David Stillman is taking a stand. Actually, he taking a seat atop a pile of junk in his front yard covered by a big, blue tarp.
He may be sitting down clutching a rifle, but it’s a symbolic stand for truth, justice and the Maine tradition of not bending to the ideas of “people from away” who don’t understand that a man’s got a right to do what he wants on his own property even if it is an eyesore to tourists and his wife.
Stillman’s stubborn determination is at the heart of Travis Baker’s play, “One Blue Tarp,” which premiered Saturday at the Bangor Opera House. The soul of the production, presented by the Penobscot Theatre Company, rests in the scrappy natives of Maine’s small towns.
The play is charming, witty and funny without being condescending. Baker, who moved to Orono from New York City in 2004, created David Stillman, his wife, Joan Stillman, neighbor Ira Jakobson and local cop Carl Ray with insight and affection. The playwright turned a less sympathetic eye on Gale Pritchard, a wealthy newcomer set on beautifying the town of Clara.
Everyone in the sold-out, opening night audience recognized each of these characters as family, friends, neighbors, elected officials and summer visitors, who sometimes act like an invading army.
Director Daniel Burson, the literary and education manager at Portland Stage Company, cast the show well. He also understands the humor of Mainers and successfully wrings every laugh out of the show. His one fault is not moving his actors around more during Act One. Visually, the first half of the play is static compared to the liveliness of the second half.
Tom Mikotowicz and Julie Arnold Lisnet as David and Joan Stillman beautifully capture the comfort and aggravation that comes with a long marriage. As David, Mikotowicz, a theater professor at the University of Maine, makes a triumphant return to the stage after a long absence. His and Lisnet’s timing is perfect and they look, sound and feel like neighbors.
As interloper Gale Pritchard, Irene Dennis brings a bravado and bluster to the character that is perfect. The part is written with broad strokes and borders on caricature, but Dennis gives her just enough humanity that she earns a drop of sympathy.
A natural comedic actress, Brianne Beck is either badly miscast as Judy, the Stillmans’ lesbian lawyer daughter from Boston, or terribly uncomfortable in her skin. The actress portrays who the character used to be as a teenager but not who she is as an adult or what is “Maine” about her.
Kat Johnson is better as Hester Pritchard, the spoiled daughter of Gale Pritchard who, like her mother, is used to getting what she wants. Johnson, an accomplished actress, never seems to get a handle on the character either. She does exude more personality and energy than Beck, but the romantic spark that’s supposed to ignite between these two just wasn’t there Saturday.
Arthur Morison as the Stillmans’ neighbor, Ian Buck as the couple’s 10-year-old grandson and Steve Estey as Officer Carl Ray round out the cast. All give excellent performances but Estey brings a depth and comic flair to the role he has not shown previous performances.
Scenic designer Chez Cherry and properties designer Meredith Perry earn a standing ovation for that pile of junk under the blue tarp. It is a delightful 3-D jigsaw puzzle made up of stuff bearing a striking resemblance to stuff in attics around Maine. Lighting designer Gregg Carville, costume designer Kevin Koski and sound designer Brandie Rita also deserve kudos for excellent work.
“One Blue Tarp” was named the 2013 Best Play for Maine in the prestigious Clauder New England Playwright Competition, was a finalist in the 2011 Eugene O’Neill Playwright’s Workshop, and the audience favorite at PTC’s 2010 Northern Writes New Play Festival.
Originally a one-act, Baker worked with Burson to expand it into a two-act play. Some of that seems forced, especially the romance between the daughters of the Stillmans and Pritchard. Cutting it down to an 80- or 90-minute one act, without touching the perfect town meeting scene, would improve the pacing tremendously.
Despite a few flaws, “One Blue Tarp” is a fine and funny gift from PTC to its audience during the company’s 40th season. It also is proof that nurturing local playwriting talent through its new play festival is a worthwhile endeavor.
“One Blue Tarp” will have performances at 7 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays through Feb. 16. For tickets, visit penobscottheatre.org or call 942-3333.
The Bangor Daily News is a sponsor of Penobscot Theatre Company.