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CRT to stage world premiere of play on biblical theme

by Beth Krane - October 3, 2005

Tony Award-winning playwright William Gibson is working with the Connecticut Repertory Theatre (CRT) to stage the world premiere of his latest play, Jonah’s Dream, at the Nafe Katter Theatre Oct. 6 through 16.

Playwright William Gibson attends a dress rehearsal of his play Jonah's Dream, which will premiere at the Nafe Katter Theatre this week.
Playwright William Gibson attends a dress rehearsal of his play Jonah’s Dream, which will premiere at the Nafe Katter Theatre this week.
Photo by Jordan Bender

Widely regarded as one of America’s most influential playwrights and the author of The Miracle Worker, Gibson developed a collaborative relationship with Professor Gary English, head of the dramatic arts department in the School of Fine Arts and artistic director of CRT. English has directed three of Gibson’s previous works: American Primitive and The Miracle Worker at the Berkshire Theatre Festival in Stockbridge, Mass., during the summers of 2003 and 2004 respectively, and A Cry of Players at CRT in February 2004.

Gibson accepted English’s invitation to stage his adaptation of the Old Testament tale of Jonah and the whale at CRT after English performed a dramatic reading of the work on the playwright’s 90th birthday in November.

“I was very much taken by Gary’s direction of my other plays,” says Gibson. “He’s smart. He’s intuitive. He handles people with great skill and tact. And he clearly understands Jonah’s Dream. I have confidence in him not to commit crimes with my work.”

English says he has studied and staged Gibson’s work over the course of his entire professional life and welcomed the opportunity to produce Jonah’s Dream for many reasons.

“The development of new plays, new works, is really how the arts contribute to the research mission of the University,” he says.

“There is no substitute for doing a new play. It is the perfect bridge for our students to connect conservatory-style training with what’s happening in the professional theater world.”

English said he also was attracted to the play’s insights into ancient and modern themes of atonement and forgiveness as well as its complexity, including an eccentric mix of theatrical styles from comedy, drama and Yiddish theater to vaudeville, musical theater, and puppetry.

“It seems to me that we find ourselves in a world today that I describe as neo-medieval,” English says. “We seem to be backsliding away from rationalism and toward an ever narrower set of ideologies, which inevitably focuses on retribution in lieu of mercy or compassion. The play deals with these themes beautifully. I found it philosophically rich and very timely.”

CRT’s production of Jonah’s Dream also will include the premiere of a new score created specifically for the work by New York composers Scott Killian and Kim Sherman, under the direction of longtime CRT musical director Ken Clark, as well as original choreography by professional guest artist Karen Azenberg and the involvement of students from the School of Fine Arts puppetry program.

The play stars four professional actors in the lead roles and UConn advanced acting students in the ensemble. The original score will be performed by a pit orchestra of six musicians.

“This play is so complex, it invites me to bring all of my skills as a director to bear,” says English.

Gibson, who has written 10 plays, is perhaps best known as the author of The Miracle Worker, the story of Helen Keller and her teacher, Annie Sullivan, which won a Tony Award for Best Play in 1962 and later was turned into an Academy Award-winning movie starring Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke. The playwright’s most recent Broadway hit, Golda’s Balcony, the story of Israel’s fourth prime minister, Golda Meir, is currently on national tour.

Gibson said he was attracted to the idea of making the Old Testament book into a play because, at the time, he had personal reasons to be entertaining notions about forgiveness. He also said people often miss the significance of the Book of Jonah.

“Everybody remembers the whale, but the story is that God forgives these people who have done all this damage to his chosen people,” says Gibson. “It is a transitional book in the Bible from the Lord as a God of war to the development of a forgiving God.”

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