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Romance, separation in WW1

Theater Review — Special to Living
By Laura Almasi, Times Record Contributor
Friday, April 16, 2010 2:07 PM EDT

PORTLAND — It has been called the War to End All Wars, but as history would show, the war spanning the years 1914-1918 did not put an end to world conflict. With more than 22 million total casualties, The Great War tore apart families all over globe, shattering their lives forever.

In “Mary’s Wedding,” now at Portland Stage, playwright Stephen Massicotte explores the story of one young couple whose lives are affected by this struggle.

The tale, set on the Canadian prairie, takes the form of a dream as told by Mary, a young English lady, the night before her wedding. Taking place entirely in her bedroom, she relays how she met and fell in love with Charlie, a local farm boy and avid horseman just before the outbreak of the war.

The two seem an unlikely pair, Mary, a young upper crust British woman and Charlie, the son of a farmer whose passion for horses fills his days.

Cleverly shifting back and forth between the early days of their courtship and the conditions that Charlie experiences at the Front, “Mary’s Wedding” is a wonderfully written story of love lost during wartime and its aftermath. It reminds us all of what families past and present endure when their loved ones are serving their country.

We first meet the young couple as they each seek shelter in a barn during a fierce thunderstorm.

Clearly unsettled by the storm, Charlie attempts to calm himself by reciting lines from Tennyson’s immortal poem, “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” Written by the poet laureate after reading an account of the disastrous charge by the British cavalry against Russian forces during the Crimean War, the poem becomes a metaphor for both Charlie, a member of the Canadian cavalry and of the experiences that the British once again face during key battles during the First World War.

As the days pass, the two find ways to meet despite the disapproval of Mary’s mother and slowly fall in love. Their flirtation blossoms as they continually “bump into each other” in town, but then August 1914 dawns and war breaks out.

Britain has declared war on Germany and its colonies join them in the fight. Charlie, along with many other young men, enlists.

Todd Lawson as Charlie and Annie Purcell as Mary are perfectly cast. On stage for most of the 90 minute performance, Lawson embodies the young man who fights for King and country. He may be a simple farm boy, but Charlie is brave and ready to do his bit to kick it to the Kaiser and Lawson brings him to life as he recounts Charlie’s experiences to Mary about life in the cavalry and later in the trenches.

Serving as the storyteller, Purcell allows us to feel the heartache Mary endures as Charlie goes off to war. In her dream, time shifts back and forth from the innocence of a pre-war world to the destruction of battle.

Making for this seamless transition is Massicotte’s use of the third character Gordon Flowerdew also played by Purcell.

Flowerdew, a real life Canadian sergeant who was awarded the Victoria Cross for bravery, oversees Charlie’s battalion. You’ll see your girl everywhere he tells Charlie when they first meet aboard a ship bound for Europe.

This phrase serves as the conduit throughout the play that allows Purcell to drop her voice and put on a great coat or cap to transform into Flowerdew. Flowerdew becomes Charlie’s protector and confidant as the men witness the horrors of trench warfare.

Anita Stewart’s simple set design works well as a barn, bedroom and battlefield. Sound by David Remedios brings the impact of battle to life while Susan Thomas’ costumes complete the look with her early 20th century fashion.

Under the direction of Daniel Burson, “Mary’s Wedding” creates a poignant and heartbreaking dreamscape set in a time where the age of innocence disappeared forever on a summer’s day in 1914.

Apartheid’s dawn

Theater Review — Special to Ticket

by Laura Almasi, Times Record Contributor
Published: Thursday, March 11, 2010 2:14 PM EST

PORTLAND — More than a quarter of a century has passed since South African author Athol Fugard first staged “Master Harold and the Boys,” now playing at Portland Stage, yet its message still resonates in today’s society where hate and racism linger.

While Apartheid, the backdrop of this powerful play, no longer exists, there are similar regimes that have taken its place in other parts of the world. We can easily relate to events today that mirror the cruel treatment of black South Africans. It is because of this that Fugard’s work continues to awaken new generations to strive for a better world.

Semi-autobiographical in nature, “Master Harold” is set in Port Elizabeth, South Africa in 1950, the early days of Apartheid. It is here we find Sam and Willie, two black workers at a local tea shop on a rainy afternoon.

