We're starting to reap the benefits of the Pig Iron School for Advanced Performance Training and the University of the Arts MFA program in Devised Theatre. Bright Metal Productions, a brand-new company, created The Sabbatical as its graduate thesis last year. It’s now being co-produced with Plays & Players Theatre.
Bright Metal's taut 75-minute show echoes Pig Iron's strengths: physical, innovative staging; expressive use of music; and an understated, meaningful narrative.
Pastor John has already departed on the titular sabbatical; he left his rural flock to write a book. Young Pastor Ken (Fred Brown) and reluctant wife Ruth (Martha Stuckey) join the church, guided by John's wife Sarah (Michaela Moore). Del (Dan Higbee) is a taciturn janitor and veteran, and Jeanette (Caitlin Erin Collins), a lonely congregant who makes "Snickers salad" and plays the violin with more eagerness than skill.
Potluck dinners, potluck lives
Bright Metal uses seven wooden benches in front of a black curtain on the otherwise bare mainstage, which represent the small church's pews. They also become beds, tables, supermarket aisles, a cage, a rooftop, and more, constantly moved by the cast. Few props are used; empty plastic containers are not only dishes for the temporary pastor's welcoming potluck, but become books and babies in the actors' hands. Several performers play piano and organ, not only sharing the church hymns, but underscoring other scenes.
The play's abstractions convey real emotions. These characters are thrown together accidentally, much like their amusing potluck dinners, which Sarah teaches Ruth about by chanting their incongruous ingredients. Moments of awkward, honest humor delicately contrast with deeper issues. Verbally challenged Del manages to ask Pastor Ken, "Have you ever killed anyone?" And Ruth's unhappiness creates a gulf between her and Ken, shown in their pantomimed moments of intimacy; a brief encounter suggests that Sarah might be attracted to him.
Each character has secrets, which The Sabbatical skillfully teases out. The cast uses ritualized conversation (for example, singsong repetition of "Hello / How are you? / Oh, I'm good" that's both familiarly funny and painfully lonely), stylized movement, and aching silences that speak volumes.
Were The Sabbatical produced in the Fringe Festival, it might be a big hit; in January, I worry it will be overlooked.
The Sabbatical impresses particularly considering that its lean script was devised by the cast, as were its provocative movement and smartly chosen music. We often expect that playwright, director, and other offstage creators are required, and these positions are usually used by Pig Iron and other devising groups. Except for lighting designer Amanda Jensen's splendid contributions of delicate shadows and searing spotlights, Bright Metal shows that a tight talented ensemble can, indeed, do nearly everything.