feel “safe” in their own skins. I don’t get it.
Gail: This is a nocturnal play. We were in the dark but so were Stephen and Emily. She arrives “after 10 pm” and he departs “after 3 am” and it is the weekend of the New York City Marathon, the first weekend of November, so the days are short. There is something about those dark hours of the night that changes one’s perception of the world. Problems look bigger and scarier. Sex and love are abroad. Conversations seem more intimate, memories more vivid and immediate. This play could not take place in the harsh light of day.
Larry: Speaking of light I was amazed that such a modest space and company had the wherewithal to focus more than 50 lighting instruments, and that the technical aspects were handled with such accuracy. Looking at the hadiwork of Jill Nagle, I was impressed with the neatness and organization she displayed. And the ceiling is quite high, she must have had quite a challenge focusing all of them. Tom Shread’s sound design was subtle, but pulled its weight, too.
I also found the set quite wonderful, being both realistic with lots of doors leading off to the kitchen, office and bedroom. David Towlun who designed the single set had a fantastical moment in which he was able to give the sense of the New York skyline looming over them, and the jagged chair rails and crown molding were both theatrical and realistic.
Gail: Don’t forget the costumes by Heather Crocker Aulenback, a lot of thought went into them.
Larry: What looks simple never is. Even picking the right color, style and age of a t-shirt is critical, as well as the pj top. Imagine if Stephen had a faded Budweiser t-shirt on, it would change our whole image of who he is in the play. Or if Emily had brought out some lingerie to sleep in rather than borrowing something. I am always amazed at the details in a production.
At the end of Emily’s harangue about how Stephen should strive to “win” the Marathon, and he admits he rarely gets out of the apartment for more than a few hours at a time, he does indeed leave for the race. She wishes him good luck on his run, but he responds that he is just going to walk. Do you suppose she helped him to see he had to get his life moving again, was this a metaphor for his realization that he has to walk before he can run? I just don’t know.
Another twist that occurred to me is that “Running” could be called a long night’s journey into day, As with the “Long Day’s Journey into Night” things don’t end up neatly wrapped with a bow, but continue on, even after we leave the theatre and their company. We have been but witnesses to an episode in their lives, and are left to speculate what comes after.
I suppose people have to go and see for themselves. Hopefully someone will post some insights for us to chew on. Were you involved with the characters, maybe even sorry to see the play end?
Gail: I wasn’t sad to see the play end, but I think I enjoyed the characters and overall arc of the play better than you did. It is definitely a gentle, realistic play, but we have often talked about how tired we are of dramas about dysfunctional families with highly predictable “dark secrets” that are explosively revealed two-thirds of the way through. Here’s the antithesis: a nice quiet play about two fairly normal people facing relatively common midlife trials.
I enjoyed spending 90 minutes in their company.
Chester Theatre Company presents The New England Premiere of Running by Arlene Hutton. Directed by Ron Bashford with Jay Stratton and Melissa Hurst. About 90 Minutes. No Intermission. August 1-12, 2012, Chester Theatre Company, Chester, MA. Box Office: (413) 354-7771