When the stage lights come up, to half, the famous Nimrod theme from Elgar’s “Enigma Variations” is playing. Into the empty classroom steps Aaron Port (Knathan McKenzie-Roy), and just as Elgar sought to paint musical portraits of a number of friends in that piece, so, too, will teacher Port attempt to educate us about the enigmatic lives of six students in an adult creative writing course he taught nearly 50 years before in Levittown, N.Y. on the Babylon train line.
The music choice is but the first inspired touch in director Chris Foster’s marvelous production.
“The Babylon Line,” by Richard Greenberg, is a script rich in laughs and thought-provoking moments. If the last section (a kind of coda) feels superfluous — but Greenberg didn’t ask me — Foster and his estimable cast and crew always hold our attention.
The year is 1967. Port commutes from New York City to Long Island for the few extra bucks that an evening teaching gig gives him in order to support his own writing aspirations. Many of the students are there because the courses they really wanted to take were full. Strike one. For a couple of women taking a course seems more about getting another notch on their belt of civic participation. Strike two.
That the story happens in Levittown is apt. This planned community was set up in the late 40s to accommodate soldiers returning from World War II, and both the Korean and Vietnam conflicts figure in the plot. And 1967 is a pivotal year in the culture’s ongoing rejection of the kind of homogeneity and discrimination that Levittown represents.
Thus, we meet Frieda (a fabulously over-the-top Cristine M. Loffredo), a self-dramatizing, controlling arbiter of local taste and ideas, someone who knows just enough (like what “roman a clef” means) to impress others. She’s both ridiculous and dangerous.
Anna (Melissa Putterman Hoffmann) and Midge (Debra Bercier) are, initially, her satellites, but as the course lurches along during the semester, they write about aspects of their lives that are more complex than seem at first to be the case. Even Frieda’s cheeriness is compromised by references to her two sons, one of whom is in Nam, and Loffredo subtly shows Frieda’s bewilderment.
Jack (Joe Bruton) writes the same piece over and over, about the trauma of Korea; Marc (Ryan Gillotti) is working on a magnum opus, a snippet of which he finally manages to share with the group.
And then there’s Joan (Cori Irwin), the play’s foil to Aaron, whose rich and imaginative autobiographical accountings of a repressed life in a marriage and a town to which she won’t conform challenge Aaron to grapple with his own stuckness. The cat-and-mouse encounters between these two is occasionally creepy — a bold choice by Foster and the actors — but more often moving.
Gillotti, Hoffmann, and Bercier touchingly reveal interior lives of survivors of one sort or another. Bruton is mesmerizing in a poignant Act II monologue. Irwin unspools of pages of dialogue from a woman always on the verge — of understanding, of opening, of finding, of completing. And McKenzie-Roy is the perfect shambling prof, earnestly controlling an anger and a sadness that are at the heart of the human condition.
Director Foster’s tech team — Sara Paupini, Robin MacDuffie, David Caso, Beth Ruman, Patti Noble, and John Fowler (oh, those wigs!) — execute his vision superbly.
Creative writing requires imagination; memoir requires risk-taking. How these students confront themselves in the writing process over 15 weeks makes for an intriguing night in the theater.
WHAT: The Babylon Line
WHERE: Schenectady Civic Players, 12 S. Church St.
WHEN: Through Feb. 3
HOW MUCH: $20
MORE INFO: 518-382-2081 or civicplayers.org