Chautauqua’s New Play Farm Produces ‘Dairyland’

CHAUTAUQUA – The Chautauqua Theater Company has a talky, energetic new play on the stage of the Bratton Theater, called ”Dairyland,” by Heidi Armbruster.

The production is one of the company’s New Play Workshops, in which they take plays which are still in the process of being written, and present them with the professional actors and designers and director, and allow the playwright to actually see what he or she has only been imagining.

After each performance, the playwright usually re-writes parts of the script, based on what seemed to work and what didn’t seem to work. Those who see later performances of ”Dairyland” will probably see very different plays than Thursday night’s audience saw.

Not only do these workshops help the writer, they give the audience a look into how plays come into being. Since a number of the NPWs have been translated to New York City theaters, it adds the excitement of getting in on the ground floor of something very special.

”Dairyland” was one of the most promising of the new plays, in my experience. The first three scenes lighted up the stage and seemed to be fully born. Things slowed down a bit, after that, but became almost as lively toward the play’s end.

Kate Abbruzzese, one of this year’s talented young Conservatory Actors, played Allie. She is a professional writer for a New York City publication, writing columns on food and restaurants.

The publication has another writer who calls herself ”Sunshine,” who writes cooing columns about free range chicken and grass-fed beef, which make Allie angry. Allie’s father is a farmer, living in Wisconsin, and Allie is estranged from him, but also from his way of life. Her mother divorced him, when their daughter was only 10, and raised Allie in a city’s suburb. Allie launches herself into a feud with Sunshine, insisting that people who can’t afford to pay $7 in a restaurant for an ”amuse bouche” which amounts to a single pea, also have the right to eat.

When Allie’s editors and the publication’s advertisers take Sunshine’s side of the conflict, Allie leaves her job and returns home to her father’s farm, where she learns a lot about life and about food, and mostly about herself.

The play’s opening scenes were certainly its greatest strength. I especially enjoyed a date, arranged by a computer dating service, in which Allie was trying to expound on her ideas on food, while her date, a yuppie attorney who displays values which would be hilarious, if there weren’t so strong an element of truth in them.

Christian DeMarais played the lawyer and, like all the actors except Allie, a number of minor roles as well. He had just enough sincerity to take the edge off his saccharine self-esteem.

Guest artist Cotter Smith played Dear Old Dad, back in Wisconsin. His was a believable and natural performance which didn’t rely on cliche. Susana Batres was strong and effective as the rival columnist, and Tramell Tillman was fine as the editor.

There were some issues which led to confusion, largely due to cultural issues, such as which brand of chocolates the editor had bought for the rival which left much of the audience stumped, because they had never heard of that brand.

Lisa Rothe directed, and in only four days of rehearsal, got very fine performances from all her actors. As the script becomes more taut and an understanding of what happens to Allie, as she returns to her roots is more understandable, this shows signs of being a very fine play. It repeats today and tomorrow.