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Common Ground Theatre hosts the premiere production of a brand-new entity based in Chapel Hill, Glass House Theatre Company. Their first work, an intimate play by David Ives entitled Ancient History, packs a wallop in more ways than one. From loving intimacy to fiery debacle, the play covers a lot of territory. But it is also a lesson in how to do your first production, as all the cast and crew bring together all their years of training to open with a first work that many a veteran company would be proud to present. Set, lighting, cast, and crew, and even the choice for seating are all components of a truly successful undertaking, and a jewel of a coronation for Glass House.
Deborah Winstead, the artistic director of Glass House, is herself a long-time professional in theater, taking on roles of actress, producer, director, and now management. She is no stranger to Triangle theatergoers, having appeared in every corner of the Triangle in both professional and community theater. As director of Ancient History, she hand-picked her two-member cast of Jack and Ruth, selecting Jay O’Berski and Dana Marks. These two names are more than just familiar faces; each began their careers here and then left to do even greater work elsewhere, before returning to the Triangle to continue their ever-expanding resumes. Neither are the two strangers to each other. It would be hard to be strangers in the Triangle’s closely knit theatrical community, but these Marks and O’Berski are also professional associates. Their up-and-running company is the Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern.
Together, Winstead, O’Berski, and Marks build on playwright David Ives’ work until it is amazingly real; Marks and O’Berski are as natural onstage as if their characters actually were in Ruth’s bedroom, and not sitting in the middle of 50 exceedingly close-by strangers. To watch as these two actors create and destroy a relationship is both fascinating and unnerving. Were it not for the pauses that Ives builds into the show — “other choices” signaled by a light change and a phone bell — it might be too real for us to stomach. Winstead has drawn so much reality from her cast that, without the jarring reminder that we are inside a theater, we might well mistake what we see as being real, and be unable to stop ourselves from interfering before it gets where it is clearly headed.
The obviously feminine bedroom of Ruth’s apartment is surrounded on four sides by audience. Yet, despite the limitations of space, the stage area seems to be more than adequate. Winstead’s design uses every available nook, tucking a dressing table in one corner, a telephone and easy chair in another, and a settee and bar in a third. It is clear why the bed is absolute dead-center; the couple spends more time there than anywhere else in the room. Which brings us to one very important bit of information: this play requires both players to spend a good deal of time onstage completely unclad. Were it not for the fact that these two are able to portray it so naturally, the large amount of nudity would be very difficult for audience or cast to move beyond. But since they can and do, it merely serves, as Ives intends, to reinforce how strong a bond exists between Ruth and Jack before events begin to tear them apart.
The play is both hilariously funny and deadly serious, sometimes simultaneously. The understanding of whether this work is a comedy or a drama does not come to the audience until very, very late in the play. Up until the last minute, it seems, it can go either way. And that is one of this show’s charms. Another is the amazing cast of characters that we never see but come to know quite well: Ruth’s parents and her circle of friends. Papa calls to say that they will not be attending Ruth’s birthday party tonight; Mama, in typical fashion, is “not talking” to Ruth as long as she insists on seeing “that Boy.” This couple is thirty-something! The fact that her parents can still “get to her” at this point is one of the things that the couple “discusses.”
Ancient History is an unusual title for a work so absolutely set in the here-and-now, but once the fur begins to fly, we see that it is each person’s own “ancient history” — Jack’s now-dead marriage and Ruth’s seemingly as dead religious upbringing — that present the walls these two must scale before their relationship can survive. If they cannot, it becomes clear, one of those “choices” Ives builds into this play is that these two, despite a seemingly perfect six months together, might soon be ancient history themselves.
Glass House Theatre Company presents Ancient History Thursday-Saturday, Feb. 9-11, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Feb. 12, at 2 p.m. at Common Ground Theatre Common Ground Theatre, 4815B Hillsborough Rd., Durham, North Carolina. $14 ($12 students and seniors), except $7 on half-price Thursdays. 919/357-5227. Common Ground Theatre: http://www.cgtheatre.com/events/.