Piling into an elevator inside of Norfolk’s historic Wells Theatre, along with the six cast members of Virginia Stage Company’s new production, The Book Club Play, feels both fun and awkward, though the presence of VSC’s Marketing Director, the always pleasant Janelle Burchfield, admittedly tempers the awkward factor a bit.
Sharing an elevator with primarily strangers always strikes me as being somewhat awkward, and the ever present thought of getting stuck in one, with those very same strangers, always leaves me a bit anxious during the ride.
L to R: Rachel Moulton, Ashton Heyl, Michael Keyloun, Daniel Pettrow, Mia Ellis (images | Samuel W. Flint)
So once we’re all in the theatre’s green room–which I haven’t been in since my unheralded debut as an extra in the company’s production of August Wilson’s excellent Radio Golf, a few seasons back–I am able to really “take in” each cast member ―via their features, personal fashion styles, verbal and non-verbal modes of communication, etc. It’s fun. And my first impression leads me to believe that this is a fun crew of actors, a new clique that has already bonded over their shared experience building the characters in this play, working with an established but new director to them, Chris Hanna, and of course, the experience of having made it through the dress rehearsal, just a couple days earlier. The dress rehearsal is the first time that an audience is there to witness their work.
“The teachers were awesome… I want them to come to every show,” exclaims Mia Ellis, who portrays Lily, the newbie of the group. “They were awesome and so responsive and we were delighted…”
“We needed an audience,” adds Rachel Moulton, who plays Jen. “… It just felt so good, because some things are like, ‘is this ever going to work’, (laughs) it just felt so good, oh my God…”
Having the audience there for the dress rehearsal clearly gave the entire creative team a real sense of what jokes are working, as well as identifying the ones that might fall flat. Director Chris Hanna, who is also, of course, the company’s still well liked Artistic Director, has safely described this two-act comedy as a farce. And as such, the audience’s perception of what’s really happening on stage can sometimes be tricky to ascertain.
The Book Club Play premiered back in 2008 at Bethesda’s Round House Theatre, with a significantly different early script, but the same basic premise. It earned largely warm reviews for playwright Karen Zacarias, who was complimented by DC theater critics for the play’s witty dialogue. However, it was in the popular 2011 mounting of the comedy by DC’s Arena Stage that the play’s current incarnation debuted, featuring the documentary filming plot device.
Ana is the well-intentioned, but controlling creator of the book club, which meets at the home that she shares with her husband, Rob, who attends the club meetings but is stereotypically disengaged with the actual literary component of them. Ashton Heyl, a NYC based actress with familial ties to Hampton Roads, makes her VSC debut portraying this character.
“Ana is a very complex person, as we all are in real life, and on the page, you could play it one way… I was interested in what she was really about…” says Heyl. “Yeah, I think she’s a complex, well-meaning control freak.”
“I remember reading it and the moments where the play becomes self-aware, really thrilled me,” states Brian Monahan, explaining what drew him to the play. Monahan, who portays Alex, also has ties to the area, through his undergrad work at Virginia Wesleyan.
L to R: Mia Ellis, Ashton Heyl, Rachel Moulton
The play humorously explores Ana’s relationships with each book club member: including the aforementioned Jen, who works as a paralegal, the confidently assertive and stylish Lily, the literary professor and non-member Alex, the museum curator and Rob’s best friend Will, and of course, Rob himself. During the twice monthly meetings, which are actually being filmed by the famous Danish documentary filmmaker, Lars Knudsen, the characters argue and agree, about art, relationships and each other. These interactions are sometimes heightened by Knudsen’s roving camera, which allows the audience to interact as voyeurs of sorts, peeping into Ana’s living room.
What is most enjoyable about the book club setting, however, is that the characters really engage in discussions about literary culture, and what constitutes high and low art. A large range of fiction is bantered about and debated, from the popular Twilight books, to classics like Moby Dick. As an audience, we haven’t really seen a lot of recent works for the stage, or in film, that illustrate the intellectual and social bonding that can happen during a book club meeting, which of course, often features quite a bit of alcohol.
For Daniel Pettrow, who portrays Rob, the play examines “what is of value and what is worthy of being classified as literature. “ He continues, “It’s also just about a bunch of dysfunctional friends making a family together.”
“There’s a real thing about the power of written words ―speaking them, how it changes you, what you think it is, but then someone hears it a different way,” explains Michael Keyloun, who plays Will.
“It’s also about how art can serve as a catalyst for personal change.”
For more info or to buy tickets, click here.