Wayside 50th season
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By Jessica Wiant -- firstname.lastname@example.org
MIDDLETOWN -- Like so many of their other performances, the opening play for Wayside Theatre's 50th anniversary season is one that's fitting for the times.
"Reunion: A Musical Epic in Miniature," was selected as a nod to another anniversary -- the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, according to artistic director Warner Crocker.
But while "Reunion" does include historically accurate information and dialogue among characters such as Gen. George B. McClellan and more every-man soldiers, it is as much entertainment as it is a history lesson, according to Wayside actor Bob Payne, who plays Harry Hawk in the upcoming production.
Hawk is no fictional character himself: On the day President Lincoln was assassinated, Hawk truly was the lone actor performing on the stage of Ford's Theatre, Crocker said.
From there, "Reunion" embellishes the truth, presenting him in 1890 as the leader of a troupe of actors who perform a play about the events of the Civil War.
As times have gotten hard and the troupe has lost many members, those who remain struggle to continue putting on the show, according to Crocker.
The play within the play features characters like President Lincoln's secretary, McClellan, Harriet Tubman and others.
"Reunion" was written by Jack Kyrieleison, Ron Holgate and Michael O'Flaherty and has been performed Off Broadway and at Ford's Theatre and other locations.
Crocker said the play is wonderful at avoiding shortcuts and quick answers about Civil War history and showing that there was conflict even within the Union. It also is able to look at both the big picture and "microscopes down" to show how the war affected individuals on the ground level, according to Crocker.
"The title says a lot," he said, and the play is a perfect fit for the small Wayside stage, where audience members feel like they are right in the middle of the action.
"They can feel the actors breathe," he said.
It's a stage that has plenty of its own history, too. With "Reunion," Wayside will be featuring talent that has been involved with the theater for many years. Crocker began with the theater in 1999, and others, like sales and outreach coordinator Cephe Place who started working for the theater in 2000.
The theater continues to bring in new talent, as well. Jody Lee, who plays Tom Trudgett, has been hired for the first time for the 50th anniversary season.
Lee said he's been blown away already by how quickly, professionally and seamlessly Wayside puts a show together. As a new person, he said, he's felt immediately like a part of the team.
Wayside Theatre is unique in that it is a professional theater company but in a more rural setting, according to Crocker. It is the second-oldest such theater in Virginia.
"Reaching a 50th anniversary season for any arts organization is a milestone like no other," Crocker said, and even more special for Wayside.
The theater has struggled financially in the past several years and suffered especially in the poor economy.
"It hasn't been easy," Crocker said. "We almost didn't make it to 50."
"This is a real anomaly, and a real treasure," said veteran music director and cast member Steve Przybylski. "Much bigger fish than this place went under. ... That says something about our audience."
It's a testament of what live theater can bring to a community, beyond just ticket sales and entertainment, according to Crocker.
"It's a place where we tell stories about who we are as a people," he said.
Crocker said he hopes in its 50th season the theater can widen its circle of supporters even further, and bring people back to the theater who haven't been there in awhile, because the theater isn't out of the woods yet.
As for "Reunion," Payne stresses that the story moves along and is entertaining, in addition to containing a lot of accurate -- and at times surprising -- historical dialogue.
While Wayside has done its share of Civil War-themed shows -- including "Shenandoah" last year and "Robert E. Lee and John Brown: Lighting the Fuse," by Crocker, before that -- "Reunion" is different, according to stage manager Malia Arguello, herself a longtime veteran at Wayside.
There are places to laugh, see humanity, she said, making the show accessible to everyone.
And of course, there is the music, all from the Civil War era, Przybylski said, including some Stephen Foster numbers.
"It's really great music. You don't get exposed to it every day," he said.