Theatre Nova’s "Stone Witch" meditates on elusive creativity
Theatre Nova continues a season of World and Michigan premieres with the first Michigan staging of Shem Bitterman’s meditation on creativity, ambition, and aging, The Stone Witch.
The title refers to a children’s book by a young but struggling children’s book author and illustrator. Peter Chandler has the talent but is unable to sell himself or his cherished first book, based on an old folktale told by his mother.
An editor at a prestige publisher offers Chandler a deal. They’ll consider his book if he can help them encourage their famous star children’s book writer and illustrator to finally break through and end a 12-year-long creative block.
The Great Man, Simon Grindberg (think Maurice Sendak), is hidden away in his quaint studio-cabin. He’s seething with resentment. He’s afraid to risk his enormous reputation by testing the market one more time. For a children’s book author-artist, he’s no loveable teddy bear. He hates his “fans” and rages against the compromises of the commercial book world. But behind all his rage and eccentricity, he feels his talent slipping away, along with his grasp on the world and seems to be in the early stages of dementia.
Chandler is one of those detested fans, so in love with Grindberg’s books that he is a bit unsure of his own talent. Grindberg moves from being irritated at his designated helper to becoming an odd mentor in a relationship that moves both men to find that creative spark.
Bitterman’s play is interesting but a bit sprawling for a 90-minute one-act. The pains of World War II and the Holocaust (when Grindberg was a child and relatives were concentration camp victims or survivors), the rise and promotion of brand name authors, the limits of ambition, the depredations of growing old, and much more come in for discussion. In keeping with the Halloween season, scary fairy-tale visions haunt the old man whose wild images have terrified and delighted his fans.
But the play’s strength is the growing understanding between two men on opposite ends of their shared career.
Theatre Nova director Nancy Kammer and her cast find that emotional core and the sometimes bizarre humor just below the Great Man’s rage and the young man’s uncertainty.
Dennis Kleinsmith as Grindberg moves slowly from snide and dismissive master to raging and confused old man. Kleinsmith is both funny and frightening. He makes Bitterman’s sometimes too philosophical artist painfully real in those quiet moments when it begins to dawn on him that his student has become his better.
Ethan Kankula’s Peter Chandler begins with an aw-shucks deference to the book editor and to Grindberg but develops his self-confidence and ease over the course of the play. Kankula makes this transition believable and he projects just the right note of quiet decency to offset his mentor’s taunts.
The tie that binds these two artists is the HarperCollins editor Clair. Diane Hill plays the New York editor with a bit of dismissive haughtiness when she first hires Peter. But Clair is not only a New York City snob but also a nurturing editor who cares about her superstar artist and Hill delivers on that warmth and intelligence that good editors bring to their sometimes frustrating work.
Kammer concentrates on the emotional bonds, but she also manages to make a series of rear screen projections, with superb art by Harper Wildern, just spooky enough to draw an “ooh” without overpowering the play.
The set of the cabin studio designed by Forrest Hejkal has a comfortable, lived in look with just enough details to make it seem real. The rear screen usually shows a wooded area before giving way to magic.
The Stone Witch is a different kind of Halloween story. It ponders some deep questions but with a sense of humor as well as rage. And, of course, what would Halloween be without a scary monster, a raging storm, a darkening forest, and melting honey trees.
Hugh Gallagher has written theater and film reviews over a 40-year newspaper career and was most recently managing editor of the Observer & Eccentric Newspapers in suburban Detroit.
"The Stone Witch" continues at Theatre Nova, 410 W. Huron, Ann Arbor at 8 pm on Thursdays-Saturdays and 2 pm on Sundays through Nov. 11. For tickets, call 734-635-8450 or visit theatrenova.org.