- Trisha Rapier, Matthew Carlson
In the great drama of American electoral politics, every state is a stage — with the “battleground states” looming like Broadway. In the new play by Vermont playwright Dana Yeaton (Mad River Rising, Midwives), small-town Ohio is the setting for an ideological clash of a different sort: a kind of love story conflicted by some of the same hostilities that heat up the campaign trail.
But My Ohio, a Vermont Stage Company production now running at the FlynnSpace, is not a polemical work. It’s a musical comedy brimming with the genre’s confectionery conventions. That the play manages to strike to the heart of serious matters while staying in a light vein makes it a remarkable theatrical achievement — possibly Yeaton’s most ambitious play. It’s certainly his riskiest.
My Ohio is the result of the playwright’s nearly four-year collaboration with composer Andy Mitton, his former student at Middlebury College. While it is the first full-length musical for each of them, the project seems predestined. Mitton’s ear for musical theater was tuned by his appearance in dozens of shows as a kid, even before he majored in theater as an undergrad. “He so thoroughly understands that vernacular,” Yeaton says, “and how to connect the pieces of a scene so that it feels continuous.”
As an alumnus in 2006, Mitton co-taught a January-term course with Yeaton on a cappella musical theater. (Incidentally, the now L.A.-based Mitton cowrote and codirected the indie horror flick YellowBrickRoad, which screened at the Slamdance Film Festival 2010 and has attracted distribution offers.)
With a cast of just two characters, My Ohio showcases Yeaton’s skill at wresting intimate interactions from estranged individuals. In this case, that’s Bonnie, played by Trisha Rapier, and Neil, played by Matthew Carlson. She’s a born-again-Christian kindergarten teacher on probation for having thumped her Bible too hard in her public school classroom. He’s a pot-smoking, homosexual, atheist chiropractor who has just arrived from New York City after buying the local practice. Their relationship begins when Bonnie consults Neil about a debilitating crick in her neck. Neil senses that the problem isn’t in her neck at all — “the pain is not the problem; it’s the sign,” as he says. His treatment inspires Bonnie to exclaim, in one of the show’s more memorable musical numbers, that she feels “born again again.”
In the following scenes, Bonnie struggles to reach her young charges — her “23 little treasures,” she calls them — in a way that aligns with her religious convictions without breaking school rules. During moments of doubt, she sings, looking heavenward, “Lord, what would your son, your only son, do now?” Meanwhile, Neil struggles to get his practice off the ground — a struggle linked to both his failure to fit in with the locals and more profound questions of belonging and identity. Each character sees the other as someone he or she can help.
Jeff Modereger’s scenic design makes effective use of the small FlynnSpace stage to tell the two sides of the My Ohio story. Simple props suggest the characters’ private realms — most conspicuously, Mr. Bones, a human skeleton model to which Neil directs some of his ruminations. A pair of swings suspended from the ceiling conjures the playground where Bonnie’s most reflective moments take place.
In its evocation of complex human beliefs, thoughts and emotions, My Ohio respects the musical-theater tradition of depicting life in broad strokes. Yeaton has scaled up the work from its earlier incarnation, a one-act titled May I Offend You. That decision was predicated, he says, on the notion that the musical’s grander theatricality might enable audiences to see his characters as “epic” and “make what was inside come more fully to our attention.”
Yeaton’s conspicuously clever lyrics — a revelation to audiences who found his earlier plays merely smart — give weighty matters a disarmingly shiny patina. However, the sheer number of songs results in a breathlessness that may make some Yeaton fans yearn for the spot-on dialogue of his straight-play voice. As the playwright noted in the opening night Q&A, more songs were cut from the final draft than were retained. The ones that remain can still feel a bit crammed in.
Musical director and pianist Travis Sullivan has crafted a nearly seamless whole, integrating music fluidly into the show with the graceful accompaniment of cellist Stacey Benben and guitarist Jeffrey Basiliere. Likewise, choreographer Peter B. Schmitz’s touch is light, bringing playful, well-proportioned movement to this small story and stage.
Director Lisa Rothe has guided her cast nimbly through the play’s ever-shifting comic and dramatic moments. Rapier and Carlson never stumble under this burden, and each possesses a robust singing voice. Rapier shines especially brightly as the effusive, loving and privately tormented teacher. With a single, wide-eyed nod and a smile, she manages to suggest an entire roomful of kindergarteners. Carlson’s Neil is equally successful as a hapless chap out of his element — and not entirely comfortable in his own skin.
Yeaton’s other plays prove him a patient, thoughtful storyteller with a gift for letting characters gradually tease the truth out of each other. This approach works less well in My Ohio, in which the fundamental mystery of the play is suggested too obliquely for too long. In the absence of a specific conflict that compels the characters toward or away from each other, we’re asked to root for two strangers to achieve understanding across a gulf of deep personal differences.
But root we do, mostly. At its high points, My Ohio makes for a charming allegory of the American body politic at its most disjointed extremities. And the bold new work offers audiences something more often promised than delivered by actors on the nation’s political stages: hope.