Start the year with some drama — HART style

By Michael Beadle

What is art? What makes a relationship stand the test of time? How do you move on in life after one event turns everything upside down?


Never one to back away from the big questions, the award-winning Haywood Arts Regional Theatre of Waynesville explores the depths of the heart and soul with a slew of six shows in its 2007 studio season. Over the last decade, the smaller, 75-seat theatre adjacent to the main stage auditorium at the Performing Arts Center has built a reputation for some of the best drama in the country with shows going on to win state, regional and even national recognition. Two of the biggest winners, “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” and “Eleemosynary” have represented the theatre at all three levels and began as HART studio productions.

“That’s where the really serious acting work takes place,” said Steve Lloyd, executive director of HART.

The studio is for local actors to put on more experimental, lesser known work that they feel really passionate about doing, Lloyd explained, and while the titles may not be as familiar to audiences as “My Fair Lady” or “The Sound of Music,” the studio’s reputation and actors who have become fan favorites help to sell the show to a trusting public. The studio shows only get a few hundred dollars for a budget, according to Lloyd, and the actors themselves must put together the cast, rehearsals, and set while HART agrees to help promote and stage the shows.

It’s always an experiment to see if the show takes off, but based on previous years, nearly every show sells out. Generally, the show runs one weekend — Friday and Saturday night, and a Sunday matinee — but some have been held over for one and two weekends by popular demand. And because only 13 shows can be done at HART in any given year, there’s a steady list of shows vying for those studio slots. Lloyd has already received three titles under review for the 2008 season. Last year, HART had seven studio shows and six main stage shows. This year, it’s six studio shows and seven main stage shows.

This year’s studio season includes work by famous playwrights such as Edward Albee and Harold Pinter. The subjects range from family relationships to art discussions to the Vietnam War.

In the first show aptly titled “Art,” three middle-aged guys suddenly put their friendship in a crisis when one of them buys a painting that’s completely white. This triggers an ongoing debate about what art really is and why anyone would pay a small fortune to buy what looks like a blank canvas.

“It’s also about male friendships,” said Lloyd, who plays the character who buys the controversial painting.

Try as they might to get around the subject of the painting, it becomes a kind of albatross in the room, hanging over them, so they’re forced to talk about it.

“It’s tearing their friendship apart,” Lloyd said.

Written by Yasmina Reza, a French writer of Indian descent, the show opened in Paris (thus you may catch some of the French references) and went on to London’s West End and New York’s Broadway after Sean Connery — yes, 007 — bought the production rights. It became a smash hit in the States, touring off Broadway for years. HART only recently obtained the rights to do the show. Some HART fans may recall “Art” had been scheduled as a main stage show several years ago, so Lloyd said he was glad to be able to do the show finally. The audience will be challenged as well in that eternal debate over what art is and is not.

Next up is a darker drama by Edward Albee (author of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf) about a couple who find their marriage unexpectedly tested by a strange couple who just had the shock of their lives. The new guests move in and lock the door, throwing the house into a state of confusion because there’s not a reason given as to why these strangers move in or when they would leave.

“Edward Albee writes about human relationships and the fragility of them,” Lloyd said.

The play includes some popular faces HART fans will recognize such as Barbara Bates Smith and Terry Nienhuis.

Heading into February, the studio will feature “Strange Snow” (which movie buffs may recall as the film, “Jacknife,” starring Robert DeNiro and Ed Harris). Two Vietnam vet buddies go on a fishing trip. One, nicknamed “Jacknife,” is haunted by the war while the other enters a romance with his friend’s sister.

Billed as a romantic comedy, the post-war survivor’s guilt and lingering emotions may resonate with current audiences as the War in Iraq has drawn comparisons to Vietnam.

The next studio show takes on a similar subject with a major twist — what may well be the only two-person musical you’ll see this year in Western North Carolina. “John and Jen: A Musical” (which features Robert Brown, the same composer who did “Parade”) tells the story of a woman named Jen and her relationship with two Johns in her life — one, her younger brother killed in Vietnam and the other, her son. It’s a tale about complex relationships between brothers and sisters, parents and their children set in a time that changed America.

Complete with a full chamber ensemble, the studio show stars two popular HART actors — Melodie Galloway (“Children of Eden” and “A Little Night Music”) along with Mark Jones (“Little Shop of Horrors” and “The Full Monty”). Jones plays both of the John characters in the play.

March moves along with two more studio shows — “Old Times” and “’Night Mother.”

“Old Times” opens with two friends, Anna and Kate, meeting and recalling the good old times, but the visit turns into a feud between Anna and Kate’s husband, Deeley, and their aim to control Kate. But Kate turns the table on them both as the power of memory becomes a tool for manipulation and setting personal histories.

“It’s typical Pinter,” said director Lloyd Kay, who first saw the play on Broadway back in the 1970’s. Kay admires the British playwright’s deft ability to craft fascinating characters and set the dialogue in a way that allows the actors to interpret the words with tone of voice or gestures in their own way.

“That’s a challenge for actors to do,” Kay said.

Closing out the HART studio season will be the dark drama “’Night Mother” which involves a mother trying to convince her daughter not to commit suicide. With its tight focus on a troubled mother/daughter relationship, the show made Kathy Bates a star. HART’s version will feature two strong actresses — Wanda Taylor and Casey Dupree.

Studio season tickets are on sale now — $8 per show ($5 for students), $10 for the musical ($8 for students), six tickets for $35 for adults or six tickets for $20 for students. To order, call or stop by the HART box office at the Performing Arts Center in Waynesville, located at 250 Pigeon Street. The box office number is 828.456.6322.

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