jakub | February 19, 2024

AMERICAN THEATRE | Home Truths: 3 Plays With a Sense of Place

Heidi Armbruster in “Scarecrow” at Dorset Theatre Festival in 2023 (photo by Joey Moro); Ben Bulben in Ireland; Treasure Lunan and Crystal Ann Muñoz in a publicity shot for “Middletown Mall” at Third Rail Rep.

The dream of the resident theatre movement—one of its aspirations, at least—was that plays would be birthed locally all over the U.S., not only in commercial theatre capitals. Despite a continuing preponderance of New York-minted titles on many U.S. stages, many theatres are keeping the local dream alive.

In the case of Heidi Armbruster’s Scarecrow, running at Milwaukee’s Next Act Theatre, Feb. 21-March 17, it’s a homecoming in triplicate. This solo memoir recounts the time Armbruster, a successful Off-Broadway and TV actor, returned to the Wisconsin dairy farm where she was raised when her father died there in January 2020. It was also written on that farm, where she lingered for the COVID lockdown. “When you land back on a Wisconsin dairy farm by yourself with the soul of an artist, what are you going to do but make art to survive?” she mused. Now—after a premiere last summer at Vermont’s Dorset Theatre Festival—Scarecrow is finally playing on its native soil. “Stories are seeded by place,” as Armbruster put it.

So are playwrights, like Kate Hawley, whose Under Ben Bulben plays at the Jewel Theatre of Santa Cruz, Calif., March 27-April 14. Though set in “one seedy hotel room in Ireland” (near the mountain of the title), its local connection is to a loyal following Hawley has attracted, beginning with popular Christmas pantos she staged for the town’s Shakespeare festival when her husband, Paul Whitworth, was its artistic director. “I’m not actually sure if this is my third or fourth play at the Jewel,” she confessed. She isn’t just beloved by hometown audiences but by local talent as well: Under Ben Bulben has parts for a company of 18.

For Lava Alapai, whose Middletown Mall opens at Portland’s Third Rail Rep May 24-June 9, it was a matter of connecting with Maureen Porter, the theatre’s artistic director, and looking for a way to work together. Alapai described Middletown, about listless employees of a mall on a fateful 1990s day, as “a love letter to Generation X.” But with parts tailor-made for four local actors under local director Isaac Lamb, it might also be thought of as a valentine to Portland itself.

Rob Weinert-Kendt (he/him) is editor-in-chief of American Theatre.

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