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Arctic Circle Launches New Relationship With Mill Mountain Theatre

Playwright Samantha Macher (far left) with the cast of The Arctic Circle.

by Gene Marrano

Beginning what he hopes is a long term relationship that is beneficial both to the school and the city, Todd Ristau, founder of the Playwright’s Lab at Hollins University, brought a brand new play to the refurbished Waldron stage at Mill Mountain Theatre this week. The Arctic Circle (and a recipe for Swedish Pancakes) is in fact written by one of Ristau’s students in the MFA Playwright program at Hollins. Its part of the New Works Initiative at Hollins, a program promoted by Ristau at an invitation-only final dress rehearsal earlier this week.

Samantha Macher, 25 and living in Los Angeles most of the time, will graduate from the program this spring. She’s the playwright-in-residence at a theater in Los Angeles. Last year, while back at Hollins for MFA courses (graduate students take them over the course of four summers), Macher teamed up with veteran New York director Bob Moss at “Overnight Sensations”, where five teams of writers, directors and actors teamed up to create and stage short plays over the course of 24 hours, in an event designed to celebrate live theater.

“Roanoke is becoming known as a major [center] for new play development,” said Ristau, citing Hollins, the Waldron Stage, Studio Roanoke and the June McBroom Theatre at Community High School as smaller venues ideal for new works. Moss, who once worked with legendary playwright Edward Albee early in his career, “[loved] that this is happening off-campus. I think that’s important – this is happening downtown.”

This time Macher and Moss have teamed up for something a bit meatier: her brand new Arctic Circle, which plays through this Saturday at the Waldron Stage as part of the Marginal Arts Festival. Curtain is at 8pm each night with a 2pm matinee on Saturday; tickets are $10 in advance or $15 at the door. Macher’s play, a comedy set on a sparsely decorated stage with few props, follows a young woman as she examines her life at various stages, traveling back and forth in time.

Susanna Young’s performance as the troubled woman, Elin, is a tour-de-force. The Hollins graduate, who traveled the country for several years before coming back to Roanoke, is portrayed in a troubled marriage, as a teen discovering love – or lust – for the first time, and as a young adult. Elin is searching for true love and someone who will really listen to her. “I do this periodically…fall in love,” says Elin during the one-act play. “I’ve done this forever, you know.”

A long time boyfriend is a dolt, but she can’t seem to shake him off. Elin and her husband seem to be at arm’s length. The journey takes her to an art gallery, where she encounters an artist she once knew, and, yes, to Sweden, where a barista offers wisdom while serving coffee and pancakes. “At first it was intimidating because of the amount of dialogue,” said Young of her role as the play’s focus. “I learned a lot about myself as an actor.”

Young and co-star Drew Dowdy also had to learn five pages of dialogue in Swedish for the coffeehouse scene, which has the effect of transporting attendees back to that country near the Arctic Circle. Funny and physical throughout, Macher’s play will strike a chord with those that have been examining their personal relationships over the years.

Ristau acts as the narrator but is not offstage – he is right in the middle of the action, a device suggested by Bob Moss (who incidentally has a theater space named for him in New York City). Chad Runyon (Elin’s milquetoast husband) and Shay Mullins (who is not in the play but provides brief musical interludes on a mandolin) round out the cast. After its run this weekend, Arctic Circle is headed for the bright lights and big city – a run at New York’s Playwrights Horizon Studio in Manhattan.  $9000 was raised to stage Macher’s play and send it on to The Big Apple.

At a Q&A session after the dress rehearsal ended, local actor Charlie Boswell predicted that Macher would be famous one day as a playwright: “she’s going to be the female Neil Simon.”  Ristau concurred that Macher, also the cofounder of a theater in Brooklyn, was “already building an impressive resume.”

They’ll know more about Macher and The Arctic Circle (and a recipe for Swedish Pancakes) after the Manhattan run. “People are starting to hear about our program,” said Macher about the Master of Fine Arts for playwrights curriculum at Hollins.

Misc: for something a bit different in live theater, try Nunsense, by the Showtimers troupe (2067 McVitty Road) from Feb. 16-Mar. 4. The musical comedy, featuring nuns from The Convent of Mount Saint Helens – that spells trouble right there – involves a group of sisters that must raise money to keep the convent afloat. Nunsense was an Off-Broadway smash for many years. Show times Thursday-Saturday are at 8pm with a Sunday matinee at 2pm. Star-Sentinel contributor Beverly Amsler is one of the cast members.

Corrections: the picture of two performance artists appearing at this weekend’s Marginal Arts Festival in last week’s edition was taken at Ferrum College, not at the Taubman Museum. In addition, the production of Aristophanes set for this weekend at Community High School as part of the Marginal Arts Festival has been moved to March 9-10.

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  1. Well said, Mr. Marrano. Having had the opportunity to experience the writings of Samantha Macher, Playwright, in other venues over the past few summers, I second Charlie Boswell’s opinion that she has the right stuff to make a major impact on American drama and the American theatre alongside such writers as Wendy Wasserstein, Ntozake Shange, Beth Henley and Caryl Churchhill. And she is not alone among the gems Todd Ristau is mining at Hollins University. A number of Hollins’ playwriting students are finding their works appealing in venues far and wide. We, in the Roanoke Valley, are fortunate to savor a taste of this new wine in new wineskins.

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