Oldcastle's 'Water' runs deep with acting talent

Oldcastle's 'Water' runs deep with acting talent World premiere addresses PFOAs and local journalsim

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BENNINGTON — Oldcastle Theatre Company is closing out its banner 48th season with about as topical a production anywhere in the region, Eric Peterson's "Water, Water, Everywhere ".

Also Oldcastle's co-founder and producing artistic director, Peterson is also the company's de-facto playwright-in-residence, having staged several of his productions to critical acclaim over the years on subjects of contemporaneous significance.

In this vein, "Water," a world premiere, has been through two readings over the last year to fine tune it, and the results are commendable.

The play was inspired by the 2017 series of reporting by the Bennington Banner's Jim Therrien and VT Digger's Mike Polhamus on the perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) contamination from industrial plants in Bennington and surrounding areas.

Oldcastle's production is staged at the Bennington Performing Arts Center, and will run through Oct. 20.

The play is just as much about grassroots journalism as it is about environmental activism: its setting is the newsroom of the failing Walloomsac Tribune in the fictitious small town of Walloomsac, Vermont. Reporters investigate a story about a factory discharging PFOA. The contamination builds up over years in the groundwater and soil, causing a variety of illnesses.

Two staff writers, Nick (Ed Rosini) and Nora (Halley Cianfarini), conduct the PFOA probe while mentored by a veteran editor, Katherine (Christine Decker).

Much of that challenge is further reflected as townspeople and others reflect on the effects the PFOA had on them, their children and their jobs. As such, Patrick Ellison Shea and Natalie Wilder play 22 different characters between them.

David Snider, executive and artistic director of Hubbard Hall in Cambridge, New York, is Chandler Tillsbury, the plant manager and part owner of the factory. Richard Howe, Oldcastle's associate artistic director, plays Ethan Corcoran, a business owner with financial ties throughout the town.

With an abbreviated rehearsal cycle, Peterson looks to have gotten the most from his actors, and the performances were so convincing that I'm tempted to go back for a second time, just to keep picking up things I might have missed from this richly crafted tale.

There's a lot in this story, but it begins and ends with the acting.

In his brief appearances on stage, Snider's Tillsbury had just the right feel for a small town plant manager, walking a fine line always between his own interests and the pressures put on him by neighbors and friends — very nicely done.

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Likewise, Howe's portrayal of Corcoran was just fretting enough to suggest a well-meaning man who convincingly showed a ruthless side while still being vulnerable to his own better senses.

Oldcastle newcomer Rosini gave Peterson a continuation of his winning streak in finding young leading men in a dynamic performance of the energy in Nick's youth. Stay tuned for the return of this young talent in the near future.

Cianfarini, who wowed Oldcastle audiences with her performance in last year's hit production of "Proof," took a more understand yet very effective approach as the ambitious but dedicated Nora. Her professional background in dance and choreography was also thrust into our consciousness by a grace of stage movement which made her presence felt loud and clear.

What greater plaudits can be bestowed upon the veteran Decker? She seized the role of Katherine, perhaps because she has shown every day that age and experience brings with it a sublime embrace of how hard it is to maintain excellence for so long, whether in the newsroom, on stage, or in any life endeavor—bravo Madam!

Finally, an extra ovation must go to the husband and wife team of Shea and Wilder, Oldcastle stalwarts who met on this stage and fell in love years ago, and who both have the deep talent well required for playing multiple roles, as mentioned above — 22 between them. It's a dazzling array that will leave you leaning forward in your seats each time one of them appears, taking on yet another persona.

The play ran at right about two hours, which included a 15-minute intermission.

Wm. John Auperlee's set had an excellent surreal vibe of the old 1930s newsroom to it, aptly suggesting the decay of the industry in small towns. Costumes by Ursula McCarty once again showed the versatility of her creative vision, especially in the quick-change combos for Wilder and Shea.

Lights by David V. Groupe had timely effects, along with the complementary sound by Corey Wheat. The play was expertly stage managed by Gary Allan Poe, who is also an Oldcastle co-founder.

Director Peterson likes to say that while the story's backdrop was indeed ripped from the headlines, that "Water" is decidedly not a documentary of the local PFOA crisis or the decline of journalism in small towns in the face of corporate consolidation and online razzmatazz.

Rather, it is loosely history and mostly mystery, and stirred in the bigger pot of excellent acting. And while the societal messages and takeaways are unmistakable, Peterson's casting and the ensuing excellent acting yet again stands up. It not only makes this play a very good one, but as a new play has certainly given its creator food for thought on changes to be made along the way.

Which is why you should go see this leaf-season gem.

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


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