By Nancy Oliveri
A community-wide NEA Big Read program promoting reading and literacy is running throughout March and this weekend will include a compelling stage adaptation of the featured book.
SUNY Broome Professor Mary Donnelly has been the force behind bringing this program to our community. Said Donnelly, “The Big Read is a program from the National Endowment for the Arts and Arts Midwest, which sponsors programming in local communities to help everyone gather around a good book.”
For our community, Donnelly chose is Tim O’Brien’s Vietnam memoir, The Things They Carried. There was a list of 44 possible titles, but this one, a National Book Club winner, is the one that spoke to her.
For Donnelly, who teaches English and is a scholar of Irish literature, the project has been a labor of love. Already in progress, the program is large in scope and includes reading groups at libraries within a four-county, two-state radius; events at SUNY Broome; a dramatic reading this weekend in Johnson City, and a display of Vietnam War photos, “Innocent Souls” by Glenn Hoover, which is at the SUNY Broome Library Art Gallery through the end of the month.
At 7 p.m. March 25, O’Brien will be at the Helen Foley Theater in Binghamton High School for a public lecture and question-and-answer session. The Big Read will have copies his book to give away, or attendees may bring their own for the chance to have the author sign them.
But this weekend, you can, and should, try to attend the dramatic reading of playwright Martin Murray’s adaptation of the book. Murray, who turned 27 just this month, is from Binghamton but now lives in New York City. For someone like him, the Vietnam War is something in a history book. Being able to intimately connect with O’Brien’s narrative, and choose parts of it to bring to life in a cohesive script for a listening audience, is a wonderful literary accomplishment.
If O’Brien’s visit is the denouement of the project, this weekends performances are the climax.
A publicity piece for Murray’s dramatic adaptation describes it like this:
It is Vietnam, early 1968. The men of Alpha Company, along with their commanding officer, Lieutenant Jimmy Cross, are humping it to Than Khe, carrying their lives and their memories on their backs. This moving, often funny, production brings O’Brien’s novel to vivid life in an entirely new way.
Kate Murray, who is very active in many facets of the arts and community programs in the Greater Binghamton area, is the director of this new work and is very proud to be working with a script written by her son.
Murray is also a photographer, and I caught up with her at Studio 271 in Endicott, her studio, where she was rehearsing with her 10 enthusiastic young performers.
Murray is a patient director with specific ideas about what she needs from her cast. Some of these young people have had little theatrical experience; for others, the staged dramatic reading format is new even though they’ve performed in more traditional productions. (For this type of performance, the actors have their scripts in front of them and use minimal props.)
It was clear from their rapt attention and excellent questions that they have a lot of respect for both Murray and her assistant, Joe Bardales. Both directors patiently answered questions, stressing to the actors that, although they will have their scripts in front of them, they will still have to be mindful of the proceedings.
For those who hadn’t done this kind of show before, Bardales made a good suggestion. While demonstrating on his own script, he said, “Keep your finger on the page and run it down the lines as they are being spoken. You will want to interact with the other actors, but since you are not memorizing these lines, it will still be easy to lose your place or drop a cue when you look away.” Then he and Murray followed in unison with, “You don’t want that to happen. No.”
Murray went page by page, giving each actor their blocking instructions. For a reading this often just involves knowing which music stand to be at where your script will be open to the correct page, when to return to your chair, and when to have your prop.
Appearing in the performance are Erik Young, Jacob Weir, Gary Dewey, Teshawn Banks, Lane Luangxay, Tom DeAngelo, Vasilios Dikeakos, Sally Buchheimer, Annie Fabiano and, as the Stage Narrator, Amanda Truin.
If you plan to see these kids in action, The Things They Carried: A Dramatic Reading will be presented at 7 p.m. today (March 10) and at 2 and 7 p.m. Saturday (March 11) at the Schorr Family Firehouse Stage, 48 Willow St., Johnson City. Tickets at $15 ($10 for veterans and students) are available at goodwilltheatre.net or by calling 772-2404, ext. 301. (Note: All other NEA Big Read events are free.)