Oldcastle's `Judevine' proves timeless yet again

Company stages David Budbill's American classic

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BENNINGTON — Oldcastle Theatre Company co-founder and producing artistic director Eric Peterson loves to tell anyone who will listen that the late David Budbill's "Judevine" is an American classic, and so should be brought back to stages again and again because its relevance seems to be timeless.

Peterson has backed up this bluster by producing "Judevine" at Oldcastle four times since 1988. But the last one, which I had the good fortune to attend, was in 2004. So it was time, particularly in light of Budbill's death in 2016, to bring back this unique view of Vermont.

The play's characters have captivated readers in Budbill's eponymous volume of poems, which ultimately led to several versions of this work.

Set in the fictional Vermont hamlet of Judevine at a time noted as "a few decades ago," its people try to survive by logging, harvesting Christmas trees, and other arduous work. There is the Vietnam vet Tommy (Justin Pietropaolo) who brings the war home with him, and his partner Grace (Susan Spain) who is trying to raise children in abject poverty.

There's Doug (Duncan M. Rogers), who doesn't like to work too much in the winter because it interferes with his "snomachin'," and black French Canadian Antoine (Kevin Craig West) who is a laborer and closet philosopher.

All the actors, including the inimitable Richard Howe and Christine Decker, played multiple characters, adding up to 24.

Speaking of Howe and Decker, the consummate longtime Oldcastle pros were poignantly sweet and heartbreaking as the aging farm couple whose daily routine of love was so well expressed on stage, and left us aching.

Rogers was convincingly spiteful as Doug, a simplistic yet angry white guy who just didn't want to even consider what the word "change" meant in the context of his surroundings.

Pietropaolo, playing the Budbill-like poet figure David, took to the "show don't tell" writer's part naturally, showing a different but still very impressive set of acting chops than he did in last year's "The Whipping Man" at Oldcastle.

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Oldcastle newcomer Spain is on her way to being a regular! She was saucy, she was sassy, she was sexy, and she was smart as a whip — but she was also at her best when painfully showing us the effects of war and the loss of loved one on the frail Edith. How painful to watch without being able to embrace her — which was exactly the point. Bravo, madam!

Finally, West must take an extra bow for his Antoine portrayal: part ancient Greek chorus, part Lake Wobegon wise man, and deliciously humorous while dispensing wisdom from his arduous lot and flawless calypso accent. This was a stunning array of acting versatility from West, yet hyperfocused when absolutely vital. Hats off, sir!

Director Peterson couldn't have asked for a better effort from his cast over the production's two hours and 20 minutes, which included a 20-minute intermission.

The stark and surreal multiple-platform-set and corresponding lights were the brainchild of technical director David V. Groupe. Costumes by Ursula McCarty looked the part of a variety of Northeast Kingdom denizens, complete with Johnson Mills wool and plaid.

Cory Wheat's sound hit all its pronouncing marks, and Liz Raymond's adept stage management kept things running smoothly throughout the show.

"Judevine" is hard to define, but folks from Vermont will nod their heads as well as chuckle knowingly at some of the character portrayals. Those from away will also do the same, but for somewhat different reasons — quite possibly the same that made TV's "Newhart" such a sitcom hit in the 1980s.

What all will recognize, however, is the timeless nature of the struggles and challenges Judevine's residents must face. Love, family, rejection, addiction, aging, suicide, racism, death — these are inexorable parts of the human condition, and Budbill's characters bring them to the forefront over and over.

That these characters, ripped from Budbill's poetry, are so real in their surreal surroundings is a testament to the superb acting in this production. But also to their staying power: for me, 15 years between Oldcastle productions of "Judevine" may have blurred my memory a bit, but it didn't erase the power of their predicament.

Which is why you shouldn't totally rely on this view here: go start your own timeline between now and the next time "Judevine" comes to town. Because regardless of how many years pass, one thing I can guarantee: you will always want to return for more.

Telly Halkias is a member of the American Theatre Critics Assn. (ATCA): E-mail: tchalkias@aol.com, Twitter: @TellyHalkias


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