‘Connecticut Stories on Stage’

Isis’s adventures and misadventures could not diminish the glow from Saturday’s staged reading of three plays that won the Connecticut Heritage Production’s contest. I’m just sorry that my brain was not functioning yesterday to do sufficient justice to the evening.

With “The Excommunication of Mrs. Eaton,” Allan Appel has adapted the story of the struggle between Ann Eaton, played with determination and verve by Carolyn Ladd, and John Davenport, the minister who shares leadership of the seven-year-old New Haven “plantation” with Ann’s husband, Theophilus Eaton. Peter Loffredo, who presides over Connecticut Heritage Productions, rendered the stiff, self-righteous Davenport with distinction.

Ezekiel Cheever, the schoolteacher and bailiff for Mrs. Eaton’s trial, and Deborah Moody, described as “an independent widow,” kept the action moving and were admirably portrayed by James Luse and Anne Cassady.

Ann Eaton objected to infant baptism and resisted all attempts by the church elders to change her mind because she could not bear the thought that her stillborn child was condemned to burn in hell.

Appel has packed a great deal of history into a ninety-minute play. Often the history overwhelmed the drama: the colonists’ arrival in Boston, their settlement in New Haven, their financial difficulties, the background on the outsize New Haven green and so forth. The tale of Mrs. Eaton’s excommunication could easily have lost twenty minutes and still maintained its emotional ark.

My main reason for attending the readings was the second play, “Traprock,” by my friend Jean Ann Wertz. Jean and I met when we worked for the Meriden Record-Journal. I hadn’t seen her in several years when we came together again two years ago at the very traumatic funeral for our former boss, Ken Robinson. Just months later, Jean’s husband died. (See “Bad Day/Sad Day”).

Jean won for her brilliant one-act play about the Old Leatherman in the Noh theater tradition. The Leatherman became an institution in Connecticut and New York during the last half of the nineteenth century, as he walked a circuit dressed in patched leather and sleeping in the many caves that dot the area. No one knew his origins, though lore says he was born in France.

Jean updated the story, which she set on West Peak, a state park in Meriden with magnificent views that is a destination for hikers and others. In Jean’s version the Bird Watcher, played by the marvelous John Basinger, is interrupted in his census by a motorcyclist in the form of James Luse. With this performance and then as the Leatherman, Luse showed his genius with his ability to make a successful transition from Appel’s language based on a seventeenth century trial to fourteenth century Japan layered with a modern vernacular.

Jean successfully evoked the symbolic exchanges of Noh in which surface appearances never tell the entire story. She observed the conventions in which the auxiliary characters, including a Chorus (Peter Loffredo, again) appear first and pave the way for the arrival of the central character. And her poetry evoked both the past and the present.

The staged reading benefited from Michael Pestel’s musical accompaniment. He played the bass flute, a bird call, and a number of instruments of his own making. Both he and Jean have studied in Japan, and I could hear the sounds of waterfall and wind in pines rippling through mountain air in both music and words.

Just learned that “noh” in Japanese means skill or ability and Jean certainly displayed it in full measure.

From the mystical and symbolic, we ventured into comedy with an edge in “Answering” by Monica Bauer. Carolyn Ladd returned in an engaging performance as the wife of a Yale professor who periodically updates the message on the family’s answering machine. She wafts from perky-happy to disgust, to utter despair, but always with that bit of bite.

Altogether a successful evening.

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