On Sunday, I had an opportunity to see the premier of a new play. "Ken" was presented by the Savannah Community Theatre and played at the Muse Arts Warehouse, a small playhouse at one end of an old railroad freight depot which was a perfect setting for a play about a train ride across the country.
The play is told through the eyes of Arnold, a drama student at Yale University during the 1930s. He couldn't afford to go home, so he takes a job working in a hospital. But as everyone leaves for the summer, he is feeling sorry for himself. Then an opportunity occurs when a fellow student is found dead. Arnold had known Ken but wasn't a close friend, but is asked by the school to accompany his body back to Portland Oregon. Seeing a chance to travel, he agrees. Along the way, he meets a young woman also traveling back to her family in Seattle after her year in school. With a ten hour layover in Chicago, they head off to the World's Fair. They enjoy a wonderful meal in the "air conditioned dining car. They see the ravages of the depression and the dust bowl. As they head west, there are travelers heading for vacations at Yellowstone and Glacier who sit across from others who are essentially refugees, fleeing their dried up farms. Arnold falls asleep as the train is split in Eastern Washington. To his horror, he realizes that the body didn't make the Portland train and he feels horrible. But all works out as the body is sent down from Seattle. Arnold finds himself becoming more concerned about the feelings of others and is able to console the family. He even decides to stay in Portland and work for the summer before heading back to Yale in the fall.
The story is told through two Arnold's. The younger Arnold, who does the acting, is a college student. The second Arnold is the narrator and a man twenty-five years older who looks back at what he learned that summer. Ken is based on a short story of the same name by Arnold Sundgaard, which appeared in the New Yorker Magazine in 1959. The story was based on the experiences of Sundgaard while he was a student at Yale. It was produced by Stratton Leopold, a local man who has been very involved in the movies. Leopold (whose family also owns the famous Leopold Ice Cream parlor in downtown Savannah) was a classmate of Sundgaard's son in the 1960s. On behalf of the Sundgaard family, he asked another friend (Tom Coleman, III) about turning the story into a play. A scoop of Leopold Ice Cream was given to each viewer of the play.
The set for the play was minimal. A few long boxes served as the casket, waiting room seats, and train seats. There was no curtain and the actors stepped out from behind a dark wall. Most of the actors played multiple roles. One man would appear dressed as a train conductor, an undertaker or a farmer down on his luck. A woman might appear as a secretary, mother, or a farmer's wife. On a screen high above the stage old photos of train stations and sights along the way were shown, which helped set the mood. I enjoyed the play but then again I have a think for trains. I've taken the Great Northern Route (Empire Builder) from Chicago to Seattle and could easily visualize the sites screen along the way. The play is still a work in progress, but I came away with the understanding they hope it will be performed again. If you get a chance, I recommend you check it out.