March 11 – April 5, 2009
From March 11 through April 5, 2009, Theatrical Outfit in downtown Atlanta presents the exuberant, old-time gospel musical Tent Meeting by Canadian playwrights Morris Ertman and Ron Reed. Tom Key directs a stellar Atlanta cast that includes Andrew Houchins (Pastor Ernest Douglas/Ben Reimer), Shayne Kohout (Dolly Hoveland), Daniel May (George Hoveland/Bob Lefsrud), Glenn Rainey (Sam Lundquist/Angus McPhee), and Geoff “Googie” Uterhardt (Rev. Elroy Phillips). Ann-Carol Pence is musical director.
The setting is the 1930s West Canadian prairie, an agrarian community hard hit by the Great Depression and a severe draught. Embattled and embittered farmer, George Hoveland, sits in his empty silo, smoking and nursing old wounds that threaten his estranged marriage to Dolly, a once vital woman who now seeks solace in her piano-playing and incessant church-going. The couple is stunned one day by the unexpected appearance on their doorstep of a traveling revival group of musicians whose truck has broken down. The itinerant leader, Pastor Ernest Douglas, is a friend of the Hovelands from days gone by, when the three of them, along with Sam Lundquist, the good-natured owner of the local pool hall/drinking emporium, sang together in a similar gospel troupe.
Pastor Douglas, whose call to the ministry tellingly coincided with George and Dolly’s decision to marry, recruits the Hovelands and Sam to assist in the pitching of the “canvas tabernacle” in a nearby field. As the day unfolds, so too, do inner conflicts, regrets and longings among the characters, and through their gradual immersion in the uplifting music and contagious spirit of communal vulnerability, they undergo deep interpersonal transitions that lead to profound transformations. In one of the play’s most tender moments, the person to make the strongest spiritual impact is the resident preacher, Rev. Phillips, an unassuming, under-confident young man whose genuine concern for the congregation overrides his haunting doubts about his own ministerial abilities.
The story is sweet, poignant and comical, similar in style to a Horton Foote play. In a special note in the script, the playwrights remark that Tent Meeting is “an affectionate nostalgic tribute”…one that focuses on…”the humanity of the people, and, above all, the spirit of the music itself.”
Indeed, both Ertman and Reed drew on the traveling tent meetings of their youth and the time-tested, time-honored hymns and gospels, often sung a capella in barbershop quartet-style harmonies. The musical selections, which gloriously range from Up Above My Head to Balm in Gilead to O Happy Day to Walk in Jerusalem Just like John, are integrated into the action of the story. And though the play is set in Canada, the hymns and situations are familiar terrain in the Bible-Belt American South.
Morris Ertman explains, “The strength of Tent Meeting lies in the genuine tensions of small-town relationships—like strained marriages and broken friendships…in my day, most small communities were split between the church and the pool hall”…(but)…”the truth in this play is not just meted out by ministers, it’s meted out by the owner of the pool hall, and it’s my belief that God works that way.”
And even though Tent Meeting is about forgiveness and the revival of faith, it easily accommodates the presence of non-belief and welcomes the meeting of the sacred and the secular on common ground. Ertman continues, “It doesn’t make you feel guilty if you are a non-believer…this play deals honestly with unbelief, and it allows people to be in a place of unbelief if that’s where they want to live.”
Tent Meeting also benefits from the subtle, cleverly economical use of props, sound effects and even actors in double roles, which makes for inspired staging.
Theatrical Outfit’s production is a professional theater U.S. premiere, about which Artistic Director Tom Key remarks, “We are so pleased to be introducing Tent Meeting to American audiences. The narrative of the play is so touchingly human, and to have Ann-Carol Pence providing musical direction to such a powerhouse cast—actors who have a phenomenal combination of acting and vocal skills--it's just a director's dream come true. I believe our audiences will find Tent Meeting revelatory."
In Canada, Tent Meeting received four Dora Award nominations, including Best New Musical, a Jesse Award nomination for Best Musical, and a Sterling Award nomination for Best Musical. For quotes from Canadian reviews and more information about the production, please visit www.theatricaloutfit.org.
Tickets are $30. Preview performances are Wed., March 11 – Fri., March 13 at 7:30 pm, and opening night is Sat., March 14 at 7:30 pm. Performance times are Weds. through Sats. at 7:30 pm and Sundays at 2:30 pm; Saturday matinees are March 21 & April 4 at 2:30 pm. Special performances include a Student matinee on Wed., April 1 at 11 am; $10 Seniors matinee on Wed., March 25 at 2:30 pm; Girls Night Out/ Dinner Theater at City Grill ($45) on Thurs., March 26 at 5:00 pm; American Signed Language Performance on Sun., March 22 at 2:30 pm; Talkback with cast following the performance on Fri., March 27. Recommended for age 12 and above, for adult themes and language.
Group discounts are available (call 678.528.1497) and $10 student tickets day of show, with student ID. Box office hours are noon to 6 pm Tues. through Fri. and prior to curtain; 678.528.1500; www.theatricaloutfit.org. Educational programming support is provided by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The Coca-Cola Company.
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