Moat’s play focuses on a family’s secrets

MIDDLEBURY — Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, author and playwright David Moats is hoping to convince area drama enthusiasts to spend an afternoon in France with the “Branch family” next week.
And those who accept his invitation needn’t board a plane or pack their bags. “An Afternoon in France” promises to be a fast-moving, 75-minute journey into a family’s deepest secrets that Moats will deliver four times on stage at Middlebury’s Town Hall Theater from Feb. 16 to 19.
The play tells the story of the Branch family — from World War I to present day.
“When Michael Branch, a restless, middle-aged professor, takes his family on vacation, the secrets of four generations come to light, revealing startling patters of yearning, love and betrayal,” reads a play summary offered by the Middlebury Community Players (MCP), the local theater group that will be staging Moats’s play.
“A small strip of newsreel footage is the catalyst that unlocks stories about the life of Michael’s grandfather (Wheeler Branch), a soldier in World War I, his father (Frank Branch), a World War II veteran, and about Michael and his family.”
This will be the fifth Moats play that MCP will stage. Moats, a longtime Middlebury resident and Rutland Heraldeditor who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2001 for his series of editorials on Vermont’s civil union law, has been writing books and plays for several years. The MCP has previously staged versions of his plays “The Age of Dinosaurs,” “A Rage of Dreaming Sheep,” “The Hummingbird,” and “A Trip to the Moon.”
Moats describes his works as sharing a common trademark.
“They are all dramas laced with humor,” he said. “They all involve rather serious family conflict and dramas, but when I get good laughs from the audience, it is one of those gratifying things. I like to make them laugh — and cry.”
Moats described the main character of “An Afternoon in France” as a man in his 50s who begins asking questions about his grandfather — much as Moats himself, or any other person with inquisitiveness about his or her lineage, would do.
“In many families, there’s stuff you just don’t know,” Moats said, including the occasional, proverbial skeletons in the closet. “It may not be heinous stuff, but it gets peeled away in this play — for all four generations (of the Branch family).”
The Branch family explores its secrets while on vacation together in Lake Tahoe. The family gathering includes Michael and his wife Carol, their two grown children, and Michael’s dad Frank and his wife Dorothy, who are in their 80s.
“Michael can ask his father about his grandfather,” Moats said.
Some of those answers, the playwright said, are delivered through scenes involving a young Wheeler Branch in France during World War I. The play features 16 scenes that Moats said should keep the audience attentive and immersed in the story as it unfolds.
“Each generation has its secrets, and even the people closest to you, there are things you don’t know about them,” he said. “And maybe that’s just as well. How much do we want our parents to know about us and how much do we know about our own kids?”
Moats promised some “surprises” for the audience, delivered by what he said is a talented cast of 14. The (mostly local) actors include Scott Atherton, Cathy Walsh, Chelsea Ortuno, Nick Marshall, Jim Stapleton, Diana Bigelow and Sean Burke.
The performances are scheduled for Feb. 16, 17 and 18 at 8 p.m., with a 2 p.m. matinee on Sunday, Feb. 19. Tickets, $17, are available at the Town Hall Theater box office, at 382-9222, or online at www.townhalltheater.org.
Moats is excited to see “An Afternoon in France” — a script which had remained dormant in his desk drawer for a few years until the right moment — finally come to life on stage.
“It’s hard work, but now is the time to enjoy the work and make it happen,” Moats said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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