Review: THE AMERICA PLAYS: World Premiere at Mount Auburn Cemetery

By: Sep. 15, 2019
Review: THE AMERICA PLAYS: World Premiere at Mount Auburn Cemetery

The America Plays

A series of site-specific plays created by Playwright Patrick Gabridge, Mount Auburn Cemetery Artist-in-Residence; Directed by Courtney O'Connor; Produced by Plays in Place; Stage Manager, Adele Nadine Traub; Costume Design, Amanda Mujica; Wig Design, Jason Allen; Sound Design/ Original Music, Arshan Gailus; Production Assistant Stage Manager, Jamie Carty; Rehearsal Assistant Stage Manager, Megan O'Donnell; Assistant Producer/Director, Drew Hawkinson; Marketing, Rachel Lucas

CAST (in alphabetical order): Ken Baltin, Amanda Collins, Karen MacDonald, Robert Najarian, Sarah Newhouse, Mathew C. Ryan, Cheryl D. Singleton

Performances through September 22, presented by Friends of Mount Auburn, at Mount Auburn Cemetery, 580 Mount Auburn Street, Cambridge, MA; Tickets 617-607-1980 or

Playwright Patrick Gabridge, the 2018-2019 Mount Auburn Cemetery Artist-In-Residence, is presenting The America Plays, the second series of site-specific plays, following The Nature Plays produced in June. Whereas the earlier work explored the richness of the natural environment at the Cemetery, this series of five short plays brings to life the founder, sculptors, strong women of the era, and a compelling immigrant story about some of Mount Auburn's Armenian denizens. Guiding the audience from site to site through the lush grounds enhances their connection to the elements of the stories being told and grounds the drama in the flora and fauna of the landscaped jewel.

Director Courtney O'Connor maps out the route (approximately two miles on paved and unpaved surfaces) for the movable story-telling and draws upon the considerable talents of a seven-member ensemble (all but one of whom are members of Actors' Equity) to help us see dead people as if they are still among us. Amanda Mujica's costumes are terrific and period-appropriate, and Jason Allen's wigs add to the authenticity. Sound designer Arshan Gailus has written original music for "All the Broken Pieces," and he also performed and recorded it.

The first play "Man of Vision" takes place in 1872 when Dr. Jacob Bigelow, one of the founders of Mount Auburn, visits The American Sphinx monument which he commissioned to honor the soldiers lost in the the Civil War. Although he has lost his eyesight, Bigelow (Ken Baltin) has not lost his vision of finding a way to heal the country, and chooses acclaimed sculptor Martin Milmore (Mathew C. Ryan), a young Irish immigrant, to create a properly weighty icon. Some forty years earlier, Joseph Story (Robert Najarian), the youngest Associate Justice of the Supreme Court and the first president of Mount Auburn, gave the consecration address at the Cemetery's dedication, and we are privy to an abridged version of it as we are gathered at Consecration Dell. His forceful delivery and enthusiasm convince us that the Cemetery is a place for the living.

At this juncture, Mother Nature made her presence known in the form of an unwelcome rain shower, forcing the Saturday matinee performance to be moved indoors. However, the aptly-named Bigelow Chapel is magnificent in its own way, albeit without the flora and array of grave markers that would have been part of the show had it continued outdoors. Bigelow appears again in "Variations On An Unissued Apology," when his biases are challenged by a pair of strong-willed, accomplished women. Harriot Kezia Hunt (Karen Mac Donald) was the first woman to practice medicine in the United States, but no thanks to Bigelow who voted against her admission to Harvard Medical School (twice). Undaunted, Hunt practiced medicine without a degree, until awarded an honorary one from Female Medical College of Pennsylvania. She commissioned Edmonia Lewis (Cheryl D. Singleton), an African American, to sculpt Hygeia, the Greek goddess of health, to stand over her grave at Mount Auburn. The two women are discussing the monument and the challenges of their lives when Bigelow approaches. Despite his bluster and air of superiority, he is schooled by them about the ways in which the world has changed, eventually offering a limited apology to Hunt.

After Hunt and Bigelow depart the scene, Lewis is joined by two dear friends, another distinguished sculptor, Harriet Hosmer (Amanda Collins), and Charlotte Cushman (Sarah Newhouse), a leading American actress who had a turbulent personal life, including numerous affairs with women. Their conversation feels like a reunion of sorts (Hosmer and Cushman are both interred at Mount Auburn, but Lewis rests in London), but it takes on the issues of racial violence in the postwar era and instances of betrayal, even among the friends. Their fireworks recede as the narrator of the fifth play takes the stage. Thomas (Tzolag) Amirian (Ryan) was an Armenian refugee who settled in Boston, became an architectural engineer, and is buried with members of his family in the Cemetery.

However, "All the Broken Pieces," Tzolag's lengthy narration, includes the horrors of the genocide in their country which forced his family on a long, arduous journey to end up, finally, in America. His grandparents (Baltin, Singleton), his mother (Newhouse), and his aunt (Collins) all suffered through the expedition until they could join his uncle (Najarian) in the United States. It is the longest of the plays, but arguably the most compelling, perhaps more so in light of the perils faced by immigrants in our country today. To hear the story of what they went through and how they persisted, so movingly portrayed by this stellar cast, is to recognize their incredible resilience and acknowledge their devotion to their new homeland.

The highlight of Gabridge's The Nature Plays was having the opportunity to go deep into the arboreal splendor of Mount Auburn and watch the intimate scenes play out in their natural setting. I looked forward to having that experience again with The America Plays (and many who attend will), but it was truncated by the weather. However, moving into the chapel was in no way a detriment, as the removal of the "distraction" of the natural beauty allowed us to sharpen our focus on the actors and the powerful messages of their characters. In a final stroke of theatrical wisdom, as the storyteller described his Armenian family's journey, the audience was directed to rise from our seats and follow them out of the main chapel to a long corridor, eventually reaching a far corner that represented their arrival in America. We didn't have to walk far, but we were moved across many years and thousands of miles.

Photo credit: Corinne Elicone (Mathew C. Ryan, Ken Baltin)

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