"Rising Water:" a play in progress
Three people sit in a triangle, flipping pages, pencils in hand. Two young women move boxes around the set, cardboard scraping, footsteps thumping across the hollow staging. More noises emanate from under the platform where the stage manager is sorting things out. There is an alchemy in this room, a sense of dipping into chaos and pulling out form.
"Just let me tell you what I'm thinking," says Bonnie Black, one of the two actors in John Biguenet's play, "Rising Water." Together with Barry Press, who plays her husband of more than 30 years, she and director MJ Bruder Munafo discuss the scene they have just rehearsed. They look into the characters, not at what is written, but what must be discovered by the actors so it can be felt by all, implicit in the uttering of every line.
"When you think it through, you pay attention to detail," says Ms Munafo. "It's called dramaturgy.
"'Rising Water' is an important play, a deeply American play that needs to be paid attention to, and has been," Ms. Munafo notes. "Indeed, it received a nomination for the 2008 Pulitzer Prize in drama."
John Biguenet, a resident of New Orleans, wrote it about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Not yet published, it is still in manuscript form, as are all the plays being presented by the Playhouse this season. "Ninety-nine point nine per cent of anybody that comes here is not going to have seen the plays we're presenting this summer," says Playhouse artistic director Ms. Munafo. "As far as I know this is the first time this play is being done in the Northeast."
Speaking of the playwright's intention, she says, "He wants it being done at little theaters around the country just like ours."
Mr. Munafo adds, "My goal is to present the playwright's work so if he came into the theater he'd say, 'That's my play, and more.'" She explains, "If there is an ounce of humor anywhere, I want it to come out. Also, if there's a shred of romance..."
Photos by Ralph Stewart
Ms. Black and Mr. Press are bringing "Rising Water" to life. The dynamic between the two actors belies the fact that they had never met before rehearsals started.
The play tells a story of relationships at multiple levels, focusing on someone in crisis. "We always make an assumption in this country, that when something goes wrong somebody is going to help you out. To find out otherwise is shocking and demoralizing," comments Ms. Munafo. She adds, "This is a love story as the levees are breaking."
As the scene opens the effect of shock and despair is immediate. And still, the odd normalcy that exists between two people who have shared their lives together for decades exerts a strange influence on even this bedraggled moment. Somehow, though there are no rescue boats or helicopters in sight, comfort is found.
As the two actors take their places, Ms. Munafo hits a button on a tape player. "We recorded this on Tuesday," she says, referring to the sound track made for the show by another veteran performer, Maynard Silva. "He pulled out his guitar after months of not being able to play. "We recorded it in his house."
"House lights out," calls stage manager Tim Toothman, from his seat. And the theater is transformed into a dark southern night full of strife and mystery.
"Sugar, come up here," cries Camille, "I'm frightened to be alone..."
And, all at once we too are there.
Ms. Munafo says, "This is what small intimate theater like ours excels at - distilling those moments and holding them out for all to see. What is great about live theater is that it can put an experience right in front of us that we may not have had, but that we can relate to."
"Rising Water," 8 pm, Vineyard Playhouse, Vineyard Haven. Show runs through July 12, times and prices vary. $25. 508-696-6300
Fae Kontje-Gibbs is an artist and freelance writer.