PLAINVIEW – In the world of theatre, “the show must go on” is a common adage. Perhaps no one has lived that mantra more recently than Jennifer Riley.
A senior theatre major at Wayland Baptist University, Riley has struggled for the past three months with a chronic illness that left her physically exhausted and saw her class load drop to only nine hours. Juggling her failing health with the role of wife and mother to two young sons and schoolwork, Riley also was planning a major production.
“Even while being sick, the number one thing on my mind was saving the show and my senior practicum,” Riley said. “I’ve invested so much mentally and physically, and I can’t imagine not seeing it through.”
Her practicum is directing the Wayland theatre’s final spring production, a tragicomedy by D.L. Coburn titled The Gin Game, the story of two elderly people in a nursing home, dealing with their life situation and finding companionship over a card game. The show plays April 21, 22 and 23 and is a dinner theatre production.
With the amount of work she knew it would take to see the play to the stage, Riley dropped several classes, keeping only two traditional lecture classes and the practicum. The reduced load, she said, meant she could rest more and save her energy for the remaining classes and evening rehearsals for the play, which began in March.
Riley said when her health took a downturn, she and theatre director Dr. Marti Runnels had several discussions about whether she’d be able to continue her duties. She said eventually she just committed to making it happen, for her and the rest of the Gin Game team.
Unlike other productions that don’t culminate in graded work, The Gin Game is unique in that four students are using the play to fulfill practicum requirements. Billy Boone, a senior theatre major from Abilene, chose acting as his practicum route, and he plays the role of Weller Martin. Milea Simpson Huckeby, a senior from Wichita Falls, is acting as well, playing the role of Fonsia Dorsey. Artesia, N.M. native Jennifer Rutherford opted for set design as her specialty and has designed the set for the play.
The practicum experience
What that means in practical terms is that far more work has gone into this production than others. Practicums require students to not only learn scripts or direct fellow student actors, but they also require a good bit of research and paperwork outside of a normal show’s workload.
“Ideally, it should be the work you always do on any show, but that normally doesn’t happen because of time,” Riley said. “I spent months researching the play and the playwright, the time period, the mood and the music I’d want for the show. I also had to do a journal, and we’re doing a presentation afterward about our research.”
Riley said she chose the play last summer and began researching it. After finding Boone and Huckeby in need of practicum projects as well, she invited the two to act in her production. Rutherford was added later after Riley said she’d seen her work in a scene design class they shared.
Riley, Boone and Huckeby said the ensemble experience has been enjoyable, but it’s nothing new for the group to be together. Riley directed Huckeby and Boone in a short play titled “Words, Words, Words” during the fall production of Shorts, and Boone directed Huckeby and Riley in “Babel’s in Arms.” The trio has worked together on several Wayland plays during their tenure, including the fall’s Approaching Zanzibar and last spring’s Dancing at Lughnasa among others.
While Riley has been comfortable in all arenas of the stage, she finds directing a good fit, and thinks highly of her fellow actors.
“Billy and Milea have such a maturity in their acting, and there’s no intimidation on either part,” she said.
A longtime lover of the theatre, Riley said she’s long felt called to ministry and she and husband Shawn served as youth directors in Tulia for seven years. While hospitalized during her pregnancy, Riley had time to reevaluate her life and realized she wanted to combine her call with her two other loves.
“I have a heart for teenagers and for theatre, so I decided I’d pursue teaching,” Riley said, noting she plans to follow her bachelor’s degree with graduate work and eventually teach theatre on the college level. She plans to graduate next year.
Huckeby came to Wayland as a freshman in 2002, majoring in theatre early on. An active member of the theatre program in high school, she fell in love with acting as a junior and was cast her senior year in her first acting role. She visited Wayland and auditioned for Runnels, then came to study theatre at WBU. Her plans include teaching at the high school level, and she eventually also would like a master’s degree in theatre.
During her time at Wayland, Huckeby has graced the WBU stage as many personas. Picking her favorite proved to be a difficult task.
“I really love them all, for different reasons. In The Dining Room, I got to play a lot of characters, and that was really fun. I also loved playing Maggie in Dancing at Lughnasa,” Huckeby said. “It’s a new experience every time for me; I put myself into each character and relate to them somehow.”
Boone, who came to Wayland to study theatre after a lifetime of dramatic participation, was hard pressed to name his favorites after four years at Wayland as well.
“My four favorite shows were The Elephant Man, The Dining Room, Artificial Jungle and Dancing at Lughnasa,” he said. “If I had to choose just one, though, it’d be Lughnasa. The show wasn’t as good as some others we have done, but we just overcame so many obstacles to get that show up… I think we had three weeks total.”
Boone said his favorite role was that of Chester Nurdiger in Artificial Jungle, a man he describes as “a lovable, nerdy guy.” Though he doesn’t share every trait with the character, Boone is a lovable member of the Wayland theatre troupe and said he’ll miss his time at WBU.
“I’ve developed great relationships with people in the shows, the actors, the staff and the faculty,” he said. “I’ve really grown to love all these people, and I’ll miss them.”
Boone said his favorite part of the practicum experience has been developing the Weller Martin character, a role for which he’s borrowed from his grandfather. The role, he said, has stretched him in the areas of memorization – 50 percent of the lines are his – and in acting, as the elderly role represents new ground.
Though her experience behind the scenes is greater, Rutherford said she enjoys the acting side of theatre as well. Cast in last spring’s Dancing at Lughnasa, she cherished the experience. But during a spring class in set design, she found her creative juices flowing.
“I’m a person who when I read something, I always envision a picture in my head,” Rutherford said. “Set design gave me a chance to put what was in my head on paper and give my interpretation of the play.”
Besides researching the piece heavily along with her fellow seniors, the challenge for Rutherford has been to work meetings and designing sessions into the schedules of four busy people while juggling school and work responsibilities. But the stress is nothing new to these theatre veterans, and they tend to shrug it off as part of the game.
“It’s tough, but the show must go on, right?” Rutherford laughed.
The Gin Game will be presented as a dinner theatre on April 21, 22 and 23. An Italian meal, catered by Johnny Carino’s of Lubbock, will be served beginning at 7 p.m. on the stage of Harral Auditorium. The play will begin at 8 p.m. in Harral Studio Theatre across the hall at 8 p.m., with the house opening at 7:45.
The play was performed on Broadway by married actors Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy, and was revived as a TV movie by Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore.
Tickets for the entire evening, including the meal, dessert and the show, are $20 and must be guaranteed by providing cash, checks or credit card information to the WBU theatre department with reservations.
Tickets for the show alone may be purchased for $8. Reservations are encouraged even for those not attending the dinner, as the single weekend run will fill up fast. For information or reservations, call the theatre box office at 291-1087.