Black South Africans were not allowed to live in the cities, only work, so when Willie wants to play some music on the jukebox, he has to decide on whether he wants to play a song or ride the bus home.

It’s subtle lines like these that make the story come alive and make us realize the freedoms we take for granted now were not the basic rights of all men and women.

In between their work, Sam is trying to teach Willie the finer steps of ballroom dancing. Willie has entered a competition and is struggling. His partner has been an absent participant and he is worried about competing. Ballroom dancing, one of two metaphors in the play, symbolizes peace and harmony — the times in life where there are no collisions, Sam pronounces.

As the rain and wind continue to beat down, in from the elements comes Harold, or Hally to Sam and Willie. He is the son of the white owners of the tea shop and while the invalided and alcoholic husband is in hospital, Hally spends the remainder of his school day in the company of the two men whom he calls his friends.

He has grown up in front of them and now as a 17-year-old, he is as close to them as any other relative. In fact, Sam is like a surrogate father to him and Hally delights in teaching the older man what he’s learned (and chosen not to) at school.

As they play around, the three of them reminisce about “the little boy in short trousers” who spent many a day in their company. It seems like an ideal situation in the most unlikely of places, a white boy and two black men transcending all racial boundaries. 

It is until the phone rings and Hally’s mother tells him his father is well enough to come home. And while that should please any young man, Hally is clearly angry.

He knows what this means and it’s not good. As the news spills over and destroys the jovial atmosphere, Hally’s raw feelings are exposed and the relationship he has with Sam and Willie is torn open in an explosive second half of this one-act performance.

Daryl C. Brown (Willie), Michael Littig (Hally) and Charlie Hudson III (Sam) embodied their characters and breathe life into the often intense and poignant script. Hudson feels the passion of Sam who wants to both help the young man be a good person and help his own people gain the respect they deserve. It is an inspiring performance.

Littig spans the emotional spectrum convincingly as a troubled young man who is caught between a white and a black world. Brown offers up the needed comedic elements that balance this often sobering play.

Director Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj has brilliantly presented a timeless story whose fundamental lessons are still relevant in a world where bigotry and hate continue to fester. It is Fugard’s message of hope that we as audience members will remember long after the stage lights fade.


Rollicking ‘Irma Vep’

Special to Ticket
By Elizabeth Lardie, Times Record Staff

Thursday, February 4, 2010 3:56 PM EST

PORTLAND — Something’s rotten in the estate of Mandacrest. The late first lady of the manor, Irma Vep, died under mysterious circumstances. The grounds are frequented by a frightening wolf. And the lord of the manor, distant from his second bride, appears to be hiding something.

Portland Stage Company’s production of “The Mystery of Irma Vep,” however, produces far more feelings of mirth than melodrama. In playwright Charles Ludlam’s Victorian-set spoof, two actors play, and play-up, all eight quirky characters as they blunder through the English moors near Hampstead Health as well as exotic Egyptian sands to uncover the most peculiar of puzzlements.

Very much in the style of an English pantomime, the campy and comical romp features over-the-top gestures, humor in the form of anything from flatulence jokes to highly literary puns, and the regular presence of players in drag. Simultaneously high- and low-brow, this has the potential to appeal to a multitude of tastes.

There are gags and asides for everyone — except, perhaps, for kids. While harmless and campy, this is a “penny dreadful” (a reference to the cheap melodrama novels the play in part pays homage to) intended as an adult indulgence.

“The Mystery of Irma Vep” demands little of the suspension of disbelief so crucial in most productions. In fact, it is when the production was at its most self aware — including self-reflexive writing and a generous supply of deliveries straight to the audience — that it was at its most irresistibly hilarious.

Even pauses as the actors suppressed their own laughter were great fun to witness. A frantic scene between groundskeeper Nicodemus Underwood and the Lady Enid Hillcrest (both played Portland Stage veteran Tom Ford) that deliberately plays up the comical limitations of a two-man cast had the audience gasping in laughter.

Ford, last seen on the company’s stage in “Iron Kisses,” (another strong two-player production that also showcased his diverse range) showed a Vaudevillian side of his skills that was in high contrast to the subtle and poised presence he last revealed.

Steven Strafford excels at his own brand of camp as well, particularly as the effeminate Lord Edgar Hillcrest. His physicality, accentuated by his modest frame, was always on point.

