July 27 2016 01:20 PM

World premiere play highlights Williamston Theatre’s strengths

Williamston Theatre’s world premiere of “Summer Retreat” is a fitting close to its 10th season. The play, written by Annie Martin, highlights several aspects of Williamston Theatre that have contributed to its success, including skilled casts, support of original works by Michigan playwrights and excellent production values.

“Summer Retreat” is the fifth original play by Martin that Williamston Theatre has premiered. Three of those works were co-written by Tony Caselli and Suzi Regan, key figures in the the ater company, and Regan directs this production. This familiarity with the facility and its personnel must have informed Martin’s work, as she has created a fast-paced, engaging story that fits perfectly in the intimate space.

The play opens with Amy (Julia Glander) breaking into a rustic lake cabin. With obvious familiarity she frantically searches through cupboards and cabinets, assembling a mish-mash of curious goods, until she is interrupted by equally frantic friends Sian (Sandra Birch) and Caroline (Emily Sutton- Smith). We soon learn that the three have just left the funeral of a fourth friend, Nancy. The cabin belonged to Nancy’s family, and the four women, best friends since college, spent many summers there. They reminisce, devolving into their less mature selves with good-natured but stinging jibes about each other’s shortcomings.

As Amy steels herself to share the real reason for her visit to the cabin, the reunion is disrupted by Nancy’s annoying kid sister, Shep (Dani Cochrane). At this point the real claws come out — as does some revealing family history — as the women viciously berate Shep. Appropriately named, Shep is like a dog that wants to be loved, but after being kicked too many times, now just barks and growls unhappily. Still, she retains the spark of desire to be respected by these women, who were more like sisters to Nancy than she was.

Regan’s casting is spot-on. Sutton-Smith is perfectly poised as the brittle lawyer Caroline, and Glander portrays art teacher Amy with a free-spirited style. Those who saw Birch storm the stage as bad mom Eleanor in “The Lion in Winter” will be stunned to see her as a goofy, warm and loving matron.

The true breakout here is Cochran, making her Williamston Theatre debut. Like Shep, Cochran is an outsider among this group of seasoned Williamston performers, which may very well contribute to her success in the role. Shep is a 30-something juvenile delinquent who vies for attention by flaunting her vices unapologetically. As needy and lost as Shep is, when the group is confronted by an agitated, gun-toting stranger (Patrick Loos), Shep’s outsider status becomes their greatest asset.

Kirk Domer’s set, crowded with mismatched wares assembled by Michelle Raymond, is a cozy recreation of the kind of rustic cabin familiar to many Michiganders. Alex Gay’s lighting and Will Meyer’s sound design help establish the remote atmosphere — one can practically smell the pine trees and feel the morning dew dissipate as the day progresses.

“Summer Retreat” is a familiar story of old friendships, revealed secrets and new hopes. But the dialogue is so realistic, the acting so accomplished and the set so immersive that the overall experience is as refreshing as a dip in a cool lake on a hot day.


“Summer Retreat”

Williamston Theatre
Through Aug. 21
8 p.m. Thursday-Friday; 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday; 3 p.m. Sunday.
Tickets start at $23/$10 students; $2 senior/military discount
Williamston Theatre 122 S. Putnam St. Williamston
(517) 655-7469, williamstontheatre.org

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