Lowe Down

A scene from last season’s “Last Night at Ballyhoo,” presented by Vermont Actors’ Repertory Theatre at College of St. Joseph’s in Rutland. Sunny (Meg Kemble), right, chats in the train station with Joe (Evan Breault), center, while conductor Danielle McKeighan waits in the background during dress rehearsal.

A week from today, “Balance,” Vermont playwright Jeanne Beckwith’s cautionary tale of suicide, will be presented by Vermont Actors’ Repertory Theatre at Rutland’s Unitarian Universalist Church, sponsored by Rutland Regional Medical Center. A panel discussion with representatives of RRMC Behavioral Health follows. Admission is free, or by donation to the Vermont chapter of the American Foundation for the Prevention of Suicide.

This is how Rutland’s community theater is beginning its 15th season. And it’s not out of out of character for this local company that just seems to get better and better. Just because actors aren’t professional, doesn’t mean the theater isn’t good or rewarding.

“We really want to engage the community in experiences they might not otherwise have within their lives,” Sandra Gartner told me recently by phone. One of the founders, she now shares co-producing director duties with Kristen Hixon.

“We want to be able to bring a new experience to the community,” Gartner said. “Over the past 14 years, we’ve presented about 100 shows, which include plays, improvisations, storytelling, new works. When we sat down and counted how many audience members, it was shocking: It was over 10,000 people!

“We have also provided free and reduced price tickets,” Gartner said.

Beginning the 2019-20 season, at 7 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 14, “Balance” tells the story of Danny and Anna, two very different human beings trying to find balance in a world that seems to hold more limits than possibilities. The play deals with loss, guilt, grief and the hope of someday finding a way to fly that doesn’t destroy us.

From timely and contemporary, Actors’ Rep turns to one of the greatest comedies of all time, a real classic. Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” is the story of two bachelors, John “Jack” Worthing and Algernon “Algy” Moncrieff, who create alter egos named Ernest to escape their tiresome lives. They attempt to win the hearts of two women who, conveniently, claim to only love men called Ernest. Performances are Dec. 6-8 and 13-15. (There are still cast openings; email actorsrepvt@aol.com.)

For Valentine’s Day, it’s “Love Letters,” A.R. Gurney’s tender, tragi-comic and nuanced examination of the shared nostalgia, missed opportunities, and deep closeness of two lifelong friends. Two actors, different each night, read intimate letters to each other, describing a world of emotion. Performances are Feb. 14-16.

Closing the season is “The End of the World As We Know It,” Beckwith’s new play that won the Valley Players’ Vermont Playwrights Award. It is the story of Haley, a woman who has a secret that forces her to run away, and of Charlie, the husband she has left behind, who has begun to question the realities of life. Performances are April 17-19 and 24-26.

For the new season, Actors’ Rep is returning to its predecessor’s home. Back in the 1970s, a group of theater aficionados established a Rutland community theater that performed in the Unitarian Universalist Church. Eventually, it faded out.

In 2005, Peter Marsh, Eileen Blackman and Gartner rejuvenated the effort, naming it Vermont Actors’ Repertory Theatre. Performances were on the stage of the Paramount Theatre, some using only the stage, others using the entire auditorium.

“Then we realized the kind of shows we were doing needed a smaller space,” Gartner said. “That’s when we took over the Paramount’s Brick Box.”

Because of renovations planned for the Brick Box, performances moved to the College of St. Joseph’s last season.

“Then they closed down,” Gartner said. “Chris and I looked at various places and when we went to the Unitarian Church, they were glad to have us there. That worked out very well.”

Performances will take place in the sanctuary, which seats over 100. The altar platform can be extended as necessary.

“We can also orient the room any way we want to,” Hixon said. “For ‘Earnest,’ for instance, we’re going to three-quarter round, dividing the congregation seating.”

Actors’ Rep and the Unitarian Universalist Church have been working together so that theater performances don’t interfere with church activities.

“We’re really pleased with the way things are working between our board and theirs,” Hixon said. “Some of the staging, they’re perfectly OK with it being up. We’re trying to make it as user friendly to both parties as it can be.”

Vermont Actors’ Repertory Theatre is beginning a new and exciting chapter.

Jim Lowe is theater critic and arts editor of The Barre-Montpelier Times Argus and Rutland Herald, and can be reached at jim.lowe@rutlandherald.com or jim.lowe@timesargus.com.

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