With the exception of the recent unveiling of the new road version of Dolly Parton's 9 to 5: The Musical at TPAC, Nashville's fall theater season launched quite timidly — or so it seemed until this week. The local thespian community is heading into October like a runaway train, as if local theater companies had colluded to open all of their shows at once to force theatergoers to make tough choices. This week we get Nashville Children's Theatre's Bud, Not Buddy (playing through Oct. 17), Rent at Boiler Room Theatre (Oct. 1-31) and Tennessee Rep's To Kill a Mockingbird (Oct. 2-23). The following week, Ted Swindley's production of The Exonerated opens at Christ Church Cathedral (Oct. 7-16) and Amun Ra Theatre presents Route 66: Finding Nat King Cole (Oct. 8-31).
Not to be lost in the shuffle is the U. S. professional premiere of Unravelling the Ribbon, presented by Tennessee Women's Theater Project at the Looby Theater Oct. 1-17. Written by Irish playwrights Mary Kelly and Maureen White, the work offers a poignant and very human exploration into the lives of three females, each touched in some fashion by breast cancer — a fitting production for National Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
Always searching for material that makes a good fit for her company, director Maryanna Clarke noticed the script in a Theatre Communications Group catalog. "Our mission is to do plays that have at least as many women in the cast as men," Clarke says. "And, because we like to pay our actors well, we tend to choose smaller-cast plays, because obviously that's more affordable. I read dozens of plays for every one that makes it to our stage, and this one spoke to me." (And score one for good old-fashioned interlibrary loan, which made a physical copy of the script available to Clarke via the University of the South in Sewanee.)
Now in its fourth season, TWTP has unwittingly gained a reputation for presenting local and even national premieres. "We never set out to be the theater company that does premieres," says Clarke, "but I can't think of a play we've done that wasn't at least a local premiere. I think the people who come to see our shows have come to trust our choices."
Through open auditions, Clarke assembled a promising cast of company first-timers, including Corrie Miller, known for her work, especially in musicals, at Franklin's Boiler Room Theatre; Linda Sue Simmons, a regular performer at the Renaissance Center in Dickson; and young Kristin James, whose stage credits include appearances at Mississippi State University and Brentwood Academy.
Set in the present day, Unravelling the Ribbon was first performed in 2007, then toured across Ireland via a sponsorship by beauty product company Avon, which has a breast cancer support component. The tale concerns a rural mother of two, her 11-year-old daughter, and a middle-aged lady in Dublin, whose lives intersect when breast cancer intrudes.
"The play is about relationships," says Clarke, "and the device the authors use is the journey through breast cancer treatment, but that's not all it's about. The characters are worlds apart, Tipperary vs. Dublin, and as the story unfolds we see their individual struggles, their isolation, and we see their lives weave together."
"It seems to be a very womanly topic," says co-star Simmons, "but there are men present in the play, even though they are not physically on the stage. We come to feel how breast cancer affects them and their relationships, too, and the script does a beautiful job showing that. It's very touching."
As for approaching the challenge of authentic Irish dialects, Clarke brought in multitalented artist/teacher Jill Massie as dialogue coach. In addition, Clarke maintained an email exchange with co-author Kelly, who helped clarify localisms and regional or class distinctions.
Clarke considered doing the show in strictly American English. "But the more I read the play," she says, "the more aware I became of its flavor, of the turns of phrase required. Some words, if we were absolutely true to the pronunciation, the audience might never get, so we've made some concessions."
"I was a little trepidatious," says Miller. "I think the hardest thing for us is trying to be true to the native accent and yet also avoid that Irish stereotype. We're striving for consistency."
Ultimately, Unravelling the Ribbon is a human drama that just happens to function as an awareness piece. "It helps us think about breast cancer and how this one thing impacts everything," says Clarke. "It doesn't just affect women, it doesn't just affect your body, and it doesn't have to stop your life."
For information and reservations, call 615-681-7220 or visit www.twtp.org. To donate money to provide free tickets to breast cancer survivors, click on the website's "Sponsor a Survivor" link.
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