‘The Graduate’ on the edge

The #MeToo movement raises challenges for Gallery Theater's production of the 1960s tale of seduction and the American dream

The hottest theater ticket in Yamhill County this week is unquestionably at Gallery Players of Oregon in McMinnville, where a three-week run of The Graduate (yes, that Graduate) opens Friday.

Terry Johnson’s adaptation of Charles Webb’s novel (which became an award-winning film starring Dustin Hoffman) will be performed in the Arena, the smaller of Gallery’s two stages with seating for about 80. Inside the company, it’s known as a venue for Gallery’s edgy productions — plays that might offend, or lesser known plays not expected to draw an audience that would fill the main, 236-seat auditorium. Given that The Graduate’s most popular incarnation is more than 40 years old, the play may be relatively obscure. Given the subject matter (an explicitly rendered, sexually charged extramarital affair), it also falls into edgy territory for Yamhill County audiences.

Benjamin Braddock (John Davis Jr.) decides to follow the lead of Mrs. Robinson (Holly Spencer) in Gallery Theater's production of “The Graduate,” which opens Friday, July 26, in McMinnville. Photo by: EKay Media, courtesy Gallery Theater
Benjamin Braddock (John Davis Jr.) decides to follow the lead of Mrs. Robinson (Holly Spencer) in Gallery Theater’s production of “The Graduate,” which opens Friday, July 26, in McMinnville. Photo by: EKay Media, courtesy Gallery Theater

Based on what I’ve seen and what I’ve heard from other actors, Arena shows have drawn larger audiences in recent years. One hopes that The Graduate does as well, for here is an opportunity for audiences to see the artistic alchemy that can happen when a talented and seasoned actor takes a spin in the director’s chair.

Having been involved with Gallery since the late 1990s, I’ve known some people involved in the production for years and in a couple of cases have worked with them on stage. Surprisingly, I’d never spoken with the director until we sat down to chat about this show.

Lance Nuttman is a familiar face in the area’s theater scene. In addition to Gallery appearances in shows such as Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Oklahoma!, and The God Game, he’s also performed at Pentacle Theatre and The Verona Studio in Salem. He’s dabbled in readers theater, including a one-shot Struts & Frets performance in Polk County of Equivocation, and Frost/Nixon. The latter he directed for the McMinnville theater and again at a Salem festival a couple of years ago.

Gallery reportedly pitched The Graduate to Nuttman, who signed on after reading Johnson’s script. He had never seen the movie (“I don’t know if I should say that!”) so he watched it once and set it aside.

“As an actor, I don’t like to do that,” he told me. “You know, I’ll watch the source material once, and that’s it. Because you don’t want to copy.”

Lance Nuttman’s preparation for directing “The Graduate” has included consulting with a local academic familiar with gender studies and sexuality.

“The movie and the script are pretty different from each other,” he continued. “You’ve got the core Mrs. Robinson stuff, but the thing I liked about the script is that it just seems to go a little more in detail into the secondary characters. The parents have more meat to them. But especially Elaine, the daughter. In the novel and the movie, I thought Elaine was really kind of one-dimensional, which I think was a choice, honestly. Our Elaine has a lot more going on,” a product, he said, of the company’s collaboration.

For those unfamiliar with the story: Benjamin Braddock (played at Gallery by John Davis Jr.) is a young man who has racked up an amazing scholastic record but is adrift after he graduates from college. He’s advised to go into “plastics!” Then, he finds himself in the sexual crosshairs of an older woman, Mrs. Robinson (Holly Spencer), an unhappily married family friend. He partakes, then falls for Mrs. Robinson’s daughter, Elaine (Cassandra McKenna). Dramatic and comic complications ensue. (Rounding out the Gallery cast are Walter Haight, Dakota Saunders, and Teresa Waite.)

“It really tells a good story,” Nuttman said. “It’s about the expectations of the middle-class American dream, a 1960s family. What are the expectations? What are the expectations of a dad? A mom? A son who’s graduated with a silver spoon? It’s a snapshot of that time in 1964.” Nuttman is not taking any modernization liberties. Like the book and the film, The Graduate as a live stage piece is set in 1964, and Gallery’s production will look and sound like it.

Obviously, class and privilege in American society still exist, but one thing that’s in a materially different place is gender relations. This is a Graduate in the #MeToo era, a dynamic that surely will make post-show conversations interesting.  It’s also meant hyper-vigilance on Nuttman’s part toward ensuring that all performers feel safe, given what some are asked to do. He is surely the first director in the theater’s history to get pre-rehearsal consultation from a local academic familiar with the terrain of gender studies and sexuality.

“I’m an adult male in a position of power directing a show here,” he said. “So I wanted to be up front from the start and to be very open and to give actors permission to, at any point, say, ‘I’m uncomfortable with this, I’m not doing this.’ That was something that was so important to me.”

According to Gallery’s “audience suitability” guidelines, The Graduate is recommended for ages 17 and older because of “language, sexual situations, and partial nudity.”

“Look at the poster, OK?” he laughed. “The poster alone paints a picture. I had some concerns about bringing this to Gallery Theater, because I’ve been in shows where people walked out the first time [profanity] happens. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof — every night, we had someone walk out.

“I made it really clear up front, I am not going to do this show unless you trust me,” Nuttman said. He characterized his own response to Gallery’s offer to direct as, “I am not going to do a peep show. Everything is stylized, but I don’t want to be handicapped. I don’t want to be held back; if I need to show something a little risky, I’ll do that.”

Last year, Nuttman appeared in The God Game (directed by his wife, Marla, who is art designer for this show). The play wasn’t well known and didn’t immediately find an audience, but thanks to word-of-mouth, the seats started to fill near the end of the run. For the sake of Gallery’s ability and willingness to take artistic risks in the future, one hopes The Graduate explodes out of the gate and doesn’t let up. Given the local marquee value of many of the names associated with this production, I suspect it will. In other words: Get tickets sooner rather than later.

ARTS JOURNAL: Hit the midpoint of Neal Stephenson’s 800+ page Fall, or Dodge in Hell and continue to soldier on. When my eyes and/or brain need a break, I reread Aaron/Bachalo’s Doctor Strange run from 2015 or bounce between tellings of Norse mythology by Martin J. Dougherty and Neil Gaiman. Also, couldn’t sleep the other night, so I picked up (inexplicably) The Divine Comedy. Action plan: Reread As You Like It before bringing son to the upcoming Willamette Shakespeare production. 

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This story is supported in part by a grant from the Yamhill County Cultural Coalition, Oregon Cultural Trust, and Oregon Community Foundation.

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