Searching for “The Fox”

By Brandt Roberts

There was a moment last fall when I was having dinner with Elizabeth Dunn and she asked who I thought could direct the apprentice capstone project? I cautiously raised my hand. It had been seven years since I directed a full-length play, and I realized I was craving the process. I have tried to support our apprentices’ capstone in past seasons in any way I could, and this seemed like the perfect chance to throw my hat into the ring to direct again.

The Fox will play March 13th to March 29th
Alicia Ehleringer and Caroline Hawthorne in The Fox, 2020
Alicia Ehleringer and Caroline Hawthorne

When I read the play I was hooked. This year’s apprentice class (Caroline Hawthorne, Matthew Donahue, Alicia Ehleringer, and Jodi Rushing) has chosen The Fox by Allan Miller, based on the novella by D.H. Lawrence. The play is set in 1918 on a farm near Berkshire, England. The farm is run by two young women named Jillian and Nellie. The two decided to leave the town because of the gossip and the influenza epidemic. Their main source of income is their hens, but the hens have ceased to lay eggs because a fox continually raids the chicken coop. On a windy November night, a young solider named Henry unexpectedly arrives at their doorstep, having just returned home from the war. He seeks refuge—but what does he really want?

That is all I will venture to say about the plot. The Fox is simultaneously beautifully poetic and strikingly realistic. The characters are colorful and complex. So much of what is expressed is unsaid. The play bounces from dry sardonic wit to terrifying thriller. It is a shocking reminder that while the story is fiction, these characters represent reality. Humanity is brought to light in the shadows of this dilapidated farmhouse.

Although the play is set during the twilight of World War I, the issues it presents are timeless: pandemics, war, sexuality, gender roles, toxic masculinity, gaslighting, social norms, etc. I could go on and on about the script and the novella, but I’ll just say you’ll have to see it for yourselves!

I am proud of our apprentice class for their selection and who they are as artists. I am honored to be on this journey with them, we are having a blast! Their hard work in rehearsals and behind the scenes will bring this incredibly human story to life. Come visit the past to gain clarity on the present at the Commonweal this March.

Don’t miss Brandt’s directorial debut with the Commonweal, and the hard work of all of our wonderful apprentices! Get your tickets for The Fox, opening March 13th —> Performance Calendar

Battles Come to Life

By Laura Gentry

My husband, William, and I caught the Wealhouse production of An Iliad, featuring Ben Gorman last summer. Admittedly, I would have skipped a one-man show about an ancient war. It didn’t really capture my interest, but we know that anything Commonweal is going to be good. So we headed on in for an evening performance, wholly unprepared for the epic journey upon which Ben was about to take us.

Laura Gentry, her husband, Wiliam, and their dog, Fuji
Laura, her husband William, and their dog Fuji

The show begins with a storyteller entering and slowly recounting scenes from the war—scenes most of us remember from having read The Iliad in school, or seeing Brad Pitt play a sexy Achilles in the movie Troy. The stories were vaguely familiar to me; but the more Ben told them, the more they came flooding back as he embodied the colorful characters.

It doesn’t seem like a history lesson, though; the battles come to life. As audience members we are transported to the battlefield; plopped down into the bloody, sweaty, conflict. I had never felt this narrative to be more real. Who is this storyteller? I wondered. He speaks in a modern, relevant voice yet he can recount every little detail of the Trojan war as if it were yesterday. Is he an immortal? And it exacts such an emotional toll on him! Why does he tell it? What is it telling us about the nature of war itself? What am I supposed to take from this?

Ben Gorman in An Iliad by Lisa Peterson and Denis O'Hare

I continued to ask myself that question throughout the play: “What am I supposed to take from this?” Many theatrical performances give us food for thought or a dose of entertainment. I guess I was anticipating that when I saw An Iliad, but I got so much more. It spins the yarn of the story in such a way that I felt impossibly tied up in it. This demands so much of us! How should we respond? William and I are still asking that question.

Caroline Gordon once wrote: “We do not judge great art. It judges us.” This Wealhouse production of An Iliad catapults itself into the category of great art in that it does just that. Yes, it is a technically amazing performance by a brilliant actor but in the end, that’s not what matters. It is how deeply it impacts us. We don’t think anyone should miss this performance for any reason.

Experience it for yourself! An Iliad returns for one show only this Sunday, at 1:30pm. Get your tickets for today! —> Performance Calendar

A Step Back: David Hennessey on Partial Retirement

By David Hennessey

David Hennessey

In 1998, I drove down Route 8 from Fountain for the first time and saw Lanesboro nestled below the bluffs like a picture post card.  It was magical. Little did I know I’d spend more than two wonderful decades here at the Commonweal.  My artistic journey continues, but now at a slower pace.

I will partially retire in 2020, cutting my hours to one-third time.  I’ll continue acting when there are suitable roles and will work as needed with our development team, but Jeremy van Meter will be the principal contact for the MDC. Meanwhile, I’ll keep handling advertising sales in our season program. 

In short, I will take a step back, but I am definitely not stepping away.

David Hennessey and Eric Lee share the mic in It's a Wonderful Life - A Live Radio Play
David as Clarence in It’s A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play

How could I? The Commonweal has been the perfect artistic home for me. I love working with a resident ensemble of both seasoned artists and new apprentices. We all learn from each other and have a chance to assess our artistic growth annually with Hal and Adrienne. Those assessments shape the roles we’re assigned, and I’ve been lucky to play more than 50 — from likable characters such as Clarence in It’s a Wonderful Life to despicable liars like Bob Ewell in To Kill a Mockingbird, plus appearances in world premieres by Jeffrey Hatcher and Scott Dixon (#teamscotty). As with everyone here, I’ve also had many behind-the-scenes roles over the years including costume shop manager, Elderhostel organizer, student matinee scheduler, underwriter recruiter, company calendar manager, writer, editor and audio description trainer.

Along the way I’ve collected meaningful memories both off and on stage. Once, a couple who had just lost half their income told me they decided to keep season passes in their reduced household budget. They had just seen The 1940s Radio Hour, and it had lifted their spirits, reminding them why our work was crucial.

Apprentice Diana Jurand performs with David Hennessey
David in the 2013-2014 Apprentice Capstone Tigers Be Still

And when Phillip Muehe, then a directing apprentice, asked me to join the apprentice cast of Tigers Be Still, I accepted, even though it added to my heavy stage schedule of four other shows that year. When the first-night audience leapt to their feet at the end of the show, I felt like I was in a credit card commercial.

Extra rehearsal hours: 50. Added gray hairs from lack of sleep: 32. The smiles from my young colleagues after an opening-night standing ovation: Priceless!

Hey, I can’t possibly step completely away from memories like those. So I’ll see you all next year . . . sometime! 🙂

Thanks for all you’ve done for us David! We’re so glad we still get to have you around in 2020. Trust us, there will be plenty to do! See you all in the New Year!