'Benediction' opens as a celebration of ‘The Precious Ordinary’

Benediction: Billie McBride, Nance Williamson, Kathleen McCall and Leslie O'Carroll. Photo by Jennifer M. Koskinen.
From ‘Benediction’: Billie McBride, Nance Williamson, Kathleen McCall and Leslie O’Carroll. Photo by Jennifer M. Koskinen.

Note: A public celebration of Kent Haruf’s life will be held at 10 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 7, at The Stage Theatre. Click here for details.

Tonight’s opening of Benediction completes the DCPA Theatre Company’s remarkable, eight-year process of adapting esteemed Colorado novelist Kent Haruf’s Plainsong Trilogy for the stage.

Benediction: Actors Billie McBride and Nance Williamson at Perspectives conversation. Photo by John Moore.“It’s been incredibly rewarding to do all three because they all represent a different kind of unsentimental honesty and truthfulness,” said DCPA Theatre Company Producing Artistic Director Kent Thompson. “They are kind of a contemporary Our Town, only it’s set on the Eastern Plains of Colorado instead of in New England. “

Plainsong, Eventide and Benediction are all set in a mythical town called Holt. There are three basic storyline in Benediction:

“The major arc would be Dad Lewis, who is the owner of the local hardware store, and he is dying of cancer,” said Eric Schmiedl, the playwright who has adapted all three novels for their world-premiere stagings at the DCPA.

“At the beginning of the play, Dad is told that he will probably not live through the summer. Part of his journey is to come to terms with his life, and the different things that have happened, specifically his relationships with his two children, Lorraine and Frank.

“The second storyline follows a young girl who moves next door named Alice. She is 8 years old and her mother has died of breast cancer, so she is taken in by her grandmother, Berta May. Through the course of the play, she is unofficially adopted by surrogate women in the community.

“The third storyline covers a minister who has been reassigned to the main church in Holt after some controversy in Denver. And he has some issues going on with his family as well. In that true Kent Haruf style, all of these stories merge together, and all of the characters eventually create a unique kind of 21st Century family that’s not the traditional American family.

Thompson and Schmiedl were guests of DCPA Literary Manager Douglas Langworthy on Feb. 3 for Perspectives, an ongoing, free series of conversations in The Jones Theatre with cast and creatives just before the first preview performance of every new show. They were joined by actors Leslie O’Carroll (Berta May), Nance Williamson (Alene) and Billie McBride (Willa).


Here are selected excerpts from their conversation:

Douglas Langworthy: Eric, how does this novel differ from the other two novels?

Eric Schmiedl: This play is really set in the city of Holt, as opposed to the outskirts, like the other two. One of the more captivating parts in Plainsong deals with the McPheron brothers, who live way out east of Holt on their ranch. This is much more about the people in the city.

Kent Thompson: I would say the people in the “town.” It’s an incredibly small city. (Laughter.)

Nance Williamson: About 3,000 people.

Audience member: One streetlight.

Eric Schmiedl: It is a small town — and that is one of the issues for the Reverend and his family.

Douglas Langworthy: I know Kent Haruf was very involved in the adaptations of Plainsong and Eventide. He passed away midway through this process. So what was it like to complete this trilogy without him?

Eric Schmiedl: It’s heartbreaking that he wasn’t able to be with us as we were blessed with the opportunity to bring this to the stage. But what a great opportunity we’ve been given by the Denver Center and Kent Thompson to explore and celebrate Kent’s life and his work on the stage. All these plays are a wonderful testament to the vision and support the Denver Center and Kent Thompson have given us, because very few theatres invest in an artistic process that would last eight years. It’s a real testament to the vision of this theater.

Benediction Perspectives conversation. Photo by John Moore.

Douglas Langworthy: What’s different about Benediction?

Eric Schmiedl: In each one of the productions, the vernacular and the way that we told the story changed. It became richer and deeper. And the process was then that much more enriching, I think. This one in particular is a little bit different because it has a different kind of storytelling process. When I approached Kent (Haruf) – and Kent (Thompson) – I said, ‘Maybe we should try a different vernacular with this.’ And because we had all worked together and trusted each other so well, Kent Haruf fully embraced that process.

Douglas Langworthy: Kent, what does it mean for you as the artistic director to complete this eight-year project?

Kent Thompson: I’m an outsider to Colorado, as is Eric. But I grew up in the South, so a lot of my relatives lived on farms not too different from the Eastern Plains. But my in-laws actually grew up in Yuma, with Kent Haruf and his siblings. And one of my wife’s uncles, Richard, was Kent Haruf’s best friend. They are loosely the basis of the two boys in Plainsong. So it was kind of meant to be that we would do Plainsong. I just love that novel. I recognized many of these people from people I’ve met. There a lot of things that seem so true about it. And then a kind of serendipity happened. I brought in Eric because I had worked with him before, and I think he is remarkable at channeling somebody else’s voice.

Douglas Langworthy: Why did you choose to set this production in The Space Theatre instead of in the Stage Theatre, where the other two were performed?

