Beertown: anatomy of an American town

Omaha may not be known as a Mecca of the arts, but for a mid-sized Midwestern US city, there is no shortage of good theater. No, it’s not Broadway – although we do get the occasional traveling Broadway show that comes through – but the endemic talent of local playwrights, directors and actors is quite phenomenal.

This week I had the good fortune to experience three local productions. The first was a high school play written by budding playwright and actor, Ben Adams; this was a clever and humorous satire written and directed by a high school senior that had the audience laughing at the witty dialog.

The second play was really a reading of Omaha playwright Noah Diaz’s “The Motherhood Almanac,” at Omaha’s unorthodox Shelterbelt Theater. The play (or rather, the reading) has been described as:

“A play about women; about daughters and mothers // a play about the tropics, death, birth, rain, adoption, white trucks, peaches, rabbis, weddings, Tuesdays, hair ties, eyelashes // about what’s spoken and unspoken and understood and everything in-between // about swimming pools, wine, lists, wrists, fists, poetry, divorce, and the parallel lives we were never meant to lead // about learning how to carry on and all the things we must leave behind …// a play about women and the women who raised them.”

Hefty topics for a male 22 year-old playwright, but successfully done with aplomb and style and carried out magnificently by Omaha’s top ‘amateur’ actors (note that there is one who carries the same last name as me…), and under the direction of Omaha’s premier director Susie Baer Collins.

Finally, last evening we attended the Omaha Playhouse’s production of “Beertown.” A very unusual production, “Beertown” represents small-town-America at its most democratic. The play begins invitingly with the town members (we the audience) bringing an array of desserts to the 20th quinquennial town meeting and time capsule ceremony. As we Beertonian’s filled our plates with calories, the Mayor of Beertown, State Representative and other townspeople chatted with us about the upcoming quinquennial program, while the Beertonian Bugle editor took photos and interviewed  some of the townspeople.

The distinctive idea was to introduce the permanent and ‘ephemeral’ artifacts that the town’s bylaws had included into the capsule, and to democratically decide what, if any, new artifacts should replace any of the nine ephemeral ones in the capsule – and if so, which artifacts would be replaced.

The play presents a window for the audience to view how attitudes and values have changed and are still evolving in small town America. The subtle or not-so-subtle conflict between youth and the older generation. Disagreements over the significance of sport vs. the arts. And so on.

The unique angle of the production is that it allows for significant input from the audience, allowing the actors and Mayor of Beertown to use their superb improvisation skills to navigate through interesting debates and lead the democratic decision making. In all, a very interesting experience and unique theatrical production. And did I mention that the playwright from “The Motherhood Almanac” makes a superb performance as State Representative Pickel-Cooper?

Well, none of it is Broadway – and for that, I’m very glad. One doesn’t need New York for first class drama.

About Steve Caplan

I am a Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska where I mentor a group of about 10 students, postdoctoral fellows and researchers working on endocytic protein trafficking. My first lablit novel, "Matter Over Mind," is about a biomedical researcher seeking tenure and struggling to overcome the consequences of growing up with a parent suffering from bipolar disorder. Lablit novel #2, "Welcome Home, Sir," published by Anaphora Literary Press, deals with a hypochondriac principal investigator whose service in the army and post-traumatic stress disorder actually prepare him well for academic, but not personal success. Novel #3, "A Degree of Betrayal," is an academic murder mystery that is now in press! All views expressed are my own, of course--after all, I hate advertising. http://www.stevecaplan.net
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