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LOU'S VIEWS: IRT's 'Interpreting William' needs rewriting

June 1, 2009

If you've spent any time at Conner Prairie, whether on a school field trip or a family outing, you may have realized that you don't see the living history museum's namesake, William Conner, anywhere nearby.

That's because, as I learned from James Still's new play "Interpreting William," Conner left no journals or letters that reveal anything about his thought processes. He, like most of our ancestors, just left a few facts and a lot of questions.

Primary among them: How could he have negotiated the treaty that pushed the Delaware Indians—including his own wife and six children—west of the Mississippi? It's a fascinating question. But early on in the play, which is having its world premiere at the Indiana Repertory Theatre, we know that the answer is unknowable.

So instead of doing what many of his historical-fiction-writing predecessors have done "making things up based on available evidence," Still chose to focus on the historian rather than the history. The result—while hammering repeatedly on a few interesting ideas—still feels like a first draft of a promising play rather than a fully realized one.

The chief problem is that Still's historian character, Bill (David Alan Anderson), comes across as more of a naive undergraduate than a learned professor. "If I could just find that missing piece of Conner's story," he says. But, really, what academic believes he's going to find that by wandering around a tourist attraction? Further, with so little known about Conner, what's filling the rest of Bill's already sizable manuscript? I might believe it if the character were 20. But that would be a different play.

The thinness of Bill's core dilemma is accentuated by tossed-off references to a vaguely troubled marriage. And a makeshift mother/daughter conflict between Conner Prairie worker Anna and her daughter, Naomi, seems far too convenient. The hand of the author is obvious in both as he tries to force parallels to the Conner conflict. A few drafts from now, it might work.

The play isn't helped by a simplistic set that has the unfortunate feel of a museum diorama. Or by costumes that seem right out of the Halloween shop. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't think pioneers and Native Americans had access to dry cleaners. Where's the grit?

The treading-water first act is briefly brighted after intermission by an engaging sequence between Bill and a Conner Prairie historic interpreter (Robert Neal) that hints at one sort of play that this could have been. There's also a beautiful moment late in the piece where Tim Grimm, as Conner, drops 20 years with barely a gesture. Such moments hint at what a solid, specific play "Interpreting William" could be if it stopped trying to be so universal—if it felt more like the character's outline rather than a playwright's controlled action.

Tomorrow is, as we know, only a day away. And sometimes it seems that yet another local production of "Annie" is also always only a day away. But just because it's done constantly doesn't make "Annie" any less of a tuneful, entertaining fantasy.

And Beef & Boards Dinner Theatre mines it effectively, understanding that cute kids aren't enough. What the show needs beyond a charming title character and a reasonably well-behaved dog are adult humans who grasp that desperate villainous Miss Hannigan and blustery Oliver Warbucks are equally important to the success of the show.

Cindy Collins, best known locally for her work with Actors Theatre of Indiana, is up there with Sally Struthers as the best of the Hannigans I’ve seen (alas, I didn’t see the Dorothy Loudon original) and her gin-soaked thought process is clear throughout. Ty Stover neatly fuses the chummy-with-Roosevelt king-maker with the softy-in-need-of-a-daughter Daddy. And his vocals, particular in the ode to “NYC,” soar.

If the orphans don’t emerge as distinct personalities (miking makes it difficult to distinguish which orphan is saying what), it’s nice to see them played by a wide range of kids. There’s fun supporting work from John Vessles as radio host Bert Healy and Drake the butler.

And a nice casting touch has been provided by having the “Star to Be” played by star-to-be Jessica Murphy (the kid can sing).

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