Kent Thompson: I think this story is more intimate. There is only one scene, in the church, that has lots of people in it. So it seemed like the right place emotionally.  Because if we are going to go through the decline of Dad, it seems to me like we should be sitting in the room with them.

Eric Schmiedl: The inspiration also comes from the individual novels. A lot of Plainsong is really about the full breadth of the physical landscape of the Eastern Plains, and that sense of vastness. When we first talked about adapting Plainsong, I came up with two different ways we could go: We could go micro, and just tear the story down and do it very small. Or we could go macro, and try to cover all the different storylines and the whole vista. And bless his heart, Kent Thompson said, ‘I think we really should go macro, and we will find the resources to make that happen.’ That’s why The Stage Theatre worked so well for Plainsong: It was big and broad, and we had that beautiful set with the vista of the plains. But Benediction is much more about the people and less about the physical landscape of the plains.

Douglas Langworthy: Leslie, you have played different characters in all three of these adaptations.

Leslie O’Carroll: Yes. In Plainsong, I played Russell’s mom – the unfriendly person in the town. I called her the Mother Bear. She would have been up and ready to defend Russell, no matter how horrible a bully he was. I loved playing that character because I feel like we all know those people. Then when you move to Eventide, I played a character you don’t see a lot. Betty June is a bit challenged in terms if I.Q. Those are the people who are kind of hidden back in the trailer park. In your career, you have maybe four roles that change your life. That was one for me. And then with Benediction, I get to play this grandmother who has another child to rear after already having raised her own daughter, who is now gone. And they did not have the best relationship. Having this new relationship is kind of like coming full circle for her, She is starting again as a mother. But everybody is starting again with this little girl. As Dad is declining and Alice comes in, it’s about forming a new family. I love that about all of Kent Haruf’s books: Just because someone is in your family, they may not be the person you are closest to. It might be someone outside your family, and so you create a new kind of family. In this day and age, there are millions of different kinds of families.

Douglas Langworthy: Billie and Nance, you play mother and daughter, and you both develop an interest in this young girl that Berta May is raising. Why?

Nance Williamson: I play Alene, who is a retired schoolteacher. She has taught in another small town for 41 years, and now has come back home. She had a relationship with a married man that ended badly. So when she comes back home to mom, she doesn’t know what she is going to do. She feels like she had one chance at love, and she lost it. And her mother is bluntly telling her, ‘Well, that really wasn’t that much of a chance.’ (Laughter.) So she’s done with teaching, and there’s not that much left for her. But she’s not in that retirement mindset yet. So when we meet this little girl who has lost her mother to cancer … there is no father … and she is living with her grandmother … something sparks in Alene. She comes to life. She blooms a little bit in the course of the play. So while it is about helping this little girl, Alene receives so much in return. There are a lot of women in this play, and a lot of women with some time under our belts. You don’t get that very often in many plays.

Billie McBride: Willa has been living in the town for a long time. She was married to a man, and they had a ranch, and they were pretty well-to-do. But he passed away and she has been alone for quite a while now. So it is a great joy when her daughter moves back. But the thing that is the most troubling is the darkness that surrounds this young lady. There is a joy I feel – me, Billie and me, Willa – in watching her shift all of that weight with this little girl. It is a treat to watch all of that.

Douglas Langworthy: What is the line Berta May has about giving and receiving?

Nance Williamson: The little girl says, ‘I thought you said it was better to give than receive.’

Leslie O’Carroll: And then I say, ‘Well, now you are letting them give. You’re giving by letting them (give).’

Nance Williamson: There is a line that kind of thematically encapsulates that idea: It’s called ‘the precious ordinary,’ and it goes back to the Our Town idea that these lives are simple, ordinary … and so precious. 

Note: Join us for Page to Stage, a free noontime conversation with Benediction cast members on Tuesday, Feb. 10 at the Colfax Tattered Cover, 2526 E. Colfax Ave.

Benediction: Ticket information
Performances run Jan. 30 through March 1
Space Theatre
Performances daily except Mondays
Call 303-893-4100, or go to the Denver Center’s web site at www.denvercenter.org

Our previous coverage of Benediction:

Kent Haruf: The complete final interview
Video: Your first look at Benediction
Doris Duke Foundation awards $125,000 for Benediction
DCPA to celebrate Kent Haruf on Feb. 7
Bittersweet opening for ‘Benediction’ rehearsals
Kent Haruf, author of ‘Plainsong’ Trilogy, dies at age 71
Kent Thompson on the 2014-15 season, play by play
2014 Colorado New Play Summit will complete ‘Plainsong’ trilogy
Video: ‘Benediction’ reading at the 2014 Colorado New Play Summit

Benediction Perspectives conversation: Billie McBride, Nance Williamson, Leslie O'Carroll, Eric Schmiedl, Kent Thompson and Douglas Langworthy. Photo by John Moore.‘Benediction’ Perspectives conversation: Billie McBride, Nance Williamson, Leslie O’Carroll, Eric Schmiedl, Kent Thompson and Douglas Langworthy. Photo by John Moore.

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