COLUMBIA — The black stage in front of the historical red Maplewood Barn in Nifong Park hums with activity. On Monday evening, people worked in and around the barn and stage, transforming the theater into the state of Oklahoma and themselves into cowboys and farmers.
Aunt Eller’s house, a white house-front with a balcony on top, is getting a fresh coat of white paint. Costume designer Beth Key sits at the barn’s open door with her sewing machine and works on dresses for the folksy farm wives and girls of the cast.
J West, who plays the spendthrift Will Parker, stands on stage in jeans and cowboy boots twirling a lasso and chatting with other cast members. Offstage and not officially part of the show, a hog roots around in its pen, adding the scent of manure to the light breeze while cicadas droned in the trees enclosing the theater.
Beginning Friday, the Maplewood Barn Community Theatre ends its season with a production of Rogers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma!” This is the fifth time the theater has performed the 1943 musical since opening in 1973.
Four days before the show, director Eric Field sat in a low blue-and-white lawn chair while the rehearsal ran. He’s taking this production back to its roots, focusing not just on the singing but also on the love triangles and danger in the play. He said that with a lot of productions, people just do the show because it’s a classic.
“We’re exploring a lot of the journeys the characters go on, especially since the characters have to learn how to live together before Oklahoma becomes a state,” Field said.
The Maplewood Barn Theatre is an outdoor venue, and there are no chairs for the audience, meaning that people have to bring their own. This open-air setting presents challenges for the actors as well.
“Bugs,” West said, laughing.
“Hot,” said Darren Hellwege, who plays Slim in the ensemble. The sweat covering his face backed up this statement.
“Also, you gotta project a lot more,” West said.
James Reynolds, who plays the happy-go-lucky Curly, said the bugs have flown into people’s mouths and hit the vocal chords while they were singing, he said, causing them to lose the note. But he said he liked that the audience was close to the stage in the Barn’s setting.
“Actors and singers are addicted to applause,” Reynolds said. He also pointed out that the audience was more relaxed, because they could sit where they pleased rather than sitting in specified seats in a theater.
The actors themselves have varying degrees of experience with the show and with the theater. Reynolds had never seen the musical but knew of it from his mother. However, he’s had several roles around the area with the Columbia Entertainment Company and hopes to raise money to audition in New York some day.
Shannon Daugherty knew the movie version beforehand. She auditioned with hopes of landing the role of Ado Annie and got the part. She said she enjoyed the role of the ditzy comic relief. Like Reynolds, she said she loves the audience’s response. “A standing ovation is just like the best thing in the world to me,” Daugherty said.
As the rehearsal draws to a close, the cicadas’ drone has given way to a chorus of crickets, and a hazy half-moon has replaced the sunset. Field seems pleased with the rehearsal. He said that there are a few obstacles to work out but attributes them to the limitations of community theater where everyone’s a volunteer, and they have to work around their schedules. Monday night, for instance, three cast members were missing. But he enjoys it nonetheless.
“This is amateur theater in the best sense,” Field said. “Amateur comes from the word love, and everything we do out there is an act of love.”