For actors and audience alike, a play's premiere can be an invitation to strike out into new terrain. In offering the world premiere of Greg Pierce's The Quarry, Vermont Stage Company has taken chances with a brand-new work while relying on the solid talents of a four-member cast — three of whom depict multiple characters. The play is grounded in Vermont, beginning with the playwright's roots in Shelburne. Pierce now lives in New York City, but his brother, musician Randal Pierce, resides in Vermont and composed original music for this show. The play's setting is an unspecified Vermont quarry in an unnamed town.
The show opens on a set of stylized quarry walls and a stage littered with gray cubes of about the same hue and shape as marble blocks. Randal Pierce plays piano as four characters sit in silence. Then one stands and speaks to the audience.
In a pleasant, no-nonsense way, Jean describes how much she enjoys staring into the quarry beside her house, and how the sound of the machines has soothed her. She misses her husband, Sammy, who's now been dead two years. As she strolls in the open playing space, she moves and stacks the cubes, describing them as packing boxes, many filled with Sammy's books.
Jean is packing up her house and tells us she was planning until recently to "off herself," believing that her life's "main story" was complete. But, as she pokes through a half-packed box, she reveals that she's decided to stick around because of a big mystery that's captivating her town. Her monologue only hints at that enigma, but as other characters rise to speak, we learn the story in fragments.
The effort to combine an unusual narrative style with a mystery reveals the play's strengths and weaknesses. By relying chiefly on monologue instead of scenes with multiple actors, Pierce can take interesting liberties with storytelling. What he can't do is bring a suspenseful plot to life.
Throughout the play, all four actors remain onstage, silent and disconnected, until they stand to take part in a scene or deliver a monologue. The boxes near them contain costume pieces they use to assume a variety of characters. Jean doesn't seem to be animating them or summoning them from memory — they simply appear and disappear, enacting or describing events from the past or the present day.
Video courtesy of Vermont Stage Company
We meet Jean's angry, estranged daughter, Clara; her dear, departed Sammy; a couple of high school kids larking about in the quarry, and others. Each new character slides on and off, in portraits that aren't especially complex, but the process becomes engaging by the sheer dramatic force of turning our attention from point to point and person to person. All the monologues contain assured storytelling and occasional arresting images, but the language itself is unremarkable. In several scenes, one character narrates and others pantomime an enactment. The performances are carefully crafted, but since most are staged without interaction with other characters, virtually nothing dramatic happens.
The neat flow of costume transitions that bring new characters briefly to life makes for a truly delightful parade. But the characters are launched in isolation or in short-lived scenes, an approach that limits the play's potential for conventional drama.
Monologues are excellent for revealing inner thoughts and secret truths, but ultimately they're descriptions of circumstances and present a character's conclusions. Characters engaged in face-to-face conflict resolve their circumstances with action, giving the audience a way to interpret those choices from multiple points of view. The Quarry's few conventional scenes, such as a high school flirtation with a dare to cap it off, are lively, but the play is principally concerned with minimalist, narrated storytelling.
Pierce doles out a variety of metaphors for the quarry itself, evoking so many images that the kaleidoscopic interpretations give the play energy and dazzling multiplicity. But by the end, he hasn't made those disparate themes cohere.
The quarry is a place for daredevil, youthful behavior, though the sense of risk is never physically realized onstage. It's a prison, if Jean's daughter is correct in saying that everyone in the family wanted to leave except Jean herself. The quarry is a spooky place, where a girl can go missing and terrify the town into telling ghost stories. It's an Indian burial ground, complete with an archaeologist dusting off a finger bone.
Not least, the quarry is the underworld. It's dark and deep, and finally becomes a dreamscape where Jean takes a long walk downward. Having planted an allusion to Persephone earlier, Pierce may be fashioning the kind of literary Hades where death makes a deal with rebirth. Or he may be showing us a surrealistic vision of an afterlife. Given the easy, weightless quality of this interlude, it even feels a little like a trip to the lost and found to locate a few missing items. The play leaves the scene's implications unresolved, but there's no missing the overall feeling of relief, recovery and renewal. Jean emerges with a new contentment, and whether she's alive or dead or dreaming is for the viewer to decide.
Ruth Wallman anchors the show with her warm portrayal of Jean. With a firm stare that gives way to a twinkle in her eye, she takes stock of the audience and proceeds to let us in on her story. Jean has some curmudgeonly qualities, but Wallman puts a nice, rosy glow on her flaws so we're left caring for her.
Robert Nuner handles several roles — from a baleful, laid-off quarry worker to Jean's husband — and brings physical grace and keen precision to each, along with Vermont accents that are quietly accurate. Sammy is ultimately more a product of Jean's description than of any action of his own, but Nuner gives him an easy, unassuming demeanor that pairs well with her matter-of-fact mourning.
As teenage Jackson, archaeologist Ken and a few other characters, Andrew Butterfield brings splendid energy to the stage. His portraits are all crisply delineated with smart physical choices about movement and vocalization.
Sarah Venooker takes on the roles of bitter daughter, nutty neighbor, giddy teenager and authoritative anthropologist. She puts glistening touches of humor on all of them, while taking successful physical risks as a dancer.
Randal Pierce plays piano or electric keyboard throughout the performance. The Quarry is a melodrama in the original meaning of that term: a drama using music to heighten and clarify emotion. Pierce uses simple melodic figures in an attempt to avoid overpowering the scene on stage or dictating the emotions of the audience. It doesn't always work. The music often asserts itself, because it's difficult to balance the two art forms perfectly, but it's a risk worth trying. Overall, the music is a surface constantly reflecting the action on stage, a mirror that adds an extra dimension and brings a musician into live collaboration with actors.
Jeff Modereger's L-shaped set of two big quarry walls has cavern-like entrances that make the space mysteriously deep. A baby grand piano is rendered unobtrusive by faux marble blocks tumbled around and on it. Aside from shallow steps and the suggestion of a porch with a rocking chair, the stage is otherwise wide open.
Director Cristina Alicea uses that big, blank canvas to emphasize stylized movement in a stark, open space. She stages phone calls with two stationary people who make no eye contact as they speak, and has the actors portray the happiness of two honeymooners with joyous spinning. She emphasizes the script's abstract elements with ritualistic movement interspersed with naturalistic gestures.
The costumes by Catherine Vigne are precise enough to clarify characters who are sometimes wholly defined by their appearance. She has developed smart elements for quick onstage changes, complemented by the actors' subtle work in transforming themselves.
Jeffrey E. Salzberg's lighting design makes the playing space nicely magical, and one blockbuster effect toward the end is worth the price of admission by itself.
In sum, the quarry is deep and the characters are shallow. But the overall experience is stimulating, and VSC's decision to stage this new work is commendable. The Quarry adjusts the boundaries of theater and lets us see what happens when music, stylized space, a Ferris wheel of characters, an elastic sense of time and uplifting fantasy are combined.
Alex Brown writes fiction (Finding Losses, 2014) and nonfiction (In Print: Text and Type, 1989) and earns a living as a consultant to magazine publishers. She studied filmmaking at NYU and has directed a dozen plays in central Vermont.