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PTC’s ‘The Graduate’ achieves highest honors

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AJ Mooney (left) and Kelley Davies in a scene from Penobscot Theatre Company's production of "The Graduate." AJ Mooney (left) and Kelley Davies in a scene from Penobscot Theatre Company's production of "The Graduate." (photo courtesy PTC/© magnus stark, 2018)

BANGOR – Here’s to you, Penobscot Theatre Company.

For the first show of its 45th season, PTC presents the Maine premiere of “The Graduate,” directed by Bari Newport. The play was adapted by Terry Johnson from the novel of the same name, written by Charles Webb, as well as the screenplay, written by Buck Henry and Calder Willingham.

Benjamin Braddock (Alekzander Sayers) is the titular graduate. After finishing an impressive college career, Ben returns home to a party being thrown in his honor by his parents Mr. and Mrs. Braddock (D.C. Anderson and Jeri Misler, respectively), and full of family friends like Mr. Robinson (Arthur Morison), a plastics enthusiast whose career-minded sensibilities have fast-tracked him to suburbia. Having worked hard to attain just such a lifestyle, Ben suddenly finds he wants no part of it. Refusing to schmooze, Ben stays in his room, but is soon interrupted by Mrs. Robinson (A.J. Mooney). Drink in hand, she presents Ben with intriguing chaos in a world that has started to feel oppressively ordered.

Ben still lacks purpose, even with a new way to pass the time. Matters complicate when Mr. Robinson insists Ben take his daughter Elaine (Kelley Davies) on a date – much to Mrs. Robinson’s chagrin. Ben tries to simplify things by making his date with Elaine the worst night of her life, but soon finds himself charmed. Can Elaine get Ben to care about his own future? Or has self-indulgence led to irreparable damage?

Fans of the classic film and neophytes alike will find much to admire in this production. The audience will likely notice how Sayers must endure the theatrical equivalent of a marathon, onstage for nearly the entire duration of the play. Besides the physicality required for the role of Ben, Sayers runs a gauntlet of emotions, from disaffected ennui to earnest romanticism. Even with the demands of this role, his youthful energy buoys each scene. His work with Mooney is especially captivating, as she meets his energy with unsettling intensity. Meanwhile, she’s fearless as an apex predator and her silences are eloquent. Mooney’s dancer’s sensibility enriches her Mrs. Robinson as we witness each calculated movement.

Davies’ bubbly affect refreshes when she’s infused among all that tension. Elaine is written with a pointed dose of “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” quirks, but Davies grounds her with sincerity to serve as the moral heart of the show. Anderson and Misler make memorably absurd appearances as Ben’s parents, with pitch-perfect admonitions to be more sociable, more productive. Misler plays harried mid-century motherhood turned up to 11, while Anderson constructs a family man roiling with fears of inadequacy always under the surface. Similarly complicated, Morison’s chipper enthusiasm as Mr. Robinson is matchless, heightening his second-act darker turns. Not to be forgotten are Jenny Hart and Allen Adams, who play all of the incidental roles. These seasoned performers live the adage, “there are no small parts, only small actors.” Charming turns as a variety of onlookers to these families’ collisions highlight their versatility.

The technical elements support the cast in building an authentic, yet flexible world. Sean McClelland’s scenic design consists of a backdrop with a mélange of midcentury organic shapes and sharp angles, revealing hidden set pieces. Lights by Jose Santiago also modify the playing space and set the mood for each scene, most notably to create the appearances of film-like montages and jump cuts. Sean McGinley’s subtle and effective sound design transports viewers, leaving no detail unaccounted for. PTC fans will recognize Kevin Koski’s signature pops of color and playful takes on traditional silhouettes that still transport the viewer to the 60s. Add in some Simon and Garfunkel tracks and you might forget you’re watching a play until the house lights take you back to reality at intermission.

Fans of the film may benefit from knowing that much of the second act of the play deviates from the source material. In one of PTC’s finest productions in recent memory, this divergence felt unsatisfying. The film and novel end on a note of ambiguity, suggesting that sometimes, despite everyone around you saying otherwise, there may not be a right answer to your question. This theme persists in much of Johnson’s adaptation, but doesn’t carry through to the conclusion, which makes it feel detached from the rest of the play. After all, with much of the more un-p.c. and regressive elements left for the sake of storytelling, why mix things up?

Adapter Johnson suggested in a 2000 interview that he made changes to accommodate the needs of the stage: the film’s ending “is not a great ending to a play, so I had to lock the characters into the church in order to support the climax.” Audiences may agree Johnson’s efforts to translate the story from screen to stage are ultimately successful, and the result is an experience that feels both familiar and new. For what it’s worth, in the same interview, Johnson stated: “Critics don’t exist to give an accurate report on anything: they exist to fit themselves into the work of art without having to produce it.” With that, be advised that those who have produced this show have taken significant risks – risks that ultimately make the debut production of PTC’s 45th year a truly engrossing one.

“The Graduate” runs through September 23 at the Bangor Opera House. Prepare to be seduced.

Last modified on Wednesday, 12 September 2018 11:43

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