Insulation Versus Isolation: U-M's production of “Arbor Falls” holds a mirror to society's divisions


Arbor Falls promotional poster detail.

Arbor Falls promotional poster detail.

Caridad Svich’s play Arbor Falls is set in a small, landlocked, tree-lined town of that name. We know little about the town, save that it is near another place where something terrible happened, and the people of Arbor Falls want to feel safe. We know, too, that it is home to a church with a dwindling congregation and a preacher unsure of his faith. 

In one scene, the preacher says they don’t think about what to say in their sermon but what to leave out. In this play, much is left out, too. Only one character is named other than by title (Preacher, Lover, Owner), and none have specific genders; pronouns are gender neutral. The dialogue—short lyrical lines, lacking in detail—also leaves a lot for the actors and director to imagine. 

Into Arbor Falls comes a stranger, a traveler nobody knows, who makes “odd” sounds when praying. Preacher offers them safe harbor and food. But who is this stranger? Can they be accepted here? 

“I’ve been really excited about the way the cast and production team have embraced the project,” says Tiffany Trent, chair of the University of Michigan’s Department of Theatre and Drama and director of Arbor Falls, which makes Michigan premiere on February 15 at Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre.

For Trent, a major theme is insulation versus isolation.

"Where have people chosen to insulate and where have they been abandoned and isolated?" she says. "And how do those two circumstances clash when some exist in a place because they chose to move there while others are left behind there? And how does that build community or not build community?

“I have felt that we are a faith-based nation when it seems convenient and we’re not when it seems inconvenient. That’s something we’re wrestling with as a country,” says Trent, who comes with a wide and useful background for this project, having earned a BA in politics, economics, rhetoric, and law from the University of Chicago, an MFA in directing from Carnegie Mellon, an M.Div. from Chicago Theological Seminary, and a Ph.D. in theatre for youth at Arizona State University. 

“One of the things I really appreciate about this play is that it presents us with a mirror of our current culture," Trent says:

The playwright writes characters that anyone can step into. That’s a significant attraction to me. You can rotate different identities, and we can push ourselves to look at ourselves in new ways. The play is an invitation to see different bodies in different embodiments making different types of claims. They are all right. For many of us, no matter who our ancestors were or where they came from, they contributed at some point. Events in the play are asking us to interrogate how we privilege certain practices, and whether there is a core tenet of community and care and spirit that we can hold on to.

Arbor Falls rehearsal photo by assistant director Kate Ivanov.

Arbor Falls rehearsal. Photo by assistant director Kate Ivanov.

Trent says the play raises questions:

What should the town’s hospitality toward the stranger be? Who do you prioritize with your service, the people close to you or [something more inclusive]? When we’re asked to give, how much is too much? We get to witness the stranger’s prayer practices, and those practices don’t have the order the churchgoers think should be maintained….What does prayer look like? Does it have to look a certain way, and does it have to happen in certain places? The playwright is trying not to name any particular religion, though it definitely has a Christian undercurrent.

Trent selected music from the Unitarian Universalist's songbook, which she explains is inclusive. She also did visual research on the religious movement's website. “What stuck with me is that part of having faith is an investment in nature,” Trent says, which resonated with the playwright’s ecological concerns.

The director says the scenic design by architecture student Sophia Chen blends beauty in a church space with simplicity. “The church sort of has these echoes of history built into it," Trent says, "[and] nature is also part of the environment.” So, the church pulpit, a platform, and a café are anchored with stones.

Marium Asghar (left) and Sophia Severance (right) work on the rock fountain created by architecture student and Arbor Falls scene designer Sophia Chen. Photo courtesy of UMSMTD.

Marium Asghar (left) and Sophia Severance (right) work on the rock fountain created by architecture student and Arbor Falls scene designer Sophia Chen. Photo courtesy of UMSMTD.

“This is a dry climate, in the Western plains or Southwest,” Trent says, adding that the scenic design includes a spigot coming out of a stone where people can fetch water. Climate change and access to water are concerns, and the spigot is a gathering place, where for instance, townsfolk can gossip about a stranger. 

Costume designer Sarah M. Oliver, new to the U-M faculty, has designed and built costumes throughout the world. Her work has taken her to Asia, where she discovered wabi-sabi, a Japanese view that beauty has imperfections. “All the characters come with a past, and that past is imperfect,” Oliver says. 

She says she wanted to bring this “loose and wonderfully deep aesthetic” to the world of America. An expert in textiles, Oliver thought about what fabric is truly American and concluded it is denim. Jeans. “That one garment is truly culturally our own," she says.

Since the characters were pieced together from parts of their pasts, their outfits were pieced together, too—often, but not always, in denim.

 Costume designer Sarah M. Oliver's artwork for the Preacher outfit.

Costume designer Sarah M. Oliver's artwork for Preacher's outfit.

For Preacher, Oliver used a classic silhouette: a clerical robe. Since she didn’t want it to be identified with a specific religion, she used a trench coat with clean lines, made out of stitched and pieced denim. 

The idea of sustainability runs through the costumes, too. Natural fibers speak to connectivity. Clothing is layered and nonbinary, with pockets and patches throughout. “Everyone has a history they come with, reflected in layered looks,” Oliver says. A muted palette, with soft pale peaches, blues, and greys affords enough color to make people want to live in the town but not so much to make them forget “they live in a land-locked town of dust and dying grass," she says.

Costumes were enlisted at a significant moment in the play. “Tiffany and I knew we wanted it to be [expressed through] old school theater magic, with clothing and devices we’ve always had at hand,” says Oliver. “We didn’t want it to be modern technology.”

The design team also includes William Webster, lights; Henry Reynolds, sound; Brittany Crinson, hair and makeup. Jeremy Sortore served as voice coach, Shavonne Coleman as dramaturg, Tyler Driskill as music director, and Charlotte Stallings as stage manager. The cast is MacKenzie Holley, Bella Detwiler, Tessie Morales, Nathan Goldberg, Zack Gergel, Hannah Long, Sophia Karaz, Sophia Santos Ufkes, Schnade Saintil, and Mary-Kate Sunshine Mahaney.

Davi Napoleon, a theater historian and freelance writer, holds a BA and MA from the University of Michigan and a Ph.D. from New York University. Her book is Chelsea on the Edge: The Adventures of an American Theatre.

"Arbor Falls" runs from February 15-18, Thursday at 7:30 pm, Friday and Saturday at 8 pm, and Sunday at 2 pm. Performances are in Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre in the Michigan League, 911 North University Avenue, Ann Arbor. Seating is reserved and costs $30/$24; $13 for students with ID. Visit or call 734-764-2538 for tickets and more info.