older man and woman looking at each other

Dan Oliver and Mary Rowland in Stone Soup’s “R&J”

CARRBORO, NC – Worldbuilding isn’t just an esoteric activity limited to the constructs of virtual reality and speculative fiction; it’s a fundamental part of the theatrical enterprise. If drama at its essence depicts the truth of a life in a change, one of its first challenges involves the creation of a metaworld that’s coherent and stable enough for characters to live, work, and evolve through the situations they encounter. Belief, here, is key: characters and situations that the audience can believe, existing in a world they can believe as well. No matter how fantastical the departures in characterization, plot, and culture may get, audiences must be able to buy into them for a show to succeed.

That incomplete work, where the worldbuilding hasn’t been adequately thought through, didn’t just distract us during R&J, Allison Acuff and Chandler Vance‘s intriguing new adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet for Stone Soup Theatre. The night we saw it, their metaworld began crashing out along the edges fairly early, before more significant breaches at the center, later on. (Acuff and Vance also directed the production, a cautionary circumstance in itself, which resulted in one less set of critical eyes on the process while in gestation.)

But that’s one of the risks you take while creating new work. Should the workers or the work be abandoned? Hardly. 

That’s particularly true since they and their cast clearly got to terra incognita, someplace different and interesting, after asking different questions of the famous tragedy than most of their countless predecessors. 

Consider: What if Juliet and Romeo were old – closer, by a number of decades, to the ends of their lives than the 13- and 16-year-old characters in the original text? Can there even be a Romeo and Juliet set in a geriatric nursing facility?

In a culture that so often over-focuses on young love and lust, what can age and maturity (which aren’t always the same thing) say to the beginnings of new affections and attachments that youth cannot? Wouldn’t fuller, more rounded lives (and bodies) reckon differently with the sense of duende at the heart of the original text, in which new passions and vulnerabilities openly invite disaster?

There’s already proof of concept here; the fragmentary answers in this production indicate the answer is yes. Under his co-directors’ guidance, actor Dan Oliver ached, emotionally and physically, in a wonderfully nuanced performance. At the outset, he was an elder Romeo just being admitted, with a single, humble suitcase in hand, to a presumably upscale nursing care facility that is otherwise only vaguely defined in fair Verona.

Officious staff in scrubs checked in patients, nurses and doctors beginning their day, just before a directorially underfunded brawl broke out over a card game in the dayroom between two inpatients: a disheveled Tybalt (Rosanne Wagger) and Mercutio (Angela Skinner) clad in bathrobes, t-shirts, and jammies. As we oriented ourselves within this world, building tentative answers to basic questions, we could surmise easily enough why these characters had to be here – commitment, involuntary perhaps in some cases, involving varying forms of mental illness.

Romeo was apparently in for depression, and Mercutio’s later, directorially problematic Queen Mab speech certainly reinforced the premise that this could be a psych ward. But why was the young Benvolio (Xenon Winslow, in another conspicuously strong showing) here? Who’s visiting, who’s resident; who could not come and go? And did it serve or undercut the drama if many or most characters were of questionable mind?

There was true poignancy when we learned that Rosaline (Annalisa Hartlaub), Romeo’s first love in the original text, was a young nurse when he was a new arrival in this world. But with abundant liquor on hand (including a half-gallon of vodka that Mercutio adroitly managed to cadge), the party Lady Capulet (Maggie Lea, solid here as always) supposedly threw that same night – for her mother Juliet’s admission to this facility? with physicians and nurses in attendance? – didn’t begin to make sense.

And when Acuff and Vance truncated and underserved the initial scenes between Juliet and Romeo, their attraction and courtship came out of nowhere with insufficient time to establish itself on the night we saw it (with a momentary miscalculation making Romeo something of a peeping Tom). All glitches aside, it was still darling when the lovebirds wound up texting lines of dialogue with sweet nothings to one another, further on. 

Given the present state of health care with the demand for long-term facilities outstripping supply, it rang too true when the penalty of “banishment” signaled an actual existential threat for Romeo after Tybalt had a heart attack during their mid-show fight. In a geriatric facility, death is clearly never far away, a point that was subliminally underlined by designer Tom Willis’s diaphanous sheers that resembled emergency room curtains as nurses pulled them back and forth across stage during scene changes.

But then there was the unbelievable arranged marriage Lady Capulet imposes on Juliet, to Paris (Jim Coons), presumably another resident. Actor Mary Rowland has been impressing audiences across the region since she played Hamlet in the 1990s. Here though, with inadequate direction, the trademark vinegar, agency, and authenticity she wielded in other scenes evaporated in sequences with her daughter and Oliver’s Romeo.

Throughout, Oliver’s character bore rueful knowledge of the risks in aging love, and had Rowland’s Juliet matched his depth, we might well have had here another love story for the ages. But when this Juliet simply regressed to a psychologically simpler state, we were left wondering if that was a miscalculated directorial choice, involving dissociation or dementia perhaps, or just an incomplete characterization.

The abrupt marriage and faked death by Doctor Lawrence (the Friar’s character in the original), an M.D. on the staff who conveniently did her own pharmacology and moonlighted as a minister on the side, also didn’t answer the necessity defense: Why must it have happened? Why was it necessary? (And with fitful and idiosyncratic line delivery that challenged intelligibility, it was also hard not to feel that the directors let newcomer actor Louise Martin go off a cliff on the night we saw it.)

In her supporting role as Juliet’s nurse, seldom-seen Emily Levinstone authoritatively helped anchor a metaworld in need of that with a rewardingly vivid swim through scenic subtexts. 

In hers and the other full performances, we fully cared about the characters and the bewildering, present-day world they were navigating. But when too many other character interpretations remained inadequately developed, we kept wondering: exactly why are they here?

Incomplete results, all in all, from a world still in the making. Still, given the promising material Acuff and Vance have uncovered thus far, it may well be worth suggesting that they liberate themselves from an adaptation approach too direct, that devotedly cloned every plot point, no matter how anachronistic. That could give them, their characters, and the world they’re still constructing more room in which to breathe and grow, as they keep working. And they should.