REGENT THEATRE’S DEAR RUTH: A COMEDY REDISCOVERED

“God moves in a mysterious way”

Since hymnist William Cowper wrote those words in the late 18th century, the phrase has attained a triviality not merited by its truth.

The famous Cowper line is from his last hymn prior to the onset of a struggle with mental illness which included at least one suicide attempt and confinement for 18 months in an asylum. Troubled by religious doubts and fears, and persistently dreaming of his predestined damnation,  his life until death by dropsy in 1800, at age 69, was a living hell.

Cowper’s troubled and painful life did not, however, obscure his faith in all the mysteries of God’s plan for his life. In time, as Cowper himself says, God does make plain his “bright designs”.

The plot instigator of Norman Krasna’s Dear Ruth, playing at the Regent University Theater, quotes the line to take the heat off her backfiring scheme. Her name is Miriam and her sister is named Ruth. Both Miriam and Ruth are Biblical characters whose peculiar decisions, as do their namesakes’, result in God’s plan for glory being achieved – Miriam for her brother Moses and Ruth for her descendant, Jesus Christ.

Similar in type and tone to the Andy Hardy films of the mid-1930s to 1940s, the play and its unsuccessful film sequel, Dear Wife, were the kind of plays and films which brought Americans together. Unlike most of the films and plays of today, Dear Ruth has no agenda, no political ax to grind, no social issue upon which to comment. As a result, it can appeal to the total available audience. At a time when theater audiences are declining, theaters ought to heed Dolly Parton’s advice on political/social issue drama – “If you take a side, you piss off half the country”, and that half will stay at home watching television.  Dear Ruth, like all good and great plays, has only the noble purpose described by the poet Shelly – “To teach the human heart the knowledge of itself”, or as the distinguished critic Robert Brustein puts it in the current issue of American Theatre, “the revelation of the human soul.”

Lewis Nichols of the New York Times raved about the then new play which would run for 680 performances.

Dear Ruth is probably the comedy to end all comedies of juvenile misunderstanding, and last evening no prophet was needed to set down even odds that it will run at least until the end of the next generation. The new play can take its place beside Harvey and one or two others as official reasons for going to the theater.

Teenage Miriam Watkins can’t keep her nose out of other people’s affairs. Fired up by patriotism, Miriam inaugurates a warm pen-pal relationship with an overseas air force officer, hinting at a future marriage. When the airman arrives at their doorstep fresh from combat in Italy, he insists upon seeing Miriam’s older sister, Ruth. It seems that Miriam, to appear older, signed her letters with her sister’s name, and even enclosed her sister’s picture. Ruth, however, is engaged to her nerdy employer and hasn’t a clue as to what is happening.

One of the great functions of college and university theater has been to unearth plays which time has forgotten, but which merit attention. Regent University maintains that tradition with its production of Dear Ruth.

Regent’s Dear Ruth production strengths come from of  its resident design staff –  scenic designer David Foster, sound designer Stephen Peppos, costume designer C.J. Hill, and lighting designer Jeff Brangan, and the graduate acting students in the cast, especially the magnificent performance by Catherine Gaffney as the long-suffering mother, Edith. Director Jan Gompper’s debut is marred by proscenium directing on an arena stage, resulting in too many characters not sufficiently seen or heard.

Regent University Theatre’s graduate performance program has, for decades, been an important incubator for, and standard setter of, the region’s theater. Offering a Masters of Fine Arts degree in many of the practical theater fields, Regent theatre alumni have raised the standards not only of the region’s theatrical art but also of the whole country. Everywhere serious theater is to be found, Regent theatre alumni are not far away. The graduate program of Regent has been an entity to be cherished and nurtured, especially at a time when colleges and universities are looking at bottom lines more than at the condition of the human heart. We hope the prominence of undergraduate theater students, however promising they may be, on stage does not weaken the Regent product.

 

 

 

4 Comments

  • Davis Haymes wrote:

    *Miriam Wilkins. Also, Lieutenant William Seawright served in the United States Army Air Corps. The Air Force wasn’t a branch of service until 1947.

  • Thanks for the corrections.

  • Jan Nelson wrote:

    First of all, Dear Ruth is far from a new play. It is an old chestnut that the new director, whom you imply doesn’t know how to direct in the round, suggested in lieu of a show that would not have had near the audience appeal.

    Too bad your comments disparaged the great work of the Regent undergrads in the show who won lead roles on the basis of their talent and audition over grad students who also auditioned. Talent has no age limitations. Implications such as this don’t seem particularly productive or grace-filled, no matter what has previously happened at Regent. If you have an axe to grind, it would be nice to not take it out on undergrad students who are doing work on the same caliber as that of the graduate students in the show, whom are also doing good work.

  • With the words “A Comedy Rediscovered” I acknowledge Dear Liar to be an old play. Lew Nichols, whom I quote, was a New York drama critic of the 1940s and 50s, a fact which should suggest I know the play to be old.

    Having moved to Norfolk in April, I had no knowledge of the Regent theater’s history. I only know of it from its reputation. Dear Liar was the first play I saw presented by the Regent Theater program.

    The paper program I received upon entering the theater clearly and deliberately differentiated between undergraduate and graduate performers; my comments merely continued that distinction. However, if, as you suggest, there is no difference between the stage abilities of your undergraduate and graduate performers,(which I do not believe), that fact should raise questions about the effectiveness of, or need for, your graduate program.

    Previous to Dear Liar, I had only seen the summer’s two Tidewater Stage productions, performed at Regent, which I enjoyed quite a bit.

    (By the way, Jan Nelson is the director of the play under discussion.)

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