It was a crowded and convivial setting for what Danielle Weathers, organizer of The Reading Parlor, likes to call a “first date with a play.” In a little side room of the Artists Repertory Theatre complex on Sunday night, seven music stands cozied up in a row. On each sat a thick stage script marked heavily with felt pen to denote each performer’s lines. Seven actors then walked in and sat in the seven chairs behind the seven music stands. They were gathering for the first time and getting their first look at this particular script, which on Sunday was for The Humans, Stephen Karam’s funny and quietly wrenching domestic drama that won this year’s best-play Tony and is still going strong in New York. Karam’s play takes place at a family Thanksgiving gathering in Lower Manhattan, and, well, you know how those things can go: familiarity, secrets, surprise.
Weathers and friends have been presenting these free monthly readings for about a year and a half now, moving from venue to venue as opportunity arises. The idea is to give Portland theater people and audiences a first glimpse at new or recent plays that may or may not eventually get full productions in town. (It’s hard to believe that someone won’t snap up The Humans as soon as it’s available.) And when she says “first date,” Weathers means it: The Reading Parlor catches the experience of putting together a production in those first, fragile, erratic, and beguiling moments, when you’re just getting the picture of the thing. “This is going to be messy,” she told the crowd before Sunday’s reading began, “and I encourage that.”
The Reading Parlor is one of several low-cost reading series in town (Readers Theatre Rep does monthly readings of short plays at Blackfish Gallery, and the grand old Portland Civic Theatre Guild has been doing monthly daytime coffee-and-readings for decades, most recently at Triangle Productions’ Sanctuary). It stands out not just because it’s free but also because it’s unrehearsed – about as close to impromptu experience as you can come.
Fortunately, on Sunday night it was being read by a group of veteran actors who know how this sort of thing works: Michael Fisher-Welsh and Sharonlee Mclean as the patriarch and matriarch of a tight Scranton clan; Christy Bigelow and Weathers as the grown daughters, who’ve both moved to New York; Paige Jones as the addled grandmother; Chris Harder as the boyfriend just meeting the extended family; and Brian Myers, who read Karam’s detailed and illuminating stage directions. It’s a Thanksgiving gathering at the new apartment of one of the daughters in Lower Manhattan, not far from the site of the Twin Towers attacks, and funny things happen, and scathing things, and of course there’s a big reveal. As the evening goes on it’s easy to begin to get a sense of where this smart script might go, with some hard work and a willingness to plunge into its depths. And that, it seems, is the point. Possibilities. First date.
The evening itself felt like something of a family gathering, without the wrenching drama. Maybe forty people besides the performers crammed into the little room, most of them theater folk – actors, playwrights, directors – plus a few ardent fans, and something like a party mood prevailed. A couple of people brought plates of cookies, and cheerfully handed them around after the show. That’s a good way to guarantee at least a second date. By then, who knows? – maybe sweet potatoes and cranberry sauce.