From Feb. 13 through Feb. 29, Theater in the Park will present the world premiere of The Rocker, a new play written by Triangle playwright Adrienne Earle Pender and directed by her husband, actor/director D. Anthony Pender. The Rocker is a modern retelling of William Shakespeare's 17th-century tragedy King Lear, complete with a prideful and foolish patriarch, two flattering (but insincere and treacherous) older daughters, and a third daughter who is disinherited and banished for speaking the truth.
"This is a much more modernized 'take' on The Rocker," says Tony Pender, "more inspired by King Lear that a direct recreation of it. For example, there's no Fool; there's no Gloucester. The whole brother subplot [the bastard Edmond scheming against the legitimate Edgar] isn't there. It's a modern family rather than a historical royal lineage."
How did came Pender come to direct the world premiere of The Rocker? "It was [TIP executive and artistic director] David Wood's idea to begin with. He's trusted me a lot over the last couple of years, both in Richard III and in The Tempest." (Pender played the villainous title role in the Shakespeare history and the revenge-minded magician Prospero in the latter play.)
According to Tony Pender, David Wood said, "Tony, with the experience that you've got — and knowing the playwright so well — you might have the best shot in getting the values that she wants." Pender chuckles. "One of the things we've run into in the rehearsal process," he says, "is Adrienne's writing is very compact and there are many layers to it. Since I know her so well, I've been able to focus on bringing some of those layers out.
"In the initial production of any new work," Tony Pender explains. "there's a lot of time involved in the director and the cast and the producing company getting a full picture of the playwright's intent. In other productions in which I have worked with playwrights, the focus has been getting things technically perfect, having the actors memorize each word — every 'a,' every 'an,' every 'the.' With me directing this one, we've kept that focus on getting the words right. At the same time, we have made sure that the intent behind those words had just as much importance."
TIP publicist Dolly Sickles writes, "[Playwright] Adrienne Earle Pender is a former actress who began her writing career in 2001. Her first play, The Rocker, was produced by StageWrite! Developmental Theatre in Raleigh in 2002. The Rocker was a finalist in the FutureFest 2002 Festival of New Works in Dayton, Ohio, and received an Honorable Mention in the 71st Annual Writer's Digest Writers Competition, Stage Play category.... Her play Stone Face was a Reader's Theater selection at the 2003 National Black Theater Festival. She has completed one other full-length play, a one-act, several 10-minute plays, and currently has two full-length plays in development."
When asked what he likes best about The Rocker, and what made him want to direct it, Pender did not hesitate: "the characters and the passion," he says. "The characters are living, breathing characters. It's rare that you get this depth of character from a new playwright. Usually, the director and the actors have to assist them in rounding out or fleshing out a character. That was completely unnecessary with this script."
Pender adds, "Because I know [the playwright], I know the emotion that went into the language that her characters use, and I kind of knew that if, in the initial production, if that was going to come out, it would take somebody who could either work with her super closely or somebody who knew her as well as I did.
"The first run at this script," he confesses, "there's a tendency to get caught up with the words that her characters use, to get caught up in the language, because she puts into words a compilation of what any member of any family anywhere could say. That's pretty daunting. It required the actors to come in with as much emotion as any family anywhere goes through."
Pender claims, "This play is pretty universal, not just the story but the actions that the characters take. One out of every three people that have seen or heard about this piece have told Adrienne and myself both about their family circumstances. As a matter of fact, [one cast member's mom] said she couldn't bring her grandparents because they were going through this exact situation, and it's just too close."
Tony Pender says, "The play's basic premise is, Owen Miller (John T. Hall) has found out that he has a terminal disease, and his doctors have given him a year to live. [The widowed patriarch of the Miller family] gathers his three daughters — Ginny Blake (Donna Youngblood), Rachel Morton (Jennifer Joyner), and Delia Miller (Mariette Booth) — together to settle his affairs."
