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Theater Preview: Stone

Everybody has a story. The Vermont writers collecting oral histories in Depression-era Barre knew this, and recorded with equal care the lives of the mayor and the peddler, the aristocratic dowager and the stonecutter's widow, the respected shopkeeper and the rum-running drunk. Kim Bent, co-artistic director of the Lost Nation Theater, breathed new life into these tales by sculpting them into Stone, an energetic work for the stage that premiered last April in Montpelier.

The central Vermont community enthusiastically embraced the show, which also featured a bounty of toe-tapping, traditional folk music. But the critical response pointed out numerous rough edges in the ambitious work-in-progress. The running time was too long, especially the second act, which was dialogue-heavy and music-light. Some characters' stories were less compelling than the others', slowing the narrative drive. On opening night last year, several cast members seemed to struggle with the overwhelming amount of material they had to master.

Restaging a play just a year after its debut is an unusual step. But the passion for this production runs deep - among the participants and in the community. The audience was not your typical play-going crowd. "Their reactions to the show fed us," actor Mark Robert recalls. "There were some nights we had people in the audience that had lived in Barre their whole lives and knew some of these people back in the '30s . . . People are actually interacting like you're that person. That's pretty neat . . . that that kind of magic can come back for folks."

So Bent, who wrote and directed Stone, decided to remake his creation, using feedback from the cast, crew and community to hone the original. Last year's actors, musicians and behind-the-scenes staff have eagerly reassembled for the new and improved Stone, which opens this weekend. They are working with a tighter, shorter script that gives the period music an even more prominent role.

The primary source material for Bent's adaptation is Men Against Granite, a collection of oral histories assembled between 1938 and 1940. Barre's booming granite industry had drawn waves of immigrants from Scotland, Northern Italy, Sweden, Spain, Ireland and Quebec. Writers Mari Tomasi and Roaldus Richmond, working for the Federal Writers' Project of the Works Progress Administration, conducted more than 100 interviews with area residents representing all facets of the community. They captured an astonishing record of daily life, documenting events and emotions both great and small.

Barre's long-dead citizens tell their stories in their own words. From what were essentially monologues, Bent crafted dialogues and scenes. Sixteen actors and musicians play about 40 characters, changing professions, ages and ethnicities as fast as they change costumes and accents.

One moving scene features a quartet of widows whose husbands have died prematurely from stonecutter's TB, a lung disease caused by granite dust. On stage together, the black-clad women reflect and reminisce separately, but their tales weave together thematically. The scene encapsulates Bent's approach to the source material. He has not artificially superimposed a plot structure, yet by the end it feels like a complete story of how it felt to live in that specific time and place has unfolded.

Barre - an industrious, ethnically diverse community - appealed to the Federal Writers' Project for the hope it provided on the eve of World War II, when "the enemy really was fascism," Bent reflects. In documenting the diversity of Barre, the writers showed "the possibility that people of different backgrounds could get along, could find a way to work together somehow," he says. Diversity was not an empty buzzword. It was a potent moral weapon against fascism's call for racial "purity."

But as Stone demonstrates, ethnic pluralism did not create a utopian melting pot. Characters feel strong ethnic loyalties, stereotype other groups and engage in vigorous disputes over issues from politics to pasta. Coexistence was often peaceful only by default.

The first act features a rollicking, irony-laden original song, "In Barre We All Get Along," that illustrates the city's underlying tension. In Bent's lyrics, anarchists and socialists draw verbal and literal weapons, and everyone gives the French-Canadians a hard time. But the battling Barre-ites are just too busy living and working alongside one another to expend much energy on a true calculus of hate. "You may have heard it different / But the truth's as plain as day / In Barre when we disagree / It don't get in our way!"

Stone's music director, John Mowad, played a major role in the show's development. He did a mountain of research to assemble period tunes, and to arrange them for an instrumental mix of fiddle, accordion and guitar. "John's impulse immediately was to go to the real roots of the music," Bent says. "Not necessarily to the songs of the 1930s or '40s, but what the music sounded like when these people came over initially."

Music is integrated throughout the play. Three musicians remain on stage during most of the show, and occasionally join in the action. Traditional tunes introduce monologues and accompany dances, and characters sing the wistful folk songs of the Old Country. "The music had a real-ness about it," says Mowad. "It wasn't just the pit orchestra . . . doing the score. The musicians felt as much a part of it as anybody else, and I think that came across to the audience."

In revising the show, Mowad and Bent beefed up the role of music. "We realized how important it was . . . in establishing the sense of ethnicity and cultural - not only diversity, but also interaction," Mowad notes. "Music is hard to beat for setting a national tone, a mood of Irishness or Italian . . . And so we just want to build on that a little bit more." For example, in the bar scene, live music has replaced a radio playing, which allows for more dancing as well.

In trimming the text of the script, Bent felt freer to be less the documentarian and more the dramatist. Some of the scenes that dragged in the first version of Stone stemmed from his initial desire to be "overly conscientious" with the source material, he admits. "The voices of the younger people in [Men Against Granite] just aren't as strong, and so they didn't work quite as well." Bent deleted those scenes and made lots of internal cuts to tighten others.

This summer will see more than just a revival of Stone as a staged play. The Stoners, as they call themselves, are presenting an hour-long excerpted version at the History Expo in Tunbridge on June 24, and at a granite industry conference this August in Barre.

Bent appears to be committed to making Stone a lasting part of Vermont's cultural landscape. He has secured grant funding to create a DVD, in collaboration with filmmaker Jeff Farber of 88 Keys and Living the Autism Maze. The goal is a tight, one-hour production by autumn that can be distributed to schools, libraries and museums across Vermont.

"We'll be shooting the actors in the theater, using the theater as a studio," Bent explains. Stage scenes will be intercut with historical still images and video of famous sculptures mentioned in the show, such as the Elia Corti memorial and the Robert Burns statue. "Having the ability to see those pieces of art in their real environment while the actor is talking about them, or the actor playing the sculptor who did the work, I think, will be very effective," he says.

"To a large extent, people generally don't value what's in their own backyard," Bent reflects. "I see the stage play and the DVD as an opportunity to get people interested in where they are. One of the things that we all experience as we grow up is, we get to be teenagers and nothing that's around us has any value. But here's an opportunity to create something that perhaps might catch someone's interest and inspire them to see where they are in a different and perhaps deeper way."

Actress Judy Milstein has already felt Stone's wider impact in the community. Last spring she overheard chatter about the play while browsing in a thrift store and standing in line at the diner. "People came in droves last year that had probably never been to the theater," she recalls. "I think it pulled in a whole new group of individuals who felt that they were being talked about and represented and written about."

During one performance, a woman in her eighties - "she wasn't exactly delusional, but maybe a little Alzheimer's," Milstein remembers - "was absolutely convinced that I was this peddler who used to come by her house in Barre when she was a child."

Unless your ancestry is pure Native American, the immigrant experience is part of every American's heritage. Stone is relevant to "anyone who's interested in how America got made," Milstein remarks. She believes that this year's audience members may experience the play in a new light because of the current heated debate over immigration. "I don't know if Kim even knows what nerve he's going to hit."

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