Aug 032012

Why did Chester Theatre Company’s artistic director Byam Stevens choose such a banal, lazily-written play with no drama, no development, barely any interesting language, and none of the wit, charm, or whimsy I’ve come to associate with this stage company?

Running by Arlene Hutton. Directed by Ron Bashford. Set Design by David Towlun. Lighting Design by Jill Nagle. Costume Design by Heather Crocker Aulenback. Sound Design by Tom Shread. At the Chester Theatre Company, Chester, MA, through August 12.

By Helen Epstein.

Hush, Hush Sweet Enigma: Jay Stratton (Stephen) and Melissa Hurst (Emily) in the Chester Theatre Company production of RUNNING. Photo: Rick Teller

I admired Arlene Hutton’s Nibroc Trilogy, produced in its entirety by the Chester Theatre Company (CTC) in 2010. Hutton’s characters and their stories were so haunting and the productions so good that they remain in my mind two summers later. I was psyched to see more of Hutton’s work.

I was also delighted by CTC’s first two productions this summer (The Swan and Animals Out of Paper). So I was baffled by feeling trapped in the New England premiere of an interminable, two-character, one-act alleged romantic comedy. Why did artistic director Byam Stevens, who takes pride in running a “teaching” theater producing language-rich work that aims to “wrestle with the challenging questions of our time,” choose Running, a banal, lazily-written, predictable play with no drama, no development, barely any interesting language, and none of the wit, charm, or whimsy I’ve come to associate with Chester?

As I’ve come to take for granted at CTC, the set (by David Towlun) and the lighting (by Jill Nagle) are a delight to the eye and slightly enigmatic. Through the windows, we see an abstract of the cityscape at night. The set itself suggests a comfortable, contemporary, Manhattan apartment with an oddly worn, dated feel. Come to think of it, that’s the way the script feels too.

The apartment belongs to Stephanie, who is in London. It was once, we learn, shared by a succession of roommates including the two protagonists, unemployed architect Stephen (Jay Stratton), and self-described “dabbler” Emily (Melissa Hurst), who overlapped there some 20 years before. Emily left to travel the world. Stephen stayed and married Stephanie.

It’s the evening before the annual New York City Marathon, and Emily shows up in crisis, unable to get a hotel room. Stephen would like to go to sleep before the 26-mile event, but Emily needs to talk. They talk for most of the night until Stephen goes off to the marathon. That’s about the extent of the drama, except for the two times Stephen goes into his bedroom and re-emerges ostensibly to get a glass of water or a glass of milk.

I found neither of the characters interesting. Their lines sank to the stage floor like lead, unless I totally missed the point and Running is meant to be a farce. I didn’t understand what director Ron Bashford, a faculty member at Amherst College, saw in the play and found myself wondering how even the best of actors would have delivered prosaic lines referencing “time-travel,” posing questions such as “Are you an Eagle Scout?” and indulging in such trite reflections as “My fifteen minutes were over.” To make sure we understand that Emily has been an ex-pat for a while, the playwright has her calling the apartment a flat and exclaiming “Brilliant!” instead of “Great!” The script also calls for painful fits of prolonged singing and giggling that struck me as artificial as the situation.

Actors Jay Stratton and Melissa Hurst seem to be competent actors, but there was little chemistry between them. Costume designer Heather Crocker Aulenback clothed them appropriately. Tom Shread’s jarring, confusing sound design, however, sounded nothing like Manhattan.

Running is, Stevens is quoted as saying, “a mature, wise ‘love story’ about aging, self-esteem, coming to grips with diminished expectations, and rediscovering hope.” It’s possible that another production of Running can deliver that. This one, to my dismay, hobbled along.

Helen Epstein is the author of Joe Papp and other books about the arts.


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