By CHRISTA MORLETTI McINTYRE
The relatively recently opened Alberta Abbey in Northeast Portland is a warm and comfortable venue, reminiscent of Southeast’s Aladdin Theatre, but with 1950s movie theater chairs. It exudes a glow that only older stages carry. A star-shaped microphone is placed on the left-hand side of the stage, the sort of mic, you might imagine, that Buddy Holly would have used. A small jazz band, carrying the large name of Bamberger, Engel, Hines and Eave, greets the guests, and, to set a trend for the evening, the keyboardist is barefoot. The audience is personable, engaged in conversation that isn’t loud or raucous, slightly above a hum: the pleasant sort of sound heard at dinner parties.
It’s Saturday night at the Abbey, September 12, and the opening of a new season for Portland Story Theatre – its 11th season, and second at the Abbey. Company founders Lynne Duddy and Lawrence Howard, who are also wife and husband, take the stage and announce the evening in a way that only a couple who have been in love for decades can: with an appealing intimacy and soul-sharing capacity that inform the storytelling theater they founded. Portland Story Theatre specializes in the telling of personal stories – real, intimately revealed things that happen to real people.
Tonight’s show, a one-night stand like most of Portland Story Theater’s, is called Founders, Friends and Faves. Its performers are a special invited group of three women tellers before intermission, three men after; and while the title is catchy, the evening’s real focus is connection, and especially family bonds.
Leigh Hancock, a petite brunette with a gentleness in her motions and an earnestness that also will continue in waves through the evening, starts the show with Peaches. Leigh is a Reedie, and tells the story of returning to the Voorheis Peach Farm, where she found a second home after moving from her small town to academic life in Portland. Her tale bounces between the journey with her family and the hopes she had of sharing her young adulthood with rose-colored heavy-hanging fruit falling from trees; of canning in an old farmer’s kitchen and recreating the intimacy with her son and husband. Memory often elaborates the smaller experiences we have, when we’re looking for a home, a place to sit. It connects to movement; travel that becomes a thread all of the evening’s storytellers weave. As the saying goes, “You can never go home,” but Leigh reminds us that sometimes home is not a physical place, but one of personal history.
Duddy follows with the story of her Forever Friend, Maureen. It’s the wayback time when Lynne, age 14, goes to a rock festival with her friend, Maureen, age 16. Lynne drinks “electric wine” and gets to see Wishbone Ash perform live, the pinnacle of her short days. But, as at so many festivals of the time (cue the Woodstock soundtrack), there are rain, mud, and two or three people who don’t handle “electric wine” so well, including the stark-naked man with an erection and a hatchet. Maureen, the “woman” of the two and far more relaxed with mores and responsibility, leaves Lynn at the festival, hundreds of miles from home with only her sleeping bag and wits. Lynne soon realizes she’s just a little girl who had depended on the sadder, but wiser girl, Maureen. Lynne reminds us that in the end, we have disappointments in the people closest to us, but by overcoming them and seeing the longer and bigger picture, we maintain and enriches our bonds. History, as historians continually try to persuade us, is ledgers of people and wars. But the more important histories are the ones we build with the people who share our lives.
Next, the fiery redhead (aren’t they all?) Penny Walter takes the stage to tell a story called Never Alone. Many in the audience and outside have come to know and love her as the lively, boisterously singing star of her one-woman puppet theater, Penny’s Puppets. Tonight, though, we’re seeing a different side of Penny. She weaves in and out of memories, all the way back to school days and her teacher Mrs. Eden, who wears a long pink polyester suit and dons a long apron with deep pockets. Inside are finger puppets. Mrs. Eden invites the children in the extra ed class to get a reward each time they do well, and Penny is hooked. Her story circles to her imaginary friend, Motz, who runs marathons with her on the outskirts of the defunct farm where she grows up. They banter, fight, and make up in the sort of relationship that a true friend gives you: the challenge to believe in yourself.
A few tears fall at the end of Penny’s performance as she recounts losing the real and physical supports in her life the last few years: her parents. This is where the true nature of Portland Story Theater’s approach to storytelling comes into play. In our time of social media ad infintum, a lot of lonely people overshare, and then turn back into their shells once the catharsis has hit. The story theater is a different place to be – one that nurtures experience, dignity, and the up-down staircase of being alive. The stories are about the person telling them, but more than that, they’re about the thread that unites us and takes us all to an even ground through the telling. We all have one or two great storytellers in our lives, people who can take a simple motion like buying a lemon at the grocery store and turn it into a real saga, giving it gravity, purpose, or laughter. It’s important to realize the struggles and victories, small and big, that we all share. This is the premise of Portland Story Theater: one person, one story, and our listening.
