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All My Sons earns a ticket to ACTF

By Sally Jongsma

It was realism in a time when edgy modern shows have garnered most of the attention in academic theatre. It was a small college production among large university shows. But it was a feather in the cap of the Dordt College theatre arts department, and the excitement will not be forgotten for some time for those involved.

All My Sons, the fall main stage show of the Dordt College theater arts department, is only the second Dordt College production to be invited to the regional Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival (ACTF) competition and the first to be “held” for consideration for a national performance.

All My Sons, written by Arthur Miller, played to appreciative audiences over Parents’ Weekend on campus last fall, and it did so again in January at the regional ACTF in Denver. Out of 204 shows performed in the region, fifty-four were entered into the annual competition from Region 5. In December adjudicators narrowed the field to seven after attending campus performances like the one on Parents’ Weekend. From Region 5, three of the seven plays were “held” for consideration as one of the four to six shows nation-wide to be performed at the Kennedy Center in mid –April.

“It felt like a blessing—like we’d worked hard, done our best, and then it was out of our hands. And God blessed our work,” says Director Jeri Schelhaas, thinking about the final performance in Denver. “The audience saw a good show,” she says. She credits many for the honor. Her students worked hard, capitalized on their previous stage experience, and used what they’d learned in their theater courses. A fabulous set, designed by Professor Simon duToit (currently on Ph.D. leave) and built by technical director Jim Van Ry and his crew of students, helped draw the audience into the play. The college’s commitment to and funding for a broad-based curriculum that sees the value of theater made the whole enterprise possible. And the script moved people to tears.

“[The play] is powerful, captivating, purposeful, and historical,” says actor Laurel Alons, a sophomore from Sanborn, Iowa. The plot is thick and exciting; it moves along with strength. The characters are realistic, full, and always presenting new challenges for the actors.”

“It’s a play that has such significant implications for our life today, in spite of the fact that it was written fifty years ago. Arthur Miller provides you with characters that are deeply emotional and real,” says Liz McPherson, a senior from Lincoln, Nebraska, who played the central role of Kate, the mother in the story.

Schelhaas, who has taught in the theater arts department for the last ten years, worked hard to help the actors develop characters that would come alive on stage but that also would stretch and develop their acting ability.

“There were at least three talented majors who I felt needed to play different roles than they had typically played,” she says. “I asked if I cast them whether they would be willing to work with me in very different roles than they were used to.” Ethan Koerner, a junior from Calhan, Colorado, had to be tender instead of a tough guy; Rachel Persenaire, a senior from Escalon, California, had to play a sweet All-American girl instead of a sassy spitfire; Jonathan Horlings, a junior from Bradford, Ontario, had to let go of his adept physical humor to play a straight-laced character.

“They’re all feeling mighty fine about their work now,” she says with a smile. Schelhaas received a card from one cast member, who said, “Thanks for taking me down paths I didn’t think I could go.”

McPherson says, “I have been so challenged and stretched in my approach to acting in this play. We were forced to dig deep into ourselves and find characters that had a history with one another, that had real relationships with one another, and that cared deeply for what was happening in the Keller family. As a result, we all care deeply and sincerely for each other.”

“The play challenged a lot of ideals I hold dear about responsibility and that I hope many concerned Christians hold,” says Dan Oldenkamp, a senior from Sanborn who played Joe Keller, the father. As the cast wrestled with implications of the story, they became a unit, better able to play off each other, Oldenkamp says. The cast’s camaraderie grew during their second run of the play in Denver.

“I think the time away from the script allowed us to grow all the more into our roles,” Oldenkamp.

Since the ACTF conference was held the week of January 18, cast members had less than a week after returning to campus from semester break before leaving for Denver. Rehearsals had to be done without the set, which had been modified by Van Ry because it was too big for the stage in Denver.

“We had to cut the garage and make do with several feet less on each side of the stage, so they had to get used to different blocking,” says Schelhaas.

By Friday, January 16, three days after returning to campus, a semi trailer on loan from Diamond Vogel Paints in Orange City was loaded with the set, ready to be pulled to Denver by the Justice for All (from Rock Valley) tractor driven by its director, Rev. Dan De Groot. That weekend students boarded a chartered bus together with students from Northwestern College in Orange City, who were also attending the annual event.

All My Sons, scheduled for performances on Wednesday afternoon and evening, was the focal point of the week for Dordt College students and faculty. But much more goes on at ACTF. Workshops on a wide range of theater-related topics run through out the week. Students and professors find it an invaluable learning opportunity. The Irene Ryan acting competition is always a highlight, and, throughout the week, main stage shows are performed, as well as one-acts and scenes invited as showcase pieces.

Six Dordt College students performed scenes they had rehearsed for Irene Ryan on Monday, but by the time the set arrived at 4:00 p.m. on Tuesday, their focus was only on All My Sons until the performance was over. The cast, who had to wait until 6:00 p.m. to get into the theater, had to rebuild the set in the available space by 1:00 a.m.

“The Northwestern students and tech director were absolutely wonderful,” says Schelhaas. They pitched in and stayed until the end. Professor April Hubbard wielded a hammer, costumer Sue Blom ironed costumes. Even Alumni Director Judy Hagey, who came out for the event, and Physics Professor Arnold Sikkema were put to work. Sikkema had driven his young son, William, a member of the cast, and a van load of plants and food needed for the performance to Denver on Tuesday.

After a tech rehearsal at 9 a.m. on Wednesday and a shortened rehearsal in the unfamiliar space at 11, the curtain opened at 3.

The play got off to a good start but the different stage, an up-close audience, and a slight lighting problem may have affected them, says Schelhaas. The performance began to drag.

“I couldn’t sit and watch,” says Schelhaas. She walked outside, went up to the light booth, paced. “I wanted it to be as good as they had done it before.”

And then it was good in acts two and three. The performance earned a standing ovation, which Schelhaas says isn’t uncommon, but thrilling nevertheless. They had fun in the evening performance, letting themselves go, knowing it might well be the last time they ever performed a show they had all come to love.

The performance ended at 10:30 p.m., and the set had to be out of the theater and on the truck by midnight so the next show could begin setting up. “It was an extremely fun take-down,” says Oldenkamp. And the Northwestern crew they had come to enjoy and appreciate so much during the week worked right beside them.