Wonderful Town

The unforgettable world of Judevine

The theater can take you beautiful places. It can carry you to the simple elegance of Grover’s Corners or the resplendent majesty of Camelot. It can bring you to the magical land located “second star to the right, and straight on ‘till morning.” It can also transport you to a small town in Vermont called Judevine. That dirty community can offer no images of classic Americana, nor can it provide grand castles or fairy-filled foliage. Yet Judevine is every bit as beautiful as those other locales in the theatrical tradition.

What lends Judevine its attractiveness are the people who work hard for their “two-and-a-quarter an hour” then sit down to break bread at Jerry’s, the local cheap food joint attached to the gas station. Their lives, remarkable for their modest strength in the face of lower middle-class adversity, are exposed in the sort of richly layered detail that is rare on stage.

The power of the story telling owes much to the gift for language displayed by the show’s author, poet David Budbill. Budbill’s dramatic voice, expressed through short poems alternating with longer narrative vignettes, seems more reminiscent of the theatrical poetry of David Mamet than Shakespeare. Budbill writes in rhythms that at once feel authentic to their setting yet almost too perfect to escape human lips. The result is a transcendent form of articulation that often rings truer than life.

It is difficult to imagine that Budbill could find a more skillful interpreter of his material than director Joy B. Fairfield ’03. She establishes a sense of community, reinforced by an inventive physical staging that brings her actors together as living machinery and, at one point, as a massive human tunnel.

Perhaps Fairfield’s greatest accomplishment, however, is her casting of Austin S. Guest ’03-’05 as the show’s understated narrator, David. Guest possesses an extraordinary quality of worn innocence that allows him to take childlike pleasure in the stories he tells, while maintaining the gravitas to guide the audience through them. It is a performance of overwhelming humanity.

To understand the brilliant depth of Guest’s performance, one only needs to watch his face as he observes the Lucy of Beatrice E. Kitzinger ’03. Having lost her family in the war, she speaks only to strangers, obliviously repeating sad invitation. Kitzinger, turning in a fine performance of her own, communicates to a familiar face only after her delusions are spelled out for her; she comments, “We get some pretty crazy people in here, eh?” Throughout the skillfully staged sequence, it is difficult to pay attention to anyone but Guest: to watch him is to understand empathy.

Strong characterizations bless the rest of the production, which contains an abundance of memorable moments.

An obvious standout is the Antoine of Clint J. Froehlich ’05, a vulgar Frenchman, who describes himself as “the white nigger of the north” and spouts out sage advice like “women’s is good for the pecker and the soul.” If Froehlich launches himself a bit too far over-the-top, he plays Antoine with genuine warmth that communicates a fundamental respect for the character.

The same is true for the rest of the cast, with the glaring exception of Sarah M. Wheeler ’03, whose Edith relies more on mannerism than acting. Yet despite this asynchronous performance, the townspeople of Judevine are rendered sharply by Budbill and brought lovingly to life by actors who savor the dialogue and genuinely seem to care for one another.

Judevine is a play about the forgotten that succeeds in making you pay attention to them by never demanding that you do so. Eschewing didactic preaching and manipulative trickery, it just tells their stories. A more self-conscious and sermonizing play could not elicit the sort of warm glow that Judevine does when in the final scene Antonine asks, “What we do widdout each other?”

As the play approaches its conclusion, there is a real sense of loss at the thought of leaving Judevine. It’s comforting to know, though, that it endures as beautiful as it ever was—a notion succinctly expressed in the play’s final passage.

“Disheveled, wretched Judevine is beautiful in the night. It is beautiful because a couple hundred souls have given up their fear and worry and for a moment now, know only the oblivion of sleep. And the town lies quiet in their ease.”