Playwright Daniel R. Lillford says The Cabbage Patch “is not a big play.” Director Kristen van Ginhoven, too, calls it “a little play.” Little, that is, in the sense that it circles around a single mysterious event and a handful of interlocking relationships in a small Nova Scotia town.
But for van Ginhoven, the play also overflows. “It’s a trifecta,” she told me last week, just before her production opened at the Theater Project in West Springfield. Lillford calls his work “a black comedy and mystery,” and within that duplex van Ginhoven finds a third stylistic aspect: a memory play.
At its center is Arthur, a slightly eccentric amateur inventor (at the outset, we find him wearing one of his wife’s dresses, on a bet). He’s comfortably married to May, a fussy, snobbish Englishwoman, and is best friends with sweet, alcoholic Roy, an old army buddy from the Korean War. Arthur’s brother Wilson is, as the script describes him, “the antithesis of Arthur: a natural charmer, a successful businessman, an unsuccessful husband.” He’s married to Jean, who is May’s antithesis and Arthur’s onetime love.
The action flashes back and forth from the 1980s to 10 years previous, when Jean died under ambiguous circumstances—did Wilson kill her?—and her body disappeared. The plot hinges on that puzzle—the cabbage patch of the title, lovingly tended by Arthur (and realistically fashioned by designer Greg Trochlil) plays a literally downstage-center role in the mystery. But the heart of the play resides in the bond of friendship and loyalty between Arthur and Roy, forged in their shared wartime experience.
“Daniel Lillford told me that those kinds of friendships you create with your brothers or sisters in war are as deep as a marriage, sometimes deeper,” van Ginhoven explains. In an author’s note, the playwright says he was inspired by his grandfather’s service in World War I, which embittered him (“We were just sandbags for politicians,” Lillford remembers him saying) but remained the defining moment of his life. Lillford dedicates the play to him and his comrades as “one small mark of respect and remembrance.”
Van Ginhoven says she’s fascinated by the play in part because she’s Canadian: “I get a kick out of it, that it’s set in Nova Scotia, where I went to school, and I love the Canadian references,” such as May’s Conservative politics (and morals) and her dim view of Arthur’s Liberal leanings. She also relishes the challenge of tying together the script’s three elements—comedy, mystery and memory.
“There’s no one overall style to frame it in,” she says, “so we’re finding the rhythm of the comedy, laying the crumbs for the audience to connect the dots about the mystery, and making sure the timeline of memory is clear.”
As if to match this show’s “trifecta,” the cast includes two triple-threat performers. Sam Rush, who plays Wilson, and Jeannine Haas, as May, are also theater directors and head their own companies, New Century Theatre and Pauline Productions, respectively. Their participation here is a mark of the collaboration and cross-fertilization that enlivens the Valley’s theater scene: shared endeavor by comrades-in-arms.•
The Cabbage Patch runs through Feb. 10 at the Majestic Theatre, 131 Elm St., West Springfield, (413) 747-7797, majestictheater.com.
Contact Chris Rohmann at StageStruck@crocker.com.