For their 25th anniversary, Springfield Contemporary Theatre reunites with longtime collaborator Sandra Asher to present the world premiere of her newest play, "Death Valley: A Love Story." This production is directed by Jefferson Award nominated guest director Alan Souza from New York, and stars Andie Bottrell, Rachel Jamieson and Sarah J. Wiggin. It runs October 25-November 10 at SCT Center Stage in Wilhoit Plaza, corner of Pershing and Robberson downtown. "Death Valley: A Love Story" was inspired by the true story, as well as the journals and visual art, of Lancaster, Pennsylvania-based therapists and artists Carol Emerson and David Nutter.
Asher said her interest and involvement came about thanks to an art exhibit she attended in Lancaster. “Carol Emerson had photographs by her late partner David Nutter, of Death Valley (California)—beautiful photographs—and some of her own artwork that was related to his photographs; and excerpts from their journals. It was so moving that I thought, ‘This needs to go out to the world,’ because they are both therapists as well as artists. They were living a universal story with extra insight. Carol gave me permission to read the journals, and we began the journey of the play.”
Director Alan Souza met Sandy Asher at a reading of her play in New York. “I thought the play was really fascinating when I read it. It’s not linear. It’s very impressionistic and it’s very stylized,” he said, very much like a person’s written journal come to life on the stage. “And it captures so many experiences that are, like Sandy said, universal but could be incredibly theatrical.”
Following Carol Emerson and David Nutter’s road trip through California, Nutter was diagnosed with leukemia. “They were very much in love, and had only a brief time together. They were in Death Valley enjoying themselves, but he began exhibiting symptoms. And it was when they got back to Lancaster that the next chapter of their lives began, with the diagnosis and treatment,” Sandy Asher said. “It’s a story of love, loss, grief—and recovery, almost reinvention of yourself after all of that.”
Stage director Alan Souza has taken an innovative approach to presenting this true story on stage. “There are three ladies that play Carol, simultaneously,” he explained, “and at parts, play other characters that come in and out of the stories. So it is a challenge, but it’s a welcome challenge. It’s the kind of piece you can put your own interpretation on. The three ladies are nothing alike; they’re all really fascinating. I think that allows for different aspects of Carol to be present. I think that allows us to use the audience’s imagination, which I think is a tool that we don’t always use today with audiences, and it allows them to come with us on the journey with a couple of chairs and big, strong gestures, and the words and the ideas coming to the forefront.”
Added Sandy Asher, “there are only three women on stage—playing well over 20 characters, probably!” We never see David Nutter himself during the play, and Asher said “that’s been an issue in the readings, where people say, ‘Why don’t you have a male actor playing David?’ And my answer to that is: David is dead. And that’s the whole impetus of the story. And I want the audience to miss him, the way that Carol misses him. He is not there, and that is the fact that she has to face and deal with. The reason that I want this to be played by the same actresses is that he’s there as a memory. So he’s there as she remembers him; he’s not there physically.” She called the three actors in the SCT production—Sarah Wiggin, Andie Botrell and Rachel Jamieson—“all of them marvelous.”
How much did director Alan Souza shape the women’s performances, or did he just allow them to make their own discoveries? “It’s a little bit of both, actually. I think the mistake—with any play, but especially with this one—would be to try to squash those actresses from their instincts. Because them acting as themselves allows the play to have all kinds of fabric of interest for the audience, that we are not trying to be a homogenized version of Carol, and we’re not trying to homogenize the experience of grief. However, stylistically the play has to find itself, and move and behave in a certain way. So there’s a great deal, I think, of the gestures that I have made, the style that I brought to the play, that I imposed on them. And then within that style they moved, and we found our way, including how it behaves and how they attend to each of the themes of the play themselves.”
SCT Managing Artistic Director Rick Dines accompanied Sandy Asher and Alan Souza to the KSMU studios, so I asked him for a few comments. “It’s a beautiful production—what Sandy and Alan have created, and this cast have created, is absolutely lovely. In connection with the production, there is a small exhibit of David’s photography in the lobby as the audience enters. And then, that exhibit evolves through the production, and is a little different when they depart—kind of like the characters in the production. So we encourage people to come early, take a look, and then check it out after.” Playwright Sandy Asher said she “wanted to put in another word for Alan and what he has brought to this production. It is beyond my wildest imagining, and I think it’s something that Springfield has not seen on the stage before. And I really encourage everyone to come out, just for the joy of the theatricality and the sensitivity that he’s brought to the story.”
“Death Valley—A Love Story” at SCT Center Stage opens Friday Oct.25 and will run Thursdays thru Saturdays at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2:00pm through November 10. Tickets opening weekend are $22; after that prices range from $24-$27. Thursday evenings, any tickets remaining as of 6:30pm will be available on a "Pay What You Can" basis. For tickets call the box office at 831-8001 or visit www.http://www.springfieldcontemporarytheatre.org.