World Premiere: Summer Retreat sparkles at Williamston
WILLIAMSTON, Mich.–Sometimes you see a play that is so good, you know you want to see it again. It isn’t just one element, either. It’s everything put together—the acting, the directing, the script, the technical elements.
Williamston Theater is putting on one such show with their world premiere of Annie Martin’s Summer Retreat. It’s a show with a dream team of artists, and the theater has given the virgin showing of this story an outstanding outing.
The show wastes no time getting started. Julia Glander as Amy creeps onto the rustic stage, a cabin Kirk Domer built with skeletal walls so the action outside the interior can be easily seen. The set is evocative of almost any cabin on a lake–wooden walls, retro appliances and simple, throwback furnishings.
Glander is soon joined on stage by Sandra Birch as Sian and Emily Sutton-Smith as Caroline, and then the fireworks begin. There is a crackling energy between these three women, all now in their 50s and friends since they were in college. They surely love each other, but they waste no time in establishing how different they are from each other and how those differences most frequently lead them into a hilarious bickering.
This isn’t God of Carnage, though the sharp dialog and intense conflict may sometimes cast shadows of that show. This isn’t a case of hatred, and even the bickering eventually peels back the veneer to reveal a deep connection among these women–as flawed, intense and crazy as they are. Their first show of unity appears when Dani Cochran arrives as Shep, the younger step-sister of the friend whose funeral they attended earlier that day. She tries to burst through their bond of friendship and is immediately shut out and rejected not only in the words, but in the way Director Suzi Regan moves the older women and conducts the volume and pacing of the scene.
The show is played without intermission and Regan and Martin together ensure there is never a moment where you are looking at your watch or hoping for a break. The action is intense from the start and it never lets up. Even the moments of silence are pregnant with action.
At heart, this is a comedy, for even the most emotional of experiences can be humorous when looked at from the outside. At their deepest moment of panic, fear and conflict, they acknowledge that they love each other and that some day they will be laughing at the situation.
Thankfully, the audience doesn’t have to wait on its laughter. Martin constantly entertains with witty dialog that never holds back. These women say the things that many of us think, but that never leaves our mouths because we have active social filters. She gleefully rips these filters away, and is able to do so authentically because these are women who have a multi-decade friendship and are under the stress of loss and mourning.
Summer Retreat is a play that turns on the question of what friends are willing to do for one another, no matter what the odds, no matter what the history, no matter how crazy it might seem to be. Martin lets us in behind the scenes of those crazy headlines we hear that leave us wondering, “how could someone ever do that?” This play shows us how and makes us believe that we could just as easily be complicit in the actions these friends take.
The ensemble of performers, which also includes Patrick Loos making a later, loud appearance as Skip, is fantastic. They don’t just pick up cues, they wrestle them to the ground and fling them across the room. They speak over each other with a confidence and speed that would make David Mamet proud. Their chemistry is instantly believable with each relationship having its own shape and character.
Glander is the high school art teacher, a woman with a secret she just can’t seem to get out no matter how much she wants to share it. She makes it clear in her motions that something is on her mind and builds suspense and engagement with the story.
Birch is a stay-at-home mother who would be conventional in all things if it weren’t for her choice of friends and the things she is willing to do to please them. She’s especially hilarious when reacting to a surprise Shep pulls on her. Her physical comedy is priceless as is the deft way she handles Martin’s dialog.
Sutton-Smith is the sophisticated New Yorker, her Caroline unabashedly admitting she is a bitch. She does a beautiful job of distinguishing herself from her friends while also showing how very much she is united with them and one of them.
Cochran excels at the challenging role of outsider. She’s not just a different generation from these other women, but she has no shared values and all of her shared memories are as someone outside the group who was disapproved of and practically bullied, though perhaps deservedly so as much of the other women’s disdain for her character has been earned through actions.
Summer Retreat is a prop designer’s playground and Michelle Raymond swings on every monkey bar and twirls on every merry-go-round. She fills the stage with ropes, dead squirrels, lots of beer, cell phones, e-cigarettes and everything else needed to tell this story as the women proceed to trash the place that was once so important to them and their memories.
This is a premiere that deserves to have legs and to be seen widely. It’s a show with a heart, with humor, with energy, with wit, with intelligence and one that reminds us how important are the bonds we make with our fellow human beings. It is a bright light that gives the gift of laughter and friendship.