The medieval morality play “The Summoning of Everyman” is uniquely suited to its venue, St. Andrew’s Church in Edgartown. The 15th century play, which will be performed this weekend and next by Island Theatre Workshop, is an allegorical tale of one man’s reckoning at the hour of judgment. The contrast of the simple brick walls and exposed beam ceiling of the rustic 19th century church, with the striking Tiffany stained glass windows and impressive pipe organ, help to underscore the theme of the spiritual domain versus the temporal.
With a doomsday deadline hanging over his head, Everyman (John Ortman in the starring role) tries desperately to plead his case for redemption, attempting to enlist his fickle friends Fellowship, Kindred, and Worldly Goods to take the voyage with him to the afterlife as character witnesses. When these attempts fail, he turns to Beauty, Strength, Discretion, and Wit, only to discover that these terrestrial companions are no longer of service to him. He is left with the realization that only his earthly deeds can save his soul.
Director E. St. John Villard has taken some liberties with this classic of English literature in deference to modern audiences. Although the performers are in contemporary dress, none of the language has been updated but some sections have been shortened. Ms. Villard finds the old English prose part of the appeal of the anonymously penned piece.
“The power of the period of this play is that it’s leading into early Shakespeare,” she says. “You can hear it in the language.” However, sans the flourishes, wordplay, and language innovations of the bard, this one-act play is relatively straightforward and easy on the ear, although children younger than teens are likely to get lost in the language.
Rather than modernize the prose, Ms. Villard has instead broken up some of the lengthier speeches by splitting the original characters of God and Death into three. The three Gods and three Deaths all have distinct personalities, and ricochet off each other as they deliver their easily digestible snippets of some of the more philosophical speeches.
“An Elizabethan audience went to church and was used to hour-long sermons. I think it’s a very powerful script but not written for a modern audience,” she says.
Ms. Villard has also added music to the play, choosing 15th century hymns from her years as a drama teacher specializing in the medieval period. “I wanted more of the spirit of a mass where you reach the mystical level and you just sing.” She adds, with a reference to Desdomona’s song in “Othello,” “Music is a great way to get emotion out on stage.”
There are some lovely voices among the cast and the musical breaks are not at all intrusive, nor do they seem out of place, especially considering the setting.
Since the play was originally written with no stage directions, Ms. Villard has had leeway to give a little bit of color to some of the characters, turning the duo of Kindred and Cousin into a drunk and a cowardly malingerer. The Satanic trio provides a suitable creepy factor to the play, with the three menacing evil characters prowling around the hapless Everyman, leaving him nowhere to turn.
Ms. Villard refers to the actors as “a remarkably Edgartown cast.” When the original lead actor, Brad Austin, had to abandon the role just one month before the opening due to illness, she recruited her neighbor John Ortman, who was most recently seen on stage as the narrator for a play he wrote for last fall’s short play festival. As Everyman, Mr. Ortman, in a polo shirt and jeans, captures the essence of an imperfect mortal man, downplaying his character, whose speeches at times could come across as somewhat histrionic.
“I think the temptation is to pontificate but you can be more real than that,” he says. He does an excellent job of bringing the play, with its allegorical characters and moralizing speeches, into the 21st century.
The rest of the cast takes on dual roles; Ms. Villard believes that the play was written for a small company with actors doing double duty. Many generations are represented with 82-year-old Ann Hale doing a fine job as one of the Holy Trinity and as Discretion, and ninth grader Katelyn Fritz holding her own playing the very divergent roles of Beauty — a sweet young woman — and one of the three Deaths — a whip-cracking dominatrix type.
Because of the universal nature of the message, the Summoning of Everyman has withstood the test of time.
“There’s nothing new about the idea of ‘If I die tomorrow what am I going to leave behind?’” Ms. Villard likens the protagonist’s adventure to the classic five stages of grief in a Christian context. Although Everyman spends most of the play in the bargaining stage, his entry into the acceptance phase at the end makes this classic — if not exactly a feel-good story — a play that manages to relay a positive message about dying.
“The Summoning of Everyman” 7:30 pm, Friday, May 21, St. Andrew’s Church, Edgartown. Also May 22, 27, 28, 29, 30 (3 pm). $15; $14 with church bulletin. For more information, contact email@example.com or 508-627-2529.
Gwyn McAllister, of Oak Bluffs, is a regular contributor to The Times.