Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Near East Comes to Canton

Regional Premiere of “The Near East” at Canton Players Guild Theatre
By Tom Wachunas

The New Play Conservatory program of the Canton Players Guild Theatre will present the regional premiere of “The Near East”, written by Alex Lewin, on March 30 – April 1, at the Players Guild’s William G. Fry Theatre. The play was awarded the Quest for Peace Prize in 2008 at the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival. It is co-produced here with the theatre department of Northern Michigan University (NMU), where it was performed in February under the direction of NMU Director of Theatre, Ansley Valentine. In collaboration with Players Guild Associate Artistic Director Jeremy Lewis, Valentine is bringing his NMU cast to Canton for three performances.

This is the story of American archaeologist Ken Schneider, hired for a controversial and secretive mission in Saudi Arabia by Arab woman scholar Aisha Ghazali, to assist in finding the elusive Umm al-Kitab, the “Mother of Books”, believed to be written by the hand of God, and pre-dating the Koran. In his dealings with Aisha and the other characters in the story, Ken, already struggling with the death of his son and loss of his wife, must confront his own beliefs in a volatile context of faith and mysticism, love and loss, terror and hope.

In a phone interview on March 21, I (T.W.) talked with Ansley Valentine (A.V.) about the production. Here are some excerpts.

T.W. What in particular do you find most significant or powerful about this play?

A.V. For me, the most powerful thing about it is that it deals with issues of faith and the Middle East in a way that’s not typical or stereotypical of ways that they’re presented in America. I think we often characterize Islamic people as ‘the bad guys’ and we don’t really get into the notion that these are people who are deeply religious and have their convictions and faith just like anybody else, and these are people who struggle and are conflicted about the best thing to do, just like anybody else…It’s a beautiful and complicated play. There are no simple answers, and the playwright doesn’t give any simple answers. He raises a lot of questions, on a lot of subject matter, and I think he does it for people to think about these things and how they’re applied to their own lives.

T.W. So there’s no overly- preachy or pedantic agenda here?

A.V. No, I don’t think so. He (playwright Alex Lewin) has been so smart about the people he’s picked to play opposite each other. The characters are points of view so that you can say, ‘I completely understand why this person would feel the way that they do.’ No one character is monolithic, or just presenting one side. Everybody goes on a journey in this play. And so between Act 1 and the end, for the most part I think you really can see why they do that, and you can ask yourself, ‘What would I do if I were confronted with these things?’

T.W. Was there anything especially challenging or daunting about bringing this to the stage?

A.V. We have a big theater and we actually did this play in our studio theater [note: the Canton production will likewise be in a black-box setting]. So it was a big challenge for my actors to bring down their performances to a very real level, trying to make what feels like a big play fit credibly into a small space. I think the benefit is that as the audience, you’re right there, and you definitely feel the emotional impact of what happens to these characters much more so than if we were in a huge theater where you have distance from all that.

T.W. What do you think we might take away from encountering these characters and their journey?

A.V. The characters do get into a very interesting religious debate about how each perceives the other and how they ultimately don’t really understand where each other is coming from. That, to me, is what is so interesting about the play. It’s not just that we’re looking at this from the American point of view, or that the American approach is ‘correct’… We have to get past our prejudices and preconceived notions and then confront each other as people, person-to-person… The character of Ken starts the play as an atheist and by the end he’s come to embrace his faith… For me, and for the audience as they watched it here (at NMU), I think it was a very satisfying and impactful moment. That’s the positive – that for all the things that happened - and happened to him in the play - he realizes that the answer is a higher power or something outside his control. Really, all the characters become different people,…and for me, that’s affirming – to think you can start with one idea and through conversation and experience end up at a different place.

T.W. How was the NMU audience response?

A.V. People who were able to come to the show have all had a very positive response to it even as they were challenged by the material… Obviously from the outset you don’t want to tell people everything that happens in the play, and I think some were a little leery of coming to see it. But those that did come walked away with a new perspective and were really appreciative of the experience.

The regional premiere of “The Near East”, produced in connection with Northern Michigan University, will be for one weekend only, at the Players Guild Theatre, 1001 Market Ave. North, in Canton. MATURE CONTENT. Shows at 8:00 pm on Friday, March 30 and Saturday, March 31, and at 2:30 pm Sunday, April 1. All tickets are $10. Box Office (330) 453 – 7617, or online at

Photo: NMU cast members of “The Near East” / playwright Alex Lewin

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