Backstage with ‘Book Group’

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(Host) Thetford, Vermont may seem a long way from Broadway, but for many years it’s been at the center of a vibrant regional theater community. The Eclipse Grange on Thetford Hill is home to the Parish Players and hosts a variety of independent productions. Currently the original comedy, “Book Group,” is making its debut there.

VPR’s Betty Smith takes us backstage to meet the production company and first-time playwright.

(Smith) Marisa Smith of Lyme, New Hampshire is an avid reader. As a partner in theatrical publisher Smith and Kraus, she reads a lot of plays. And recently, she decided to try her hand at writing one herself. She found a quiet spot at the local library and started to write. For inspiration, she drew from her own ten-year membership in a local book discussion group.

So it isn’t surprising that her first play is about books and the people who read them. But it’s a little surprising that it’s a comedy.

(M. Smith) “What’s funny is what goes on in the meetings. Everyone always says to us, ‘Oh you don’t really talk about the book.’ Well we do talk about the book but there’s a long period before we’re talking about the book that we talk about the things you imagine we talk about: our husbands, our children, school, gossip. It’s not funny what we say about the books but sometimes that is funny. But the more humorous things take place before we talk about the book. And we also have our own ‘in jokes.’ You know, we have our own sort of history we refer back to and we end up making each other laugh. I mean that’s a key element in our book group meetings, I think. And then at some point we stop, we have a little structure and talk about the book.”

(Smith) Smith called upon her friend, Faith Catlin, of Sound and Noise Productions, to produce and direct. Catlin finds considerable depth in the play.

(Catlin) “It’s about four women who actually get through the winter in New England, which is no small feat, through their love of each other and their love of literature. And it’s about a journey and how friendship helps you and how men come and go and you always have a good book and you always have your women friends.”

(Smith) As the play opens, it’s a fall evening. Mags and Alison are first to arrive for the meeting. Ellie meets them at the door. Darri Colton plays Mags with Alison Franks as Alison and Carolyn Bardos as Ellie.

(Ellie, opening the door, holding a bottle of champagne) “Come in! Come in! Andiamo! Where’s the birthday girl? I have champagne! I have lots of champagne!”
(Mags) “I have Grappa and the cake!”
(Alison) “What’s Grappa? Fiona just rung me, she’s on her way. Something about her sconces. I love your pumpkin on the porch!”

(Smith) Playwright Smith incorporated four books into the play.

(M. Smith) “Madam Bovary, Anna Karenina, Rabbit Run by John Updike and Excellent Women by Barbara Pym. All of those books, with the exception of Madam Bovary were read in my book group. But the play is a work of fiction and the actions in the play are fictional. I have to make that very, very clear.”

(Smith) Playwright Smith says that if her book group members come to the play, they won’t recognize themselves as individual characters.

(Smith) “I think what they’ll recognize is the dynamic that I tried to create and write about – the way they talk to each other, the way they treat each other, the way they make fun of each other and the way they accept each other. Because that I think is common among groups of women that have a history together. You know, at a certain point you feel free enough to kid each other and yell at each other. That comes after a long period of knowing one another.”

(Smith) Actor Darri Colton says that dynamic has carried over to the cast.

(Colton) “What I like is the camaraderie that we’ve been able to develop between the women who are playing the four women in the book group. It’s genuinely fun to be onstage and when you have to laugh, you can really laugh. And when you make the connections with the other women onstage, there’s really that kind of caring thing that goes on and for me that’s great.”

(Smith) And what question do the cast members hear most often?

(Cast) “Did we all read the books? And yes, we did…” (Sound of laughter.)

(Smith) For VPR Backstage, I’m Betty Smith.

“Book Group” at the Eclipse Grange runs through Sunday, September 5.

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