STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: Going Postal In Pennsylvania

STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: Going Postal In Pennsylvania Isn't it wonderful when a regional theatre does something genuinely regional?

Isn't it wonderful when a regional theatre does something genuinely regional?

It happened two years ago in Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania, when the Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble produced a show titled Letters to the Editor -- a compilation of letters plenty of Pennsylvanians sent to 30 local newspapers, such as the Bloomsburg Daily, the Republican Argus, the Milville Weekly Tablet, and the Catawissa News Item.

Ten Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble members, headed by Gerard Stropnicky, decided to survey the good, the bad, and the ugly letters that had been published in these papers, and put them in dramatic form. Says Stropnicky, "We got carried away, and ended up looking at tens of thousands of newspapers covering two centuries. All we wanted to do was understand this place a little better. As a community-centered professional theatre, we are devoted to having an ongoing conversation with our community. But it seemed like a good idea to listen for a while."

Very good, in fact. Letters to the Editor opened at the Alvina Krause Theatre, which is named, of course, for the illustrious acting coach who taught at Northwestern University for 30 years. "It is she who opened up the world of acting to me," Tony Roberts has said on many an occasion.

When Krause retired, she chose Bloomsburg as her home. There she founded the Ensemble in 1978. It's now ensconced at a former movie theatre that proudly bears her name -- and, this October, a marquee that once again proclaimed Letters to the Editor as its attraction. "Back by popular demand," it insisted. Easy to see why. Letters to the Editor was one of the more charming evenings I've spent in the theatre.

Not much was on the stage for the five member cast to use. A desk. A sofa. Hat racks with costumes, so that when an 1837 letter was performed, the actor donned a top hat and waistcoat befitting the period.

Above the action was positioned a screen on which slides were projected. Some were of pictures of the era that set the mood, but most told when and in what newspaper the about-to-be-enacted letter had appeared. When one slide said, "Occult in the Curriculum, Dec. 22, 1993," there was an ooooh from the audience, who remembered when the issue was a hot potato.

It wasn't the only reference that escaped me. Who's Jim Sachetti, whose name-mention caused a ripple of affectionate laughter from the homies? (I later learned he's the current editor of the Press Enterprise.) What was important was that Bloomsburgians could take civic pride in the piece. And they do.

After I finished a scrumptious dinner at the nearby Inn at Turkey Hill, I asked the maitre d' for directions to the theatre. "Oh!" he gushed. "That show mentions my grandfather!"

Most people, of course, write letters to the editor to gripe. Rebuttals often include the line, "What you didn't say was..." There was a complaint that the town's traffic lights weren't well-timed. Teens protested that they were denied admission to R-rated movies, while adults carped about the "skin-flicks" on town screens. And, yes, the small town sensibility was in full force when a letter-writer snarled about men who sport pony-tails. These are the people who, to paraphrase Tony award-winning librettist T.S. Eliot, measure their lives in coffee spoons.

Or maybe something else. One letter writer, whom we saw eating his lunch, defended the locusts others felt plagued the valley. When he mentioned that they're so tasty, too, we realized what he was eating.

Amusing, yes, as so many of the letters were. But there was solid emotion here. There was a heartfelt open letter "To the Bloomsburg Arsonist" who was urged to stop by an adolescent. A teen mother, still living with her parents and her boyfriend, warned her peers of the consequences of not using birth control. A childless woman rebuked the mother she saw abusing her child in a supermarket. "Give him to me, and I'll raise him." Stropnicky and company showed how much happens in a small town in which "nothing happens."

Most poignant were the letters that soldiers sent home, from the Civil through the Gulf Wars. During the Philippine Incursion, a kid on his 22nd birthday told of how he got a pass to go into town -- where he was attacked by a Filipino whom he was able to overtake. He wrote that he didn't expect to "celebrate" his birthday by murdering someone.

The show could have been called Letters and Phone Calls to the Editor, because some of the readers' opinions were delivered by telephone. Back in 1992, Editor Sachetti decided to open a phone line for readers to call in and speak, rather than write, what was on their minds. So there was a scene in which a man is tying up a pay phone, while several people are impatiently waiting behind him. Soon, though, we saw that they weren't waiting to call other people, but to get on the same line and enjoy their 30 seconds of fame.

Letters to the Editor is reminiscent of a number of other theatre pieces. Our Town immediately comes to mind, of course, but I saw greater parallels to Greater Tuna, though this show has more punch because it isn't fiction, and all dialogue is guaranteed 100 percent verbatim. It's low-rent A.R. Gurney, though there weren't many Love Letters in evidence. Finally, there's a little Spoon River Anthology here, but with one crucial difference: Oh, were these people alive!

Despite the influences, Letters to the Editor is its own special creation. How wonderful to see the Bloomsburg audience, which can't be expected to be theatrically sophisticated, embrace new-to-them stage conventions. Every time a man put on a bonnet to play a woman, the crowd cooed in delight. When an actor portraying a dog was walked on a leash, it shrieked louder.

A theatre troupe in a town of 12,000-plus proved what the New York Yankees once used as their ad campaign: "At any moment, a great moment." That's valid for both baseball and theatre. Magic doesn't just happen at the Majestic, Marquis, Minskoff, and Music Box. You never know where you'll find something theatrical that will move you, and it happened to me in a town I never before knew existed until I heard about this play.

"I feel it's time that someone said something good about Bloomsburg," said one letter-writer. Well, Gerard Stropnicky and his Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble certainly did. What's more, they took one letter-writer's belief that "The arts are not a frill," and had it printed on T-shirts. Perhaps that's to be expected, given that Stropnicky authored the letter. But may those shirts be displayed all over Bloomsburg and beyond.

Alas, Letters to the Editor has since closed, so you won't be able to attend -- until the next revival. But the good news is that a smart agent named Laura Langlie, who heard some BTE members on NPR, asked them to make a book from it. Stropnicky, along with Tom Byrn, James Goode, and Jerry Matheny did just that, and it's now available through Simon & Schuster. It's the next best thing to being there.

Or maybe you can follow Stropnicky's lead, take a look at your own local newspapers, and fashion a play out of the letters to the editor that you find there. I won't be surprised if you wind up with something very similar to what found its way to the stage of the Alvina Krause Theatre. People are people, after all, no matter what the region or regional theatre.

-- Peter Filichia is the New Jersey theatre critic for the Star-Ledger.
You can e-mail him at Pfilichia@aol.com