Reviewed by Nancy Oliveri
The original two-act play Letter Writing, written and directed by Marisa Valent for SPARE Productions, opened Thursday night (Aug. 18) and runs through Saturday (Aug. 20). Performed once before in Syracuse, Letter Writing is having its Binghamton-area premiere at the Cider Mill Playhouse, and its opening night audience gave it a standing ovation.
SPARE , the program states, is “a non-profit community theater company of mostly high school- and college-age students that seeks to provide opportunities for its members to grow in theatrical arts by producing high-quality shows and providing … masterclasses and workshops.” Valent, a senior at LeMoyne College, is the president of SPARE and to mount a full-length drama at this stage in her career is a great accomplishment. She is entering the MFA program at LeMoyne in 2017.
That said, it will behoove anyone over 30 who goes to this show to remember that this is a nascent enterprise, and you may want to decide if you are the intended audience. It will appeal to anyone heading to college, recently graduated, or who might like to remember what it was like to be 19.
Full disclosure: I am not the audience for this piece, but it is being produced with a grant from the Broome County Arts Council’s United Cultural Fund, which I support with my time and donations. I am also closely related to one of the leads, so keep all of this in mind as you read the following paragraphs.
The story: Several freshmen bond in their first semester at a school where drinking on the weekends, or weekdays, is the norm. Each is challenged by being away from home for the first time. In their freshman seminar class, they are asked to revive the lost art of letter writing in the digital age.
Through their letters home to friends or parents, we get a glimpse into the struggles each student faces. A particularly nice moment shows the similarities of their first letters as each actor reads the opening lines of his or her letter in a chorus of “How are you? I’m fine.” Of course, they are not fine, and the play eventually will reveal why, so it’s a clever, if not altogether original device.
Valent’s dialogue is very believable and conversational, although it sent me wondering how anyone can write compelling dialogue when nobody seems to speak compellingly any more. If everyone is unconsciously appropriating a persona from a TV sitcom, then many of their remarks are predictable. Except this isn’t a comedy.
Tell that to the folks in the audience who laughed raucously at some of the lines where incidental humor existed and at others lines that should have elicited tears. Alcoholism, anorexia, etc., are not really funny topics.
As for the actors, the ubiquitous “vocal fry,” a tendency to gravel one’s voice and failure to enunciate may be authentic, but those interpretations made it difficult, for me anyway, to understand much of the dialogue. Couple that with a loud musical sound track, and you can see my dilemma. But this is the way teens and 20-somethings talk. Everyone loves and uses sarcasm … often to a fault.
The characters, however, are believable, and, when I could catch what they were rushing to say, I got the point. I was just starting to care about them when an overlong, very loud party scene at the end of Act I left me with a cider and doughnut hangover. (I was at the Cider Mill, after all, and those delicious items were available at the concession stand.)
The show features some newcomers and some who are more experienced, but all the actors throw their hearts into their roles. For some, I suspect, their characters are very close to playing themselves.
Letter Writing features Kileen McLeary as the studious (if not terribly academically gifted) Alice; Darius Fuller as the unassuming, but clearly struggling, James; Eli Carlin as BMOC Michael; Samantha Heatherman as Holly, the wallflower-turned-party girl around whom all other characters develop; and Natalie DeBoer as Anna, the serious student trying to maintain a long-distance relationship with her boyfriend, while being forced to mother Holly.
In the supporting cast is Shaun McManus with the great hair, who has a man-bun as a professor but doubles as a Garth-like (Wayne’s World) student in the party scene; Marisa Kriedler is the pretty but flat-affected Girl; Jordan Walker as Guy., who reminded me of one of Jesse Pinkman’s drug-dealing friends in Breaking Bad, and Zariah Walton as the androgynous Zoe, who wore the best costumes.
Noticeably absent in the script (or possibly just the cast) was diversity. I attribute this largely to the limited pool of actors of this age group to cast during one of the busiest times of the summer for college-age people.
Jamie Kaufman was the assistant director, Stephanie Leader the producer, Kassidy Shea the stage manager, Tom Vasquez the technical director and Chelsea Bolles the costume designer. Scenic designer Sarah Wiltshire’s art panels that evoked students in colorful silhouette are really nice. Shannon Rath does a good job with lighting design, especially the letter-reading scenes, with Evan Walley operating the lights. Jason Dearing and Katlynn Whitaker were the graphic and program designer, respectively.
So if you are the audience for this — and that would be, for the most part, young adults preparing to leave for college, undergraduates, recent graduates and their parents — check it out (although, parents, you may find it difficult to handle the truth of this script). Letter Writing contains some language not suitable for children and some partial nudity, which, I confess, I did not stick around for (cider and doughnut hangover).
IF YOU GO: The show continues at 7 p.m. tonight and Saturday (Aug. 19 and 20) at the Cider Mill Playhouse, 2 S. Nanticoke Ave, Endicott. General admission is $15 ($10 for students and seniors). Call the box office at 607-748-7363 or go to cidermillplayhouse.com for reservations.