Sunday’s matinee performance was mildly detached at curtain’s rise. The ensemble, including lights and sound in this case as the technical timing was just as critical as the actors’, was so close to seamlessly gelling yet was ever so slightly off.


“The Mystery of Irma Vep”

Where: Portland Stage Company, 25A Forest Ave., Portland.

When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Fridays, 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday.

Tickets: $32, and $29 for senior citizens and $16 for students on Wednesdays-Fridays; $36 and $33 for senior citizens and $18 for students on Saturdays and Sundays.

Call: 774-0465 or order online at


That being said, the play still had the audience in steady bursts of laughter (and perhaps the occasional playful groan for the worst of the puns).

By the time Ford and Strafford hit their stride in the second act — sweat dripping down their temples as they raced about the stage for rapid-fire costume changes and ridiculous confrontations — it was absurdly delightful.

The rather musical turn the production takes in the second half (likely to buy time for set or costume changes) seemed out of place by the second or third abbreviated song, but was none the less entertaining as both actors certainly didn’t hold back.

At worst, “The Mystery of Irma Vep,” offers no shortage of fun. At its best, Portland Stage’s mid-winter offering is a prim
e example of how “bad” theater can be so exceptionally good.


Review of The Gin Game
Game of life plays out onstage

Review — Special to Ticket
By Elizabeth Lardie, Times Record Staff
Published:Thursday, November 5, 2009 2:09 PM EST

PORTLAND — In many card games, there are two primary elements that factor into the outcome: Strategy and luck.

Like a game of poker or gin, one’s success in life often requires a focused mind and strategic moves. Organization and an awareness of the others around you is key. But even more like gin, sometimes, it simply boils down not to how well you play your hand, but to the cards you are lucky enough to be dealt.

Fonsia (Cristine McMurdo-Wallace) and Weller (J. Patrick McNamara) have reached the later years of their lives, and find themselves as fellow assisted living home residents. Over a well-worn card table on the cluttered porch of the home (the set exquisitely designed and executed), the two spend time reviewing the rules of gin and assessing just how well they each played their game — at the table and otherwise.

Sally Wood made an impressive effort when directing Portland Stage’s “The Drawer Boy” last year, and does not disappoint in her next directorial effort with the company. D.L. Coburn’s solid play has the risk of going static in a full production — the two-man show is, after all, a story that all takes place on the same porch and centers around two retirees and 52 cards.

But every high and low of emotion is touched upon, sometimes in the matter of minutes, making the experience range from humorous, endearing to outright uncomfortable, painful, frightening and even desolate.

McNamara portrayed Weller with an effortless manner, remaining charming even while flippant. “I have one of the most advanced cases of old age in the history of medicine,” he deadpans to Fonsia when discussing what brought him to the home. In those lighter moments, he is the weathered grandfather figure many would recognize.

The familiar and warm aspect of his presence only made increasingly frequent moments of utter rage all the more disconcerting. Weller’s deep-seated anger hides like a rabid ace up his sleeve, and the opening night audience let out collective gasps on more than one occasion in reaction to his outbursts.

McNamara’s rapid-fire flips from emotion to emotion, without losing any sense of sincerity, displayed a high level of dramatic agility.

Portland Stage regular McMurdo-Wallis manages to convey Fonsia’s polite and conservative nature, and even her appeasement of Weller’s frequent demands, without becoming weak or submissive. Fonsia may be less fiery than Weller outwardly, but she held her own cards with an unassuming confidence.

A constant attention to detail kept the entire production in sharp focus without overwhelming the  more subtle moments — the steady blue flicker of light behind a curtain indicating a TV perpetually on inside, the simple drip of a leaky roof, stage hands dressed (and indeed performing) as nursing assistants.

This production keeps its cards close to the chest at first, but places them down on the table confidently with a loaded hand that strategy had far more to do with than luck.

“The Gin Game”

Where: Portland Stage, 25A Forest Ave., Portland.

When: Through Nov. 15. Performances are  Wednesday-Friday, 7:30 p.m.; Saturdays at 4 p.m. and 8 p.m.; and Sundays at 2 p.m.

Tickets: Wednesdays-Fridays, $32, and $29 for senior citizens and $16 for students. Saturdays-Sundays, $36, and $33 for senior citizens and $18 for students.

Call: 774-0465.




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