Search and sacrifice
Durango Lively Arts Co. raises the drama bar in Durango - again

Actors Kelsey Deery, Albert Carlson and Deborah Heath rehearse a scene from "Father Joy" on Monday afternoon./Photo byDavid Halterman

by Judith Reynolds

For the second time in two years, Durango Lively Arts Company has had the guts to open its season with a challenging new play. Last fall, DLAC infused a Southern fable with charm and imagination. “Wily and the Hairy Man,” by Suzan Zeder, scared and entertained everybody in the audience – the children and the adults. This year “Father Joy,” by Sheri Wilner, will make you laugh and make you think.

Why this sudden spark in one of Durango’s oldest community theater groups? In the last 10 years, DLAC has settled for safe bets, the odd Neil Simon, “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever,” and other standards. Yet filling seats continues to be a problem. To be fair, attracting an audience for live theater is a dilemma faced by every group in town – except for Durango High School.

Well, a new effort is being made by DLAC. Once again, the board has asked Lisa Kramer to select and shape a new play. Kramer, 39, is a professional director who holds a doctorate in drama. She knows her field and keeps track of contemporary playwrights.

“I’ve known Sheri Wilner a long time,” Kramer said recently in her office at the Fort Lewis College English Department. “Sheri and I first met in third or fourth grade. We were in a summer theater program together in Massachusetts, and I knew her through high school. Then 20 years passed, and now we’re back in touch. Sheri’s a playwright and has been a Jerome Fellow twice at The Playwright’s Center in Minneapolis.”

Wilner, 38, indeed, is a playwright. Several of her works have been staged at the most prestigious venue for new American plays: the Humana Festival in Louisville, Ky. “Bake Off,” a satire about gender roles, premiered in Louisville in 2002 and has subsequently been performed all over the country to strong reviews. “Hell and Back” opened in 2004 and centers on three generations of veterans who cope in different ways with the scars of war. “The Bushesteia” looks particularly intriguing. It’s about a leader who will sacrifice anything to win a war. It’s a modern retelling of the ancient Greek “Oresteia.”

“Father Joy” had its first professional production at West Virginia’s Contemporary American Theatre Festival in 2004. It also was staged at the O’Neill Playwrights Conference, Louisville’s Humana Festival, and at the Summer Play Festival at New York’s Theatre Row. In Wilner’s interview for the New York Times, she said: “It’s about a young artist who hasn’t yet been able to find the materials to bring her work to life. She begins a relationship with an environmental artist, and as the relationship develops, her father begins to disappear.”

The artist is Abigail, 25, an ambitious graduate student. She longs to create significant sculpture but struggles to find a clear purpose – and the right medium.

When I read the play, Abigail is searching all right, but she gets sidetracked by Paul, the charismatic professor and an earth artist with an international reputation.

In an e-mail exchange, Wilner said the professor is loosely based on Andy Goldsworthy, the internationally known environmental artist. While strolling through Barnes & Noble one day, Wilner said she came upon a book about Goldsworthy: “I realized how the ethereal work of an artist who creates his pieces with sand and ice and leaves could work in tandem with my initial idea of a disappearing man.”

When asked about the family dynamics and the theme of sacrifice, Wilner said: “Although the play isn’t autobiographical, it was inspired by the sacrifices my parents made for me.”

Abigail’s parents, Ruth and Harry Margolis, pay the bills for their daughter’s art education, and they have their own conflicts. Ruth, particularly, cannot grasp Abigail’s airy dreams. Harry, well, the title of the play refers to Harry, more I won’t say.

“The play is realistic, but not realistic,” Lisa Kramer said. “We’ll have a minimal set and a few costume changes. The challenge will come when some surrealistic elements are introduced. The play touched me. Everyone goes through a stage of looking for purpose. At first, the play works like pure comedy, but by the end it’s very touching.”

Kramer has cast a quartet of experienced Durango actors in the roles: Kelsey Deery as Abigail, Deborah Heath as Ruth, Albert Carlson as the father, and Nathan Lee as Paul, the professor. Lee happens to be Kramer’s husband and is also the tech professor in the drama department at Fort Lewis College.

“Everyone in the cast has had acting experience,” Kramer said. “People have seen Kelsey, Deborah and Albert on various stages here. Nathan has done a lot of acting, especially in graduate school in Hawaii. As an Asian, he’s taken a lot of interesting roles in traditional and nontraditional plays. For a time, he was part of an improv traveling group. He and I have done productions together as director and technical designer, but this will be a first as director-actor.”

“Father Joy” will run about one hour and 40 minutes with intermission, Kramer said, and added: “Don’t bring the kids. It’s definitely not for children, maybe high school students on up, but not for children.”

Given this, “Father Joy” is a bold choice for DLAC. It’s too soon to know if the company has the courage to forge a new direction. The big question is whether local theatergoers will show up for interesting contemporary work. •

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