Summerland Project Promises to be Visually and Emotionally Stunning

by Matthew Falduto

Tap, tap, tap, tap. …Think…Think… Tap, tap, tap, tap.

So goes the life of a playwright, typing their stories word by word, idea by idea. Our area boasts a lot of playwrights. Some study in theatre departments, some join together as a playwriting group, some write for a specific theatre in town. All of them dream of having their work produced, sharing their creative endeavors with audiences.

And there are opportunities in our area to present work. Playwriting students have showcases, local theatres have contests and original work play festivals, and if you’re one of the lucky writers for SPT Theatre in Cedar Rapids, you get to see your work performed every month. But all writers dream of seeing their work on the big stage, with an elaborate set design and a thoughtful light design. Audiences in the thousands, not hundreds or less. For one local writer, that dream is coming true.

Rob Merritt’s play The Summerland Project will be presented by Theatre Cedar Rapids on their mainstage beginning January 11. Originally presented in 2011 as part of the TCR Underground New Play Festival, artistic director Leslie Charipar was so moved by the show and saw such potential for it, that she advocated for its inclusion in the mainstage 2012-13 season. The show tells the story of Amelia and Carter, a young couple very much in love. An aneurysm causes Amelia to suffer locked in syndrome, a condition in which a patient is aware and awake but cannot move or communicate due to complete paralysis. There is no hope for Amelia, and only anguish for Carter, who suffers a vigil at her bedside for two years. Finally, Carter, desperate to have her back, allows her mind to be copied and put into a cybernetic body, one that is so close to human, it is difficult to tell that she is a machine. As Carter gets to know this new Amelia, he struggles to accept her. And Amelia struggles as well, trying to determine who and what she is.

The play delves into one central question: What makes us human? Is it our memories? Our body? Our feelings? Amelia is a machine, but does she become as ‘real’ as the original Amelia? In talking with the cast, it became clear that these questions were central to their process.

Angela Bilman, who portrays Amelia, said “[Amelia’s] laughing, she’s dreaming, she’s flirting. Sure, she’s still made of those metal parts, but she’s doing all that a human would do.” For Christopher Cole, who plays Carter, it felt like the answer to the question changed every day during the rehearsal process. “One day it’s feeling like ‘everything mechanical’, and then for example, when we did the final scene, it was so organic, it was hard for me to see her as a robot.” Jon Day, who plays Senator Williams, said, “I was raised in a Christian family and you think it’d be cut and dry, but the lines start to get blurred the longer we go with technology and I’ve struggled with it.” In talking with Bilman, she is less torn about the question. “Amelia has a line in the show, where she says, ‘The true meaning of being human is having the power to love,’” said Bilman. “And what drives her throughout the entire show is to be reunited with Carter and feel that love again.”

Any show dealing with the question of our humanity is going to touch on the realm of religion. Merritt offers opposing religious points of view through the characters of Senator Thaddeus Williams, a fundamentalist Christian, and Dr. Ellen Beckett, the atheist scientist who makes it possible to create Amelia. Williams’ point of view is that people have souls, you go to Heaven when you die, and so copying a person in this way is just fundamentally wrong. Beckett feels that the time we have here on Earth is all we have and if we want to prolong our lives, we need this project, because it is the only way to be reunited with someone you’ve lost. That conflict drives much of the action of the play, with Carter and Amelia caught between these opposing forces. Merritt noted, “The thing that I was really happy about was I heard this from several people… at the end of the play, they could not tell how I felt about it. They felt both sides were put out there and I didn’t show favoritism to one or the other.” When pressed for his take on the central question of the show, Merritt would only say that every character expresses a point of view that at some point in his life he has thought.

One actor from the original production returns for the new production. Matthew James played Carter in the festival production, which was directed by Merritt. In fact, Merritt credits James with helping to create one of Carter’s early monologues in the show through improvisation. But this time, James is playing Max, the cybernetics expert, who is sort of the comic relief for the show. The two characters have very different takes on the creation of Amelia. “It’s been fascinating to see Amelia through different eyes,” said James. Working with a new director has been extremely rewarding as well. “Leslie has brought a different energy and is taking the play to a place that sometimes writers can’t take their own work to because they’re so attached to it.” For instance, said James, the character of Max is brasher and a “more trendy nerd” in this version of the show.

The rehearsal process included one participant who is not often present – the writer. Merritt attended nearly every rehearsal, and served as a resource for the director and actors. He made a point of not volunteering insight, but only responding to direct questions from the cast and director. “I asked Leslie at the very start, what’s easier for you, do you want me there to offer input about the script or would it be easier if I stayed far away until opening night?” said Merritt. Charipar made it clear to Merritt that one of the things that appealed to her was that usually TCR doesn’t have access to the playwright and this was a unique opportunity to have the writer involved.

For Cole, having the writer in rehearsal room was a little nerve wracking in the beginning, but in last few weeks of rehearsal he has found it be extremely helpful and a great collaborative opportunity. “We actually added a line. It came from an idea I had after Leslie asked me what happened before I came onstage for an early scene,” said Cole. “The fact that he would be open to that… I really respected that.” At its best, theatre is a wonderfully collaborative artistic experience and clearly The Summerland Project cast and crew are embracing that. Merritt noted that, too, saying, “I learned that there is a lot of reward to letting go and stepping back. What winds up happening more often than not is it goes to a place that I never would have thought of and that’s really cool.”

One of the reasons TCR wanted to put this show on the mainstage was the opportunity to create a more elaborate set design. While the stark black and white set with ramps and platforms is relatively simple, it is visually stunning. In addition, the two massive screens onto which many of the characters will be projected will make this show a visual experience unlike anything seen on the Theatre Cedar Rapids stage. James said, “They’re talking about projecting some of Amelia’s thoughts on the screens so the audience can be tuned into that and see how her brain is functioning.” Merritt mentioned that we might see the internet searches Amelia does projected on the screens. All of this is still in the works, so we’ll have to wait until opening night to see what final decisions have been made. “We’re going to overload with the audio/visual stuff and I’m looking forward to seeing how the audience reacts to that,” said Cole.

It’s exciting to think about the possible visual overload, but in the end The Summerland Project is a love story. That was the common thread all of the actors returned to as I talked to them. Love binds us together and makes us human. Does Amelia feel that love? Is she human? You will have to decide for yourself. This may have started as one playwright’s dream, but it’s become so much more. Merritt said, “I have come to realize that The Summerland Project is much, much bigger than anything I could have done myself thanks to some amazing people who have worked on it and have brought their own vision to it.” And that’s what good, collaborative theatre is all about. The Summerland Project is a play that may find an audience beyond Iowa’s borders. This is a can’t miss show and someday you may be telling your friends you saw the world premiere. The show opens Friday. Get your tickets now.

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