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PlayMakers Repertory Company will conclude its critically acclaimed 2003-04 season with the American premiere — and second production ever — of Luminosity by British playwright Nick Stafford. Previews begin tonight, and the play officially opens April 10 and runs through May 2 at the Paul Green Theatre in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Center for Dramatic Art. (PRC opened its season Oct. 15-Nov. 9, 2003 with the American premiere of British dramatist Simon Bent's superlative stage adaptation of A Prayer For Owen Meany, American novelist John Irving's 1997 bestseller about baseball, Christianity, and the Vietnam War.)
PRC artistic director David Hammond, who superbly staged A Prayer for Owen Meany, will also direct Luminosity, a brilliant new drama about three generations of a wealthy British family, which amassed its fortune in the slave and diamond trades, but is now famous mainly for its philanthropy. The action takes place simultaneously in a 200-year-old herb garden in the West Midlands of England in 1999, a rundown cottage at the same location in 1799, and in the diamond-mining center of Kimberley, South Africa, in 1899.
Hammond said, "The script of Luminosity was given to me by an agent in London last summer. I read it on the plane ride back and shared it with Donna Heins, our executive director, and called the agent about doing it next year. Then we called the agent about doing it this year, because we liked it so much."
What Hammond likes best about Luminosity is "the originality of the writing and the construction, its themes, its incredibly articulate dialogue, and its beauty." Hammond claimed, "Nick Stafford is an absolutely brilliant writer. His writing combines the articulateness of Shaw or Stoppard with beautiful insight into human beings.
"We are interested in plays that use the theater in new and original ways," explained David Hammond. "[PlayMakers] is looking for the theater of today. Nick dramatizes things that no one else has ever dramatized, in ways that have not been done before. [Luminosity] has do with our perceptions about race, and it explores and questions those perceptions. It takes place simultaneously in three different centuries and interweaves the stories of three different generations of a family and what they know and don't know about each other, and the inherited collective consciousness that is subliminally passed from generation to generation, and affects our perceptions."
Luminosity had its world premiere on March 23, 2001 at The Pit in London in a Royal Shakespeare Company production. In reviewing the original production, Michael Billington of The Guardian called Luminosity "a richly intelligent, tightly written play"; and Ian Shuttleworth of The Financial Times wrote that "Nick Stafford's new play... glitters with intricate patterns of light and colour much like one of the diamonds from whose properties it takes its title."
Stafford will make his American debut with the current PlayMakers presentation, which stars guest artists Earl Baker, Jr. as Saul Mercer, Charity Henson as Debra Mercer, Melissa Hickey as Victoria Cotton, Bjorn Thorstad as James Mercer, and Chandler Williams as Robert. PRC associate artist Tandy Cronyn stars as Margaret Mercer; and the cast also includes PlayMakers company members Jeffrey Blair Cornell as Dalton, Ray Dooley as John Gardner, and Kenneth P. Strong as Forbes.
"It's one of the best casts we've ever had," claimed Hammond in a March 24th interview with Robert's Reviews. "They're wonderful. We have six really superb guest artists, really fabulous. They're really great. It's been a thrill."
He added, "Luminosity is a wonderfully compassionate, warm play. There's a great sense of release and healing at the end. Nick Stafford is going to join us pretty soon for rehearsals. I can't wait until he gets here."
Hammond said, "Luminosity involves three generations of a family that has made a fortune, beginning in the 18th century, in England, America, and South Africa. How fortunes were made in the world in those three centuries, and what people did to each other making fortunes. This is a very good family that has done a lot of good work in the 20th century, but has an inheritance that emerges that needs to be examined.
"The play examines issues of slavery in the 18th century, exploitative diamond mining in South Africa, Apartheid, and political and economic movements in three centuries," said Hammond. "But at the center of the play is a great family love story, and the play examines [whether] a collective consciousness of the past gets passed from generation to generation, what has made us who we are today, how much of the past is still present in us, and what can we do about it."
PRC's longtime artistic director said, "Luminosity is a characteristic of diamonds — one of the ways that you evaluate a diamond and, perhaps, a person.... Luminosity is reflected light, which is based on the internal structure of a diamond. ...[Nick Stafford] is talking about the inner glow based on the deep internal structure of the diamond."
Besides director David Hammond, the PRC production team for the show includes sets and costumes designer Bill Clarke, lighting designer Peter West, and sound designer M. Anthony Reimer.
Hammond said the play's opening scene takes place in "a 200-year-old physic garden in the West Midlands in England in the present. (A physic garden is a garden used to raise medicinal herbs. They started in Renaissance times, and families still keep them.)" He said subsequent scenes take place at "the same site, when it wasn't a physic garden, in 1799" and then in "Kimberley, South Africa, in 1899." Hammond said, "Things change and memories come alive, and ghosts walk, and things happen. It's very beautiful."
David Hammond said the show's lighting "has to encompass various time-space continua and various realities," and the production's costumes are representative of contemporary fashions in the three centuries during which the scenes take place.
Hammond said he relishes the challenge of staging new works that push the edge of the creative envelope. "I like to explore materials that use the theater in ways that it hasn't been used before," he explained. "I like the challenge of that. There's nothing more satisfying.
"Luminosity feels like no play I've ever worked on, and I love that," Hammond said. He added, "We have a very loyal audience, and they are willing to have a new experience in the theater, which is what this company is about. That's what our mission statement says we do. We will examine traditional plays to find the life in them, we will do the classics to find the life in them, and we will do new works that create theatrical life in new ways. And we have an audience that embraces all of them and enjoys variety of experience. And I think that's very clear from our seasons."
David Hammond added, "The hard work of [staging] a play is to have the acting happen. The subtlety of the writing and the depth of the writing, and the intellectual vigor, and the originality of the writing — it's stimulating, not difficult."
PlayMakers Repertory Company presents Luminosity Wednesday-Saturday, April 7-10, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, April 11, at 2 p.m.; Tuesday-Saturday, April 13-17 and 20-24 and April 27-May 1, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, April 18 and 25 and May 2, at 2 p.m. in the Paul Green Theatre in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Center for Dramatic Art. $10-$40. 919/962-PLAY (962-7529) or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Note: The April 16th performance will be sign language interpreted and audio-described, with Braille and large-print programs. Playmakers Repertory Company: http://www.playmakersrep.org/news/index.cfm?nid=14.