Musical ‘massage’: Playwright Yeaton to bring ‘My Ohio’ to the Flynn, THT
MIDDLEBURY — A good theatrical performance, local playwright Dana Yeaton believes, should massage audience members.
“If the touch is too light, when they go home, they don’t feel any different, and it’s not that nice,” Yeaton said. “The good massage is the one that gets into those spots and it takes you right to your threshold… The fun of it is being effective.”
With that analogy in mind, Yeaton has proved to be quite the masseur in his latest work — his first musical comedy, titled “My Ohio” — that, appropriately enough, has a chiropractor as one of its central characters. In fact, the Vermont Stage Company is so confident of Yeaton’s ability to manipulate and adjust the audience that it will be producing “My Ohio” for performances at the Flynn Space in Burlington, beginning on April 21. Yeaton will experience the thrill of bringing his musical to Addison County residents on May 6-9, when “My Ohio” is staged at the Town Hall Theater in Middlebury.
“I’m thrilled,” Yeaton said of what has been the culmination of around four years of hard, creative toil.
Yeaton began crafting “My Ohio” during the second term of former President George W. Bush. It was a time, he recalled, during which many Americans found themselves in polar opposite political camps, with seemingly little middle ground. It is that underlying red state-blue state philosophical tug-of-war that Yeaton seeks to embody, in microcosm, within his two — and only two — characters in “My Ohio.”
Set in a community in southeastern Ohio, the two disparate characters make their initial connection through what had been scheduled as a routine, chiropractic back adjustment — though it turns out to be anything but routine. “Bonnie,” an evangelical kindergarten teacher at a rural school, arrives at the office to find her customary, grapple-and-go chiropractor has been temporarily replaced by “Neil,” whom she learns is gay, of an urban background, and who espouses views that are far more liberal than her own.
Bonnie experiences, through her treatments, relief from her pain and a better understanding of beliefs contrary to her own, while Neil also comes to respect political and religious views that are right of center.
“I wanted to set up a fair fight, to the extent that nobody had the upper hand for long,” Yeaton said.
While the subject matter might seem on the serious side, audiences should expect some good laughs along the way.
“There is a comic conceit at the heart of it,” Yeaton adds.
“My Ohio” includes a lot of twists and turns along the way as the characters come to learn more about each other, all of it put to an original song list and musical score lovingly crafted by Yeaton and Andy Mitton, Middlebury College class of 2001.
The two collaborators spent many months exchanging ideas, melodies and lyrics, reaching consensus on 20 songs that form the backbone of “My Ohio.”
Indeed, “My Ohio” is quite a departure for Yeaton, assistant professor of theater at Middlebury College and an award-winning playwright with a dozen full-length plays and many short plays to his credit. “My Ohio” is not only his first musical comedy, it is his first play featuring only two characters.
“For a long time, I had wanted to write a two-character play,” Yeaton said. “It’s a challenge.”
A challenge, Yeaton explained, because playwrights and screenwriters have grown accustomed to creating stories with multiple characters to make for a galloping pace and subplots.
Limiting the cast to two actors means fewer diversions for the audience — but the potential for greater character development and a more focused story line.
“We are not used to spending that much time with one or two people,” Yeaton said. “They have to have many dramatic actions and beats and shifts to hold our attention. And how can that occur?”
Through music, Yeaton said, answering his own question.
“The beauty of the musical is that it is so easy to get the inside, out,” Yeaton said. “It is so much easier to show what’s going on inside someone when they have music, and we (the audience) have access to them musically.
“We’re used to people hiding what they mean; in songs, they can’t really,” Yeaton added. “They can try, but music will tell the truth.”
Yeaton confessed that he once thought musicals were “silly.”
Recent years have seen him warm to the genre, however.
“Within the first moments of a musical, someone can open up to you emotionally in a way that would never happen in a play,” Yeaton said. “You can have moments five minutes in,” he said, “that you have to wait a whole play to get to.”
He also acknowledged the widespread appeal of musicals.
“You walk around Times Square and it’s 90 percent musicals,” Yeaton said. “It is really what people want to go see. I think there is a reason that people want to still see musicals. They want that level of spectacle; they want to be swept away.”
The cast of two in “My Ohio” works to sweep audiences to their feet with a compelling story delivered with great physicality and with sharp and witty dialogue, catchy songs and creative choreography.
“I wanted to elevate these two lives,” Yeaton said. “I wanted to make people whose lives otherwise might be considered small — a kindergarten teacher and a chiropractor — to the epic.”
In truth, that is part of the joke, Yeaton said. There are times when the characters are singing almost operatically about a chiropractic adjustment, or about trying to teach a Thanksgiving song to children, one of whom is not very attentive.
The underlying theme of the play is much deeper than the day-to-day experiences the pair encounter in their respective professions, however.
“I want it to be about these two characters, but I wanted it to be about social forces,” Yeaton said. “I needed to build them up to something bigger. And the music allowed me to do that.
“The trick for me was, can these two people who are so fundamentally different in their belief systems, come together and still be who they were?” Yeaton said.
Yeaton is pleased with the final product he will be taking to audiences this spring. Bonnie will be played by Trisha Rapier and Neil by Matt Carlson.
“I feel it’s a play that will resonate with a lot of people here.”
John Flowers is at [email protected]