Time seems to go by very quickly with each storyteller. I feel engaged with the differing personality and vulnerability of each. After intermission Duddy introduces Lawrence, the first of the men storytellers, and it’s sweet to see her give him a kiss and a good-luck sentiment: it makes the community around Portland Story Theater seem more authentic.
Like Duddy, Howard easily has you in the palm of his hands. I’m delighted that he makes reference to the old television Western hero Paladin in the title of his story, Have Ladder, Will Travel. Storyteller by night, paralegal by day, Howard gives us a glimpse into the struggles of contemporary Portland. He was a hippie cabinetmaker at one time, but fell into a white-collar job to pay the bills. Being a craftsman, he took his job seriously and invested all of his work ethic into it. One day at the law firm, he was handed two bankers boxes full of files for a wrongful death suit involving a man named Bob Sharp, who was atop a 40-foot metal ladder near a power line when he died. Howard came to have a connection with Bob Sharp’s mom, and an understanding of a down-on-his-luck guy who took an under-the-table construction job to try to set his life straight. At the end, we feel a sorrow for Bob Sharp’s short life and death, but come to realize the parallels in the two men’s lives. Portland’s economic crunch and housing crisis fall on many people. Howard has no plans to climb a 40-foot ladder, but his law firm is closing, and he, like many contributors to the city’s cultural landscape, has lost his all-important day job. As with the women storytellers, Howard takes us to a visual space through geography and time: what would take a cinematographer and film editor hours to accomplish, a good storyteller can do in minutes.
An all-out playfulness surrounds each storyteller, but by far Warren McPherson seems the most gregarious in nature and tale. His loss is the aching of not having a parent. In an odd switch of gender roles, the male storytellers all have untraditional incomes. Warren is a stay-at-home dad with two children, ages 3 and 5. He’s a muscular guy, and a former wrestler, but he lets us know his two kids are the toughest match he’s ever had: The Funk and the Fatherhood. He doesn’t want to fail them; he has an Olympian list of all the things he’ll do with them and give them. But the reality of the every moment, he declares, is kicking his ass. Tiny people have more energy than any athlete can aspire to: “Parenting is a mad rollercoaster through a twister with puppies.” He wants, like any good parent, to be a better parent than his own absent father. Warren has me an the rest of the audience enraptured: his focus and attention to words came through like a hurricane.
John Mink’s My Portland Girl closes this fascinating and intimate evening on a high note. He knows and is comfortable with his wild and heartful nature, which complements Warren’s kinetic fire and calls back to the earnestness of Hancock’s tale. Mink’s story fits together the evening’s common themes: belonging, travel, chosen transformation, and loss. He’s introduced as a philosopher, and he is that, but not the sort you might expect. He appears onstage with a beer and a leather-brimmed hat, then delivers the quiet sort of cowboy reading you’d expect in the dead of winter in Elko, Nevada – but not, probably, in 2015. He tells of traveling to Alaska, where he takes up a butcher job, just as he’d had in his last town. Every time he ends his shift, he sees the mountains, and knows he has a different choice. Caught between earning a paycheck and following his heart, he spends years looking for someone, instead of the trees, mountains, rivers to tell him, “Yes.” That is how this evening ends, with a “Yes” from his Portland Girl. Sometimes, it seems, love can take a man from a goldmine onto a motorcycle and across a continent.
In a time where our daily digest arrives in snippets of information from friends, our interests, and news around the world, Portland Story Theater asks us simply to sit and believe. No story is the same, and none is memorized: through a story-building workshop, the group in the company’s signature Urban Tellers series supports and brings out the best of each narrative. The point is to not make the best story, but to bring out the best in the storyteller. I hope that as the season continues Portland Story Theater will bring in more of our histories, in a diversity of voices. I believe it will: the magic is already there.
Portland Story Theater’s next performance is Spellbound, a Halloween show hosted by Sam A. Mowry, on October 24. Ticket information is here.