TRAVERSE CITY — Barbara Goodearl always wanted to be cast in a play in the Old Town Playhouse’s Studio Theatre.
The theater’s tiny stage juts out into a minuscule room packed with fewer than 90 seats. It’s about as intimate a venue as she could imagine.
The 75-year-old actress just didn’t think the play serving as her debut in the theater would be one where she plays a share of 57 characters split among seven actors and actresses. It’s the Playhouse’s production of “The Dining Room,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning play by A.R. Gurney that strings together 18 stories from a span of 45 years in no particular order.
And after two months of preparation, the show will premier tonight.
Before one of the troupe’s final dress rehearsals, Wednesday night, Goodearl sat at the table with the rest of the cast and tried to explain some of the challenges the group faced when it confronted the task of portraying characters who range in age from eight to 85.
“We will never do this again,” said Goodearl, as she looked around the table at her cast mates. “It’s like going through a death with somebody. Or a birth.”
The six other members of the cast nodded their heads along with the sentiment. They all wore relatively bland outfits composed of dark pants or skirts and white shirts. Added to the challenge of portraying the stack of characters outlined in the 73-page script is the insistence from director Tom Webb that his crew rely mostly on their acting abilities to dynamically portray the people in the story, instead of using props and costumes.
In fact, there are no curtains or lights-out scene changes during the play. Every scene overlaps the previous one and the cast sits in chairs stationed along the edge of the stage. What little wardrobe change happens during the play just outside the spotlights.
During scene overlaps, actors and actresses cue from the lines of characters in other scenes who talk simultaneously.
“You’re just out there,” said Margaret Ann Slawson, one of four women cast in the play. “In this small a setting, there’s somebody watching you all the time.”
Breaking character can be difficult in such a small setting with so few people on stage. A slight glance to the crowd that nobody would notice in a bigger production would certainly be noticed in the tiny theater.
“There’s always somebody looking at you,” she said.
All of the cast struggled in the early days of rehearsal to learn to portray so many people from so many walks of life. But Goodearl and Mollie Thompson, 82, struggled the most when they had to learn to portray teenyboppers.
The women both made their first foray into acting in their 60s, and have portrayed a variety of characters. But Webb challenged both of them to re-learn what it means to act young.
“It’s very difficult when you’re a 75-year-old asked to be a 14-year-old,” Goodearl said. “We had to learn to talk and to walk.”
Slawson had trouble making herself peppy and loud while learning her parts, but with the encouragement of the rest of the cast and nudges from Webb, managed.
“They’re trying to pump me up,” Slawson said with a smile.
Both women perfected their teenage portrayals eventually. Watching teenage girls walk and talk was important to the development, they said.
And their hard work was not an anomaly among the cast.
“They work all day long and they come here four or five nights each week,” Webb said before adding that at least on of his cast drives from Rapid City each day for rehearsals.
The unique production likely will never return to the stage in Traverse City, said Jan Dalton, one of three actors cast for the male parts of the production.
“There’s nothing like live theater,” he said. “Being live theater, we don’t really know what’s going to happen.”
IF YOU WANT TO GO "The Dining Room" features performances at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 8, 9, 14-16, 21-23, and one matinee at 3 p.m. Nov. 17. Tickets cost $15 and can be purchased by calling 947-2210 or go to www.oldtownplayhouse.com.