By JOHN BURNETT
Tribune-Herald staff writer
If the dearly departed could speak to us, what would they say?
That’s the premise of “The Spoon River Project,” a stage adaptation of Edgar Lee Masters’ “Spoon River Anthology,” a collection of free-form poetic narratives by the deceased residents of a fictional small town.
The show, adapted into script by New York City composer and voice teacher Tom Andolora, runs for one weekend only: Thursday, Friday and Saturday, Nov. 7, 8 and 9 at 7:30 p.m.; and Sunday, Nov. 10 at 2 p.m, at University of Hawaii at Hilo Performing Arts Center. It’s a joint production of the UHH Performing Arts Department and the Hilo Community Players, the Big Island’s oldest community theater organization, in honor of the Players’ 75th anniversary.
The residents of Spoon River speak from the grave, examining life and their longing for what might have been. As the post-Civil war community reflects on the dreams, secrets and regrets of their lives, a gritty and honest portrait emerges of the fictional town — which is likely patterned after Masters’ hometown of Lewistown, Ill., on the real-life Spoon River.
“’Spoon River’ has haunted me since I was exposed to it in high school,” said Jackie Pualani Johnson, a UHH drama professor who is co-directing the production with Jake McPherson of HCP.“There’s all these things about day-to-day life, such as politics, how the doctor has such a prominent place in town, what happens behind the counter at the pharmacy. People are taking a little nip. … It’s not just the surface stuff. You get the nitty gritty. All the stuff that people try to dust away comes to the surface.
“This is one of the classics for actors. But this guy (Tom Andolora) has put together a different framework. There’s music. He’s a composer, so he took songs from the Civil War and songs that people from the continental United States would find very familiar. It’s not a musical, but since communities have music woven through them, it has music in it. And some of it’s very touching.”
The corps of 16 actors includes UHH students and veteran community performers: Juli Dobbs, James Elliott, Erin Gallagher, Le‘a Gleason, Dick Hershberger, Willyam Hudson, Sharon Justice, Pedro Ka‘awaloa, John Marcus Love, Randal McEndree, Catherine McPherson, Lewis Moore, Jin Piper, Brian Wild, Denyse Woo-Ockerman and Corey Yester.
“It’s really an actor’s show,” Johnson said. “Each actor plays at least three characters, so they have find ways to differentiate their characterizations. Andolora wanted it to be an ensemble piece, to have that flexibility. And it’s great to see how the actors meet that challenge — the nuance of vocal pitch, their use of the body, that type of thing.”
Chris Tomich serves as music director, fulfilling his senior project for a degree in performing arts concentrating in music.
“I have just been in awe,” Johnson said. “Not only is he musically savvy, but he has a style of coaching the singers that makes them want to work hard. He has a sense of humor. He listens well. He warms them up physically and vocally. He also sees the emotive elements in the music; he understands the humanity of it. It’s not all technical for him.”
Johnson said she’s enjoying sharing the production’s helm with McPherson, a local community theater stalwart and former HCP president.
“As a director, he’s very perceptive,” she said. “He’s sensitive. He is encouraging to people. We’ve kind of established that norm in our theater. We believe that positive assurances and being honest with people, but in postive ways, is the way to go. We’re not ‘American Idol’ types of folks. We don’t slash and burn. And he’s very much of that same ilk in that he sees the good in people, draws it out, and is very perceptive in drawing it out. He’s also a wordsmith, so he sees the value of words, of timing.
“During a rehearsal, he told the actors to keep it moving along. If you need to take a pause, you have to earn it. I thought ‘wow.’”
It’s also the official debut of resident designer Ariana Bassett, who designed the set and the lighting.
“She’s one of our theater graduates, and we’re just tickled that one of our graduates went through the whole search process and landed the job,” Johnson said.
Tickets are $12 general, $7 discount and $5 for UHH Students with valid ID and children 17 and under. To order by phone, call 932-7490 or order online at artscenter.uhh.hawaii.edu.
“This is serious theater with some of those quiet moments for people who want to relish ideas, images and basically, storytelling — people giving the stories of their lives from the grave,” Johnson said.
HCP will have DVDs of its recent production of “The Trial of Lili‘uokalani” as a thank-you gift for donations of $20 or more to HCP in the UHHPAC lobby during the run of “Spoon River Project.” The play, by Maurice Zimring, featured Johnson as Queen Lili‘uokalani. The DVD will also be on sale for $20 starting Nov. 11 at local retail outlets, including Basically Books in downtown Hilo.
Email John Burnett at firstname.lastname@example.org.