We often talk about the ability of theater to transport us to times and/or places far away, and that is definitely one of the stage’s beauties.
But sometimes, you get this nagging sensation that you’ve taken enough trips to Elizabethan England or the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and you know there are great stories around here.
Two upcoming productions are going to illuminate that point here in late May, when theater is usually dark.
■ LexArts and the Pick Up Performance Co(S.) present In This Place . . . , a play about the Oldham House, which was built by Samuel Oldham, the first free African American to own property and build his own house in Lexington. It will be presented at the Downtown Arts Center May 22 to 24. (Note: The company is holding open rehearsals at the Downtown Arts Center starting between 3 and 3:15 daily through May 21, except Sunday. The rehearsals are free, though if you come, you are asked to stay for the duration of the approximately 90-minute run through.)
■ The University of Kentucky Theatre will present As it is in Heaven, a play about nine Shaker Women set during the “era of manifestations” in early 19th Century Shaker culture. The play will be performed May 31-June 8 at an open air barn in the Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill, where the play is set.
The play was set there by Arlene Hutton, a New York-based playwright with Kentucky ties who has written about the Bluegrass on several occasions. She was the author of The Last Train to Nibroc, a play set in her parents’ home of Corbin, which spawned two sequels: See Rock City and Gulf View Drive, all with heavy references to local touchstones such as Berea College.
After frequently sitting through plays where I was certain I was missing some of the hip New York references, it was cool to see Gulf View Drive in The City last year fairly confident I was getting a number of things the New Yorkers weren’t.
But seriously, we don’t treasure theater with roots here so that we can somehow be hipper than everyone else when the shows venture out into the world. These are events to treasure because they help us understand the world where we live and the things that are around us we might not have time to or know how to investigate unless someone boils it down into 90-or-so engrossing minutes.
Just from reading the first few lines of LexArts’ In This Place press release I already knew more about the Oldham House than I ever had after living here 10 years.
That’s often the nature of these sorts of historical destinations: they’re so close, you don’t bother to investigate them until friends or relatives visit and you’re looking for something to do.
I’d dare say some theater goers who check out As it is will be visiting the Shaker Village for the first time. But Hutton -- a pen name for actress Beth Lincks -- certainly investigated Pleasant Hill and the Shakers to come up with a pretty riveting tale, which was originally presented by UK Theatre on campus in 2002. This production takes the added step of attaching to the play to its setting.
Creating indigenous theater has been one of LexArts’ president and CEO Jim Clark’s aims for several years. With In This Place, he put some substantial talent behind it by bringing in Ain Gordon, a two-time Obie Award winner to write and direct the one-woman show with New York-based actress Michelle Hurst. Lexington video artist Joan Brannon also worked on the project.
Kentucky-based plays are not unique here or anywhere else in the state. Silas House has become one of the latest authors to delve into playwriting, premiering The Hurting Part in 2005 at UK and another new work next spring at Actors Guild. With name recognition like House’s, shows attract attention. But sometimes, no matter how much it is trumpeted, a unfamiliar title can struggle to find an audience, even if it is about an exceedingly familiar place.
But we should be trying to see these shows, because they are our stories.