Owen Miller plans to divide his estate based on two things: (1) his daughters' responses to his question about what kind of father he was and (2) their agreement, in advance, not to make him spend his final days in a hospital or a nursing home.
The Rocker deals with universal questions, claims director Anthony Pender: How do we deal with a temperamental aging parent whose health is rapidly deteriorating? And what effects will the time and energy spent caring for this elderly relative have on our own families?
Pender says, "Owen Miller was a single father and raised his three girls all by himself. His wife died in an accident when the girls were very young. Now his daughter Ginny is raising her own family and her daughter, Kate (Olivia Sosnowski), is profoundly deaf."
And so is the actress playing Kate, Pender says. "It took me a while to find her," he says, "but it was worth the wait."
Pender says, "I could not have asked for a better cast. Olivia Sosnowski has never been on stage before, Donna Youngblood is returning to the stage after a hiatus to raise children, and John Hall is a Triangle theater legend and I can see why. There's a scene with him and his youngest daughter in the hospital. A week ago, when we were tweaking it, we had to stop because he kept choking up.
"My stage manager tells me that it's the first time that she's dealt with a cast that she had to throw out of rehearsal," notes Pender. "That kind of commitment is a rare thing. There's been a couple of times during rehearsals that they've said, 'Can we keep working for a little while?' when it's 9:30 or 10 on a weeknight."
Staging the "world premiere" of a new play presents considerable creative challenges to director Tony Pender and his production staff, which includes set and lighting designer Stephen J. Larson and his wife, costume designer Shawn Stewart-Larson, and sound designer Jim Thomas and sign-language instructor Libby Snyder.
"In a way, Pender says, "it's easier in that there are no rock-solid definitions. With a classical piece of theater or with a standard well-known work, there are specific values that familiarity dictates. With a new piece, there's rampant freedom."
But Pender says, the flip side is: "You have to make decisions." And so he has.
Pender says, "We've set the play in Alexandria, Virginia, in the present. It takes place over seven months from June to January. It's a one-set show and [the set is] the home of Owen's oldest daughter, Ginny, and her husband, Al (Jason Weeks), and their daughter, Kate. Since it's in Alexandria, it's upper-middle-class. But it could be set anywhere in an upscale suburb."
He adds, "The biggest change we have with the lighting is to denote the change of season. It's a subtle thing, but it's there. At the top of Act II, there's a monologue that Owen has to do outside of time and space — where he talks to his wife and he talks about [her fatal] accident — and Steve Larson has lit it beautifully."
Pender says, "I think Shawn Stewart-Larson has fallen in love with the characters as much as I have. She came to me before the first rehearsal with costumes and told me that she thought she had the 'voice' for each character. For Shawn, the voice of each character means the way they express themselves through what they wear.
"Since this is a new show," Pender says, "Shawn had the actors bring in clothing of their own that they thought went with the character that they were developing, and she took that and RAN with it. When I saw it, I think I added one necklace and boutonnière for the two husbands: Ginny's husband, Al, and Rachel's husband, Patrick (Jeff Nugent)."
Tony Pender says, "The Rocker is appropriate for any age [of theatergoer]. There's no language in it, which freaks me out, especially as hard as these guys are fighting.... Bring a Kleenex and somebody that you care about.
"When it was read and done as a workshop production in Dayton, Ohio, the entire audience was just bawling," Pender says, "including the adjudicators. If you're part of the generation that's getting ready to take care of the aging Baby Boomer generation, this play is a big deal. It is one of the first — if not the first — works to address that."
Theater in the Park presents The Rocker Friday-Saturday, Feb. 13-14, at 8 p.m.; Thursday-Saturday, Feb. 19-21 and Feb. 26-28, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Feb 22 and 29, at 00 p.m. on TIP's Main Stage, 107 Pullen Rd., Raleigh, North Carolina. $18 ($12 students, seniors, and military personnel). 919/831-6058. http://theatreinthepark.com/2003_2004_season/the_rocker/page_the_rocker.html [inactive 3/04] .