‘A Rock Sails By’ Commands The Stage At Lake Country Playhouse!

This is the end of the season play that you must see. Now to paraphrase a line from mid-play, it is ok to get lost sometimes…which is how you will feel as this drama unfolds in front of you. And, yes, it is ok…now a quote…shut up and eat the damn donuts! If that doesn’t pique your interest, you need to get lost sometimes!

A Rock Sails By is a relatively new play by Sean Grennan and the world premeire was presented by the Peninsula Players in Door County WI in 2023. And once again the Lake Country Players recognized the value in a new play and despite the complex story grabbed a hold and brought it to life. Director James Baker, Jr. assembled an amazing cast here who embody these realistic contemporary characters and coached them through the tough and endearing scenes that too many of us have to face.

Todd Herdt as Jason Harper and Sandra Baker-Renick as Dr. Lynn Cummings. Photo courtesy of James Baker, Jr at Lake Country Players.

The facade so to speak is the appearance of an interstellar object that actually ‘invaded’ our solar system in 2017. It was called Oumuamua, which is Hawaiian, roughly ‘first distant messenger’. And from there Grennan weaves two stories that intertwine around the life and loves of fictional astrophysicist, Dr. Lynn Cummings!

At first, Sandra Baker-Renick presents us with a very self confident Dr. Cummings who seems bemused listening to a phone message from a gentle but perplexed male voice who is obviously her husband. And then she starts to replay it but hides it when her daughter Olive arrives on the scene. That may seem odd but I recognized it immediately. The voice on the phone belongs to Dr. Cummings late husband and she is relishing in one of the few physical manifestations left to her of their life together. Baker-Renick immediately puts us in place to empathize with Dr. Cummings over her grief now and eventually the other events that put a cloud over her life. And the question, Are You All Right, and response, I’m Fine, takes on multiple meanings.

Sydney Faris as Haley and Sandra Baker-Renick as Dr. Lynn Cummings. Photo courtesy of James Baker, Jr at Lake Country Players.

And the arrival of Oumuamua, puts some ideas in the head of Jason Harper on breaking a story about, well who knows what. But the space rock isn’t behaving in the same way as intra-solar system comets or meteors, and there are visions of E.T.s and little green men dancing in his head. And despite claiming he is a journalist, he quickly succumbs to his editor’s request for a click bait article…and pesters Dr. Cummings, the local expert in astrophysics, for an interview until she relents in exchange for donuts. And she has a little fun with him at first but he goes away with facts and information but little that will give him that blockbuster story. So he fudges a bit and manipulates the facts a bit and achieves his goal but at great cost to Dr. Cummings. He later apologizes…but! Jason Harper as played by Todd Herdt, although not quite smarmy, certainly plays Harper as a self-interested and self-motivated amoral persona despite his protestations of ethical journalism. And Herdt certainly rings true to a very gullible Harper as Olive and Dr. Cummings play a bit of a trick on him. And when invited along to visit an observatory to view Oumuamua, he still can’t let go of the dream of alien contact instead of just accepting…it’s just a rock.

Sydney Faris plays Haley, Dr. Cummings assistant and Faris immediately presents us with a harried and almost out of control young woman. I immediately wondered how this persona became the assistant to such an accomplished and revered professor. And then the story unfolds and she is carrying a very heavy weight…loyalty to Dr. Cummings, responsibility to the doctor’s students, and responsibility to the greater university itself.

Where does so much angst come from in what would seem to be a light and whimsical play? Well it lies in the, Are You All Right, questions as we experience Dr. Cummings freeze up and zone out a bit any number of times. Most of the other characters have seen it and students have reported it to Haley and then she in turn reported it to the chancellor. And there in lies the rub. With the sensational and untrue news item running around the internet about Oumuamua with misused quotes from Dr. Cummings, the chancellor uses the story to cover his decision to put Dr. Cummings on leave for her health issues. At first you might think that she is still in mourning but we’ve been to the doctor with her…and she is in early stage dementia…a diagnosis that rocks her world. But Dr. Cummings first response is to contact Harper to try to get him to retract his story and she too uses donuts to lure him to a meeting.

side note: despite innumerable sighs and suggestions from Dr. Cummings that the why of the donuts being so good is a mystery, Harper never thinks that there might be a ‘story here’! Or am I just projecting?

And then at the observatory, The Messenger arrives. Goo, in a sudden and eerie and almost menacing entrance appears to Dr. Cummings just as Oumuamua reaches its nearest point to earth. In a bright white suit and a glaring spotlight, Goo struggles with their surroundings and a foreign language. We get lost here. Is The Messenger an alien life form or a space traveling robot or an angel from heaven or an early manifestation of Dr. Cummings impending onset of dementia. We will never quite know but Dr. Cummings seems to find her answer.

Goo as The Messenger and Sandra Baker-Renick as Dr. Lynn Cummings. Photo courtesy of James Baker, Jr at Lake Country Players.

And let’s not forget Olive Cummings as played by A. Schultz. Olive is a devoted and loving daughter not always unlike her mother. When she suggests moving home, her mother objects saying they would be tired of each other and at odds the first day. Maybe so. But Olive, as portrayed by Schultz seems a bit more comfortable with her emotions and life outside of academia and the audience immediately took a shine to her. But the two certainly share the same sense of humor as they tease Harper, and Schultz obviously relishes that bit of playfulness. And she is the one who convinces us that it is ok to get lost.

This play is heavily reliant on dialogue and minimal sets…so Director Baker and Light and Sound Tech, Breanne Brennan have pulled together their own little universe in LCP’s black box theater, with background videos of space, cosmic debris, and lawns and paths across university quads on projected backgrounds, all augmented with space music or bird/cricket sounds to put us in the proper scene and locale. It works really well.

I probably have said too much about the play and the plot, but I think that you should really see this…for Sean Grennan’s story and James Baker Jr and his cast’s story telling!

A Rock Sails By is running through May 24, 2024 at the Lake Country Playhouse in downtown Hartland WI. More information and tickets are available here.

Lake Country Players: The Clockmaker’s Daughter, An Original Musical Faerytale.

You might guess from the subtitle, An Original Musical Faerytale, that the scene isn’t our present day America. No, much of the story is an Ireland of about a century ago…although it does bookend in contemporary times but where better to hear a faerytale than the old sod?

Cory Klein as Abraham Reed. Photo courtesy of Lake Country Players and Taran Schatz Photography

So what is our faerytale? An Irish clockmaker, who lost his wife in child birth, loses his daughter as she was approaching young adulthood. In his sadness and depression he fashions a clockwork figure to take the place of his daughter in his life. And once wound up, she becomes animated and cognizant beyond his wildest dreams. But ever fearful for her well-being, he forbids her from leaving their home…but she can see the great and intriguing real world right outside their very window.

So of course, her curiosity overcomes her fealty to her ‘father’, and when he’s away she ventures out of the house into Spindlewood…where she meets the town’s people and finds many friends and many new emotions. And all goes well as no one suspects her origins until one fateful day when…everything goes awry. You will have to experience the play to get the rest of the story.

Jyrajo Petit-Walla as Constance. Photo courtesy of Lake Country Players and Taran Schatz Photography

So this IS a musical…the songs and lyrics are truly amazing. They not only move the story forward but they are just beautiful to behold in their own right…and there are a number of very challenging duets and solo pieces within the ensemble pieces that are just amazing. But despite the apparent complexity, Director Sarah Jo Martens’ cast just nails it…and kudos also to Music Director Tracy Garon for bringing these songs to the fore and making every voice a joyous celebration.

And this is a faerytale, but it goes beyond that. It is a story of community, in good and bad times, there is sadness and joy, depression and elation, love and hate, hope and curiosity, a bit of jealousy, family dynamics of different bents, and rash and irrational fears that tear a community apart.

Lexi Ellis (center) as Amelia Glynn. Photo courtesy of Lake Country Players and Taran Schatz Photography

But this is also a master class in presenting a full sized musical in a jewel box theater, something the Director Sarah Jo Martens can be particularly proud of. There are twenty two characters here…and at times they are all on stage…a seemingly small stage…my guess about 25 feet wide and 15 feet deep. And for a Clockmaker’s Daughter they had to share a corner of the stage with the raised platform for the band. And the action is constant, and I mean CONSTANT. Not only the action but the setting and resetting of the set pieces and furnishings…all cleverly designed and moved throughout the performance. The set design team is Kimberly Laberge and Adam Harrison. And again my thanks to Music Director Tracy Garon for keeping the voices on cue and on tempo…but also to Choreographer Thom Cauley for creating the ensemble dance pieces and Stage Manager Danny Polaski for keeping it all straight. I never was sure where to look as the actors were again, constantly in motion, but I never suspected a moment of hesitation in the dance or song.

Ben Ardis as Will Riley and Jyrajo Petit-Walla as Constance. Photo courtesy of Lake Country Players and Taran Schatz Photography

So, I have rambled and rambled and haven’t mentioned the actors! So let’s start with the clockmaker’s daughter, Constance, as played by Kyrajo Petit-Walla. Petit-Walla does an incredible job of portraying the initially clumsy and awkward clockwork doll and then with her growing cognition and learning, becomes a young lady of Spindlewood. Her ‘father’, the clockmaker Abraham Reed, is played by Cory Klein, who also has to portray the gamut of emotions, from grieving father, to doting father, and finally to worried parent as events transpire in Spindlewood. Ben Ardis plays the love interest for Candace, one Will Riley, a seemingly put upon son of the seamstress Ma’ Riley, with visions and hopes of a great future adult life for himself. Ma’ Rainey is something of an enigma here, a deft artisan, a stern taskmaster in her shop, and a sales lady on demand, and finally a community activist and skilled liar at the end. She is played by Danielle Katers…and oh what a voice as she has a significant song in the first act. One other stand out is Lexi Ellis who plays Amelia Kelly…soon to be Amelia Glynn in a marriage that sets the turning point in the action in the play. Ellis portrays a loving fiancee, true friend, and strong personal presence in the story.

Again, I am amazed that Lake Country Players has taken on such a demanding piece of theater…and again they have excelled in their presentation.

Photo courtesy of Lake Country Players and Taran Schatz Photography

Two Quibbles:

First, with the authors. The constant change in venue from clockmaker’s workshop, to town’s square, to dressmaker’s workshop, to brook, to mayor’s home, and o’er and back seems a disincentive to small companies interested in staging this musical. Martens and team overcame the challenge.

Second, at times the music is too loud. Particularly during some solos…the band obscures the vocals making the lyrics difficult to hear…and of course, the lyrics are critical to the story.

Here is the link to their website with more information. Unfortunately the site indicates that the show is sold out. But click through and plan on seeing their upcoming shows…from my experience, I can’t imagine that the Lake Country Players will disappoint and the drive to Hartland is worth it!

Photo courtesy of Lake Country Players and Taran Schatz Photography