Whereas the Triangle consists of a multitude of theatrical endeavors — from small and volunteer to large and professional — there exists only a minute number of professional houses created for the purpose of producing works written by members of the company. You can count them on the fingers of one hand and still have digits remaining. But of that minute number, only one house, Perihelion Theater and Production Company, can boast that it has presented only works of this nature.
Perihelion’s forte is the Literary Performance, which is a unique performance medium for poetry or prose that has been written to be read aloud. Although Perihelion has performed both plays and literary performances, each of these works is the creation of Karen Traut, the troupe’s founder and artistic director. (The exception to this rule is a subgroup of titles under Kindred Spirit Plays.) Perihelion’s performances have spanned two decades, beginning in 1987. One of the first, Alligator and Ellis, went on to receive a filming by UNC-TV.
If you have had the good fortune to see most of Perihelion’s works, you know that they have covered a wide variety of topics, from growing up in (yet somehow outside) the “turbulent 60’s” (Berkeley Brocculi) to the monstrous taboo of incest (Alligator and Ellis). These works have been performed in varying locales, from a theatrical setting such as the Durham Theatre Guild to more exotic locales such as the Forest Theatre (House Upon the Sand).
The world premiere of Perihelion’s newest work, George, is currently running at a Southern Village locale, Market Street Books at Arts & Letters Community Center, in Chapel Hill, NC. Performances continue this weekend, Thursday through Sunday. George is, for the most part, a short story that Traut wrote her senior year in high school, the title character being the boy she was “involved with.” Since the year of the short story and the event was 1962, well before the notorious “Sexual Revolution,” dating, kissing, and holding hands was about as far as “involved” could go.
Understandably, one might think twice before going to see a production of a short story written by a 17 year old, with a rating that could never pass PG. But George has several things going for it; at 17, Traut was already a journalist and a skilled writer; George, the title character, is a boy unlike any other; and the finished product has both the looking back of a woman 30 years older and wiser, and a cast that brings the main characters superbly to life. And the work is, unlike most, completely true.
All of Act I is the short story written 35 years ago. It is read, as is usual in a literary performance, in the first person by Cheryl Johnson (played by Madeline Walter), with the only exception being those few words — for he is a man of few words — spoken by George himself (P.J. Bordelon). The woman who goes back to Malibu, CA, for her 30th high school reunion, is portrayed by Ellen Bland. We do not see her until the (very short) second act. It is, finally, the “end” that wasn’t there when the short story was concluded, and is as short as a coda should be.
Madeline Walter, herself a dramatist, is the perfect foil for this adolescent from another century. She plays Cheryl Johnson with a delightful effervescence, an air of self-importance that heightens what she has to say, and a disarming ability to look at things with the optimism that Traut weaves throughout her story. And although the story involves, of course, a wide circle of friends and relatives, the only other character we see, rather than hear of, is George.
P.J. Bordelon, an actor from Pittsboro, plays George with the usual gangly awkwardness of a boy who has had no girlfriend at all before he — well, the best word is insinuates — himself into the life of the girl he always refers to as Cheryl Johnson. But as noted previously, George is not the usual high school boy. First, English is not his first language, that being Estonian. So, his structure and phrasing of speech is quite unusual. Second, before insisting that Cheryl Johnson be his lady, George has never so much as spoken, with any intent of romance, to another girl. Cheryl insists that the Estonian upbringing of George and his brother, Danny, has given them a sheltered life. But the antics of George make Cheryl laugh; and that, as has always been the case, is tremendously important.
Ellen Bland, who plays the current Karen Traut, called Cheryl Sims in George, gives us a little of the current life she leads and also a little bit of history that took place after the conclusion of her short story, and Act I. She also does an excellent job of describing her solo venture back to Malibu and the age of her youth. The three cast members come together to do this, as we are given the final time George and Cheryl meet before they revisit each other in Act II.
This “adolescent love story” thus becomes far more than just the journal entries of an enamored young girl; we note that Cheryl is quite sophisticated for her age and that George, regardless of his self-effacing awkwardness, is quite the intelligent and well-educated sophisticate. What transpires, then, has a depth to it that takes us completely by surprise, especially since each performance has a discussion afterward that peels back the layers of what is, on the surface, simply a mutual crush.
After a long absence, it is quite a treat to find Perihelion back on the boards. This new/old work is a finally finished chapter that began long ago, and has now come to fruition at the hands of not just one but three playwrights, as this first production has been developed. Despite what seems at first a simple subject matter, the troupe polishes the story of George to quite a shine. It takes us all back to our own time within our high school walls; and despite the way we each may view our high school years, the trip back is most enjoyable.
Perihelion Theater and Production Company presents George Thursday-Saturday, Jan. 31-Feb. 2, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Feb. 3, at 7 p.m. at Market Street Books at Arts & Letters Community Center, 610 Market St., Chapel Hill, North Carolina. $12 ($8 students and $10 seniors 60+), except pay-what-you-can night on Jan. 31st. Market Street Books: 919/933-8791. BrownPaperTickets.com: 800/838-3006. Perihelion Theater and Production Company: http://www.perihelionproductions.org/ [inactive 11/08]. Market Street Books: http://www.marketstreetbooks.com/ [inactive 10/09].