Theater & art

Wellfleet company’s faith being rewarded

From left: Amanda Collins, Amie Lytle, Brenda Withers, and Jonathan Fielding play preachers in the Harbor Stage Company’s production of “Church.”

Robert Kropf

From left: Amanda Collins, Amie Lytle, Brenda Withers, and Jonathan Fielding play preachers in the Harbor Stage Company’s production of “Church.”

They’re living the dream in Wellfleet.

The six members of the Harbor Stage Company are doing it all in their inaugural season. Acting and directing, selling tickets and writing press releases. And procrastinating about painting the women’s restroom.

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“It’s a Pepto-Bismol pink,” Jonathan Fielding says, laughing. “Many people have said to us, ‘When are you going to paint the bathroom? It’s hideous in there.’”

They have help with things like costumes and sets, and this isn’t just let’s-put-on-a-show summer fun. These are all serious, professional actors, who split from Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater in the offseason to found Harbor Stage Company. Their first production, Ibsen’s “Hedda Gabler,” earned a rave this month from Globe critic Don Aucoin, who called it “an exciting debut,” “expertly executed and creatively imagined.”

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Having started with a classic, the company is going in the other direction with its second show, the New England premiere of the edgy 2007 one-act “Church.” Written by the experimental New York playwright Young Jean Lee, it begins performances Wednesday.


Brenda Withers, who saw the piece’s New York premiere and championed the script to her Harbor Stage Company cofounders, directs “Church” and plays one of the preachers. But her evening job recently, until the run ended on Saturday, was the title role in “Hedda Gabler,” a portrayal that Aucoin called “one of the must-see performances of the year.” If it seems an unconventional juxtaposition, that’s part of the point.

“We’re not doing this just to be any other theater,” Withers says. “The season feels bold to us. And that’s what we wanted.”

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In “Church,” four itinerant preachers mock, exhort, encourage, and harangue their congregation/audience, challenging ideas of faith, unspooling surreal stories, and wrapping it all up with a big gospel number. Lee is the child of Korean-American evangelicals and eventually abandoned her religion, but it’s almost impossible to pin the text to a single spiritual point of view.

Fielding plays Reverend José, the charismatic lead pastor in “Church,” and was surprised to find that he liked taking the pulpit.

“It sort of charges me a little bit,” he says. “I don’t like to be the actor that dominates the room, but this is a role in which I get to talk directly to people and try to motivate them and explain things to them in a new way. I’ve got to say it’s very empowering. My inner Joel Osteen is coming out.”

Fielding was raised in the Disciples of Christ church in Texas and has a brother who’s a minister. Rehearsing “Church” stirred things up enough that he and Withers, raised Catholic, say they are looking at local churches and planning to “touch base” with their faiths. It is, they say, an illustration of the power of Lee’s writing.

“If you are a Christian, you are stuck in this impossible situation,” Fielding says. “You are asked to give yourself over to God and not let worldly things distract you, and that’s a theme that occurs throughout the piece. If you really fully believe in this idea, everybody is essentially sinning in doing the things that we, the society, have set up. People who worry about money, worry about their job, worry about checking their e-mail every day, these are things that distract you from giving yourself over to God, and I feel like one of her points is that if we are to be spiritual people, we have to wrestle with that idea.”

Amanda Collins, a company member, and Amie Lytle round out the cast, along with assorted friends and neighbors recruited to sing in the finale.

The troupe’s third play, wrapping up the season, will be “Sticks and Bones,” part of David Rabe’s quartet of Vietnam plays, directed by company member Lewis D. Wheeler, son of the late, great Boston director David Wheeler.

Here’s something else about Harbor Stage Company: Fielding and Withers are a couple. So are Collins and Wheeler. And so are Robert Kropf, the company’s artistic director, and Stacy Fischer. None of the pairs is married, and all met while working together at WHAT, Withers says.

“It’s like a reality-television show,” she says.

Each of them had reveled in making artist-driven, edgy theater at WHAT, which last October parted ways with its longtime artistic director, Jeff Zinn. Over the course of the autumn, there were many hours of discussion before the six decided to form their own Equity company, focused on the kind of work that first drew them together. Among the steps they took was leasing the waterside theater that had been WHAT’s home since 1985 but was relegated to second-stage status in 2007, when WHAT opened its Julie Harris Stage on Route 6.

Not surprisingly, there has been some emotional fallout over the split. And in Wellfleet — year-round population 2,750, according to the 2010 US Census — random encounters at the grocery store or the bar are inevitable.

“Every time we see somebody from over there, we have to sort of acknowledge that there is something that has happened between us, and we always are kind of feeling each other out,” Fielding says. “I’ll just say it’s tough. But the support from the community has been surprising, if not overwhelming, which tells me that people are happy with the choice we made. And we are happy with the choice we made.”

“It’s a small town, so it’s pretty amicable generally,” Withers says. “But it’s an evolving relationship, I would say. There’s a lot of feelings on both sides. Everyone, I think, is looking forward, which is great.”

So mostly life is good, despite the fact that the printer is always running or the phone ringing. There are program notes to write, that bathroom to repaint, rehearsals in the daytime, and performances at night.

“I feel like the hardest parts have passed now that we’re open,” says Fielding. “We’re really loving it, and we’re very excited about the rest of the season, and very, very excited about coming back next year and doing it all over again.”

Joel Brown can be reached at jbnbpt@
gmail.com.
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