COLUMBIA — The black stage in front of the historic 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, got a fresh coat of white paint. Costume designer Beth Key sat at the barn’s open door with her sewing machine and worked on dresses for the folksy farm wives and girls of the cast of “Oklahoma!”
Beginning Friday, the Maplewood Barn Community Theatre ends its season with production of the Rodgers and Hammerstein play. This is the fifth time the theater has performed the 1943 musical since opening in 1973.
J West, who plays the spendthrift Will Parker, stood 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 rooted around in its pen, adding the scent of manure to the light breeze as cicadas droned in the trees enclosing the theater.
Four days before the show, director Eric Field sat in a low blue-and-white lawn chair during the rehearsal. 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 a lot of productions 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 people have to bring their own chairs. The open-air setting presents challenges for the actors as well.
“Bugs,” West said, laughing.
“Hot,” said Darren Hellwege, with sweat covering his face. He plays Slim in the ensemble.
“Also, you gotta project a lot more,” West said.
James Reynolds, who plays the happy-go-lucky Curly, said the bugs have flown into actor’s mouths and hit their vocal chords while they were singing, 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 added that the audience was more relaxed, because they could sit wherever they pleased..
The actors have varying degrees of experience with the show and the theater. Reynolds had never seen the musical but knew about 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. She auditioned with hopes of landing the role of Ado Annie, and she got the part. She said she enjoyed being 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 drew to a close, the cicadas’ drone had given way to a chorus of crickets, and a hazy half-moon had replaced the sunset. Field seemed pleased with the rehearsal. He said that there were a few obstacles to work out but attributes them to the limitations of a community theater where the volunteers 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.”