Leland and Gray Players present a metaphorical train ride

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TOWNSHEND — The Leland and Gray Players will take the audience for a train ride on a metaphorical journey through time, space, and emotions in its production of Thornton Wilder's one-act play, "Pullman Car Hiawatha," a drama that blurs the line between heaven and earth. First performances will be on March 8, 9 and 10, then again on March 16 when the L&G players travel north to compete in the Regional Drama Festival at St. Johnsbury Academy.

Leland and Gray's Theater Director Jessa Rowan said she chose this play because she wanted the students to do something different, a play that was not so tangible.

"'Pullman Car Hiawatha' speaks to the profoundness of our existence," Rowan wrote in her director's notes. "I am fascinated by journeys of all kinds and in this play, we take a metaphysical journey to the heart of mankind. We start in a physical journey that begins in New York and ends in Chicago, via the Hiawatha train. The passengers in this train are in the 'berths' or 'compartments' traveling in a little box which speeds through time, not stopping to look at life. This reflects how people in our society are often stuck in a self-consuming cubicle of conformity ..."

This avant-garde play of the 1930s is set simply with chairs (for easier transport also) representing a literal train full of interesting characters, only to disappear into a not-so-literal world, stopping time seen from a personified view. The audience is guided through it all by The Stage Manager portrayed by Peter Broussard.

Rowan wrote in her director notes, "We muse over trivial issues, blindly follow orders and snap at each other without concern. Surprisingly, the character Harriet stops this train (and this pattern) with her death. The walls of the train fall away and suddenly we see the landscape personified around us: a field telling us about her world of mice, two different towns in Ohio with concern for the well-being of their citizens, a ghost who wants to be remembered for his contribution to the world and a 'tramp' who feels her journey on the train is just as important as anyone else's."

When Harriet dies and the guardian archangels come to take her, she realizes how special her life was, resonating the idea to take an overview of the importance of one's life.

Senior Fairen Stark, who plays Harriet, wrote in an email interview, "The hardest thing about translating this play to the audience is getting all of the ensemble work to be clean, look good, and make sense. We have a lot of ensemble-based movement in this play, and in order for the meaning to be clear, there is a lot of rehearsal and teamwork required. We all have to work together and be present constantly in order for the audience to be pulled into the fantastic world we are creating."

Broussard concurred, "The hardest thing about translating the play is trying to just get the audience to understand why everything is happening."

Stark, who started acting at Leland and Gray in sixth grade and has played many roles on and off stage, from small parts in "Guys and Dolls," the guard to The Emerald City in "A Wizard of Oz," to the title character of Mary Poppins last year among many other roles, as well as a set and a production designer. In her email, she wrote "As Harriet in 'Pullman Car Hiawatha,' I have had to push myself in a unique way. There is a very long, emotional monologue that I perform at the end of the play, and I have had to throw myself into the role and really connect with the character on a personal level in order to make the performance as good as I can. My favorite thing about Harriet is her honesty. She reflects on her life in a very interesting way that I think a lot of people can learn from."

Broussard has been acting with Leland and Gray for three years now, playing Quincy Morris in "Dracula," Pete, a nerd in "Almost Maine," and Prez in "The Pajama Game," but, he wrote in his email interview, "What's different for this role for me is his openness and god-type role to all these other characters. I think all actors bring something different to every role. My favorite part of this character is I break the rules of the play and control my cast-mates a bit which is fun."

According to Rowan, there is a really great collaboration with Bronwyn Sims who staged a choreographed lift for the ensemble. Also unique is all the music is original, written by Dan Dewalt who will also play the piano with student musicians Alex Urbaska, Max Spicer, and Caroline Mehner, who add percussion and vocals.

Cast members also include Spencer Butynski, Batikan Cinar, Alice Coyne, Darby Davis, Abbie Hazelton, Trevor Hazelton, Victoria MacKay, Ivan Mercier, Kiki Pena, Stephen Shine, and Sam Thibault.

Performances take place at Leland and Gray Union Middle and High School's Dutton Gymnasium, Route 30, on March 8 and 9, 7:30 p.m.; and March 10, 2 p.m. The production will then travel to compete at the Regional Drama Festival at St. Johnsbury Academy on March 16, 3 p.m. Winners of the festival will go to the Vermont State Festival.

Tickets can be purchased at the door for $5. Questions may be emailed to jrowan@lelandandgray.org

"I am beyond thrilled and lucky to have worked with such inspirational, courageous, hilarious, vulnerable, intelligent, creative, and joyous actors," Rowan wrote. "They helped create, invent, and explore this play with me -- many moments you see on stage came from their brilliant ideas and I applaud their ability to work together to create theater that is powerful. I hope that this experience has changed them forever, as it has me."

Rowan added, "It is deep and I hope the audience will take it in." From all accounts, it appears the audience will.

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