Winneshiek dinner theatre in Freeport.
By Sue Langenberg
When it comes to theatre organizations, Winneshiek Playhouse has much to brag about. Firstly, it is the oldest continuous operating community theatre in the nation. That would take area actors through two World Wars, one Depression, a national attack and a more recent recession.
So approaching its 89th season, the theatre oversees a long legacy that runs the gamut from ambitious productions (“The King and I” and “Inherit the Wind,”) to intimate plays that find themselves in a smaller venue (radio drama, “Sorry, Wrong Number,”) with various murders and romances throughout the decades.
Moreover, the longest-running community theatre doesn’t mind breathing new life into this heritage by producing its first dinner theatre event where the players come out to the audience, rather than the audience coming to the theatre. It is now also pleased to boast an energetic board of directors with a pro-active outlook for the next 89 seasons.
One of the new WP brainstorms is dinner theatre to spruce up the downtown verve. Granted, there are logistical challenges bringing a show to places where people eat, drink and be merry. The cast basically has to leave the familiar creature comforts of props, sets and wings at the charming theater on Clark Street for the scary unknowns, or as actor Douglas Munda commented, stages where you “fly by the seat of your pants.” In the end, everyone wins. The local audiences are abuzz with the novelty of live action at their favorite venues, and the actors hone their craft in foreign settings.
So it was thus an enthusiastic opening of play, “Love Letters” at the Main Street Bistro Sunday evening and This is It Eatery last night. Sunday evening’s cast were Rich Burkinshaw and Vicki Hooper, while last evening showcased Munda and wife Kelley. It’s a Reader’s Theatre format with a cast of only two, and thus ideal to enhance a downtown appreciation of all things fun in life.
“Love Letters,” by A. R. Gurney premiered at The New York Public Library, New York in 1988 and became a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. From there it went to off-Broadway theatre Promenade and new heights of success with all star casts and all star venues from coast to coast. During its stay at the Promenade, the sixty-four performances established a tradition of Sunday and Monday evening times, a slight diversion from the well-established phrase, “the theatre is dark on Monday.”
The actual ‘love letters’ span some 50 years between two friends from second grade through life’s milestones and passions. Anyone who has ever had a relationship of any kind will relate to something in this exchange of love, hate, jealously, then love again. The characters are at odds with life – she trying to climb upward, he trying to settle downward and in the end, neither meet in the middle until it is too late.
When two casts perform the same play, an entirely different interpretation rears an interesting slant. Burkinshaw as Andrew Makepeace Ladd III had the quintessential formal aura about him offsetting the rather more emotional Vicki Hooper as Melissa Gardner, easily perceived as one who never seems to find her way in life. By contrast, the Munda’s created a more standoffish relationship between each other, much like the time lapse of actual postings. Douglas carried a velvet stage voice and Kelley’s visual was correctly an icy dysfunctional result of hoity-toity snobbery. Both casts were a wonderful tribute to the playwright’s intention about life and relationships.
“Love Letters” runs again Sunday evening, August 10 featuring Doug and Kelley Munda at the Main Street Bistro and Monday evening, August 11 featuring Rich Burkinshaw and Vicki Hooper at This Is It Eatery. Bistro dinner begins at 5 p.m., and performance at 7 p.m. This Is It Eatery serves appetizers at 5 p.m., dinner at 6 p.m. and performance at 7 p.m. Tickets $30 and information at (815) 232-7023.