Director’s Corner: Jim Williams talks about “Off The Map”

Jim Williams is understandably excited about directing “Off The Map” as the play follows closely in the footsteps of his two previous hits at WCT, “Grace and Glorie” and “Revival at Possum Kingdom”. Similar to its predecessors, the play takes place in a rural environment, showcases a cast of quirky and colorful characters caught up in recognizable hardships and in the end offers a heart-warming testament to how small town people find the best in themselves to persevere and move forward.

 

Williams feels this quality of resiliency is what he commonly sees around himself in the real people of our community and for this reason the play offers something especially compelling and genuinely satisfying as entertainment.

 

Featured in the show as the adult persona of the main character, Bo Groden, is Kelly Kesey, the popular star of Williams’ two previous hits, along with Steve Marston as Bo’s father Charley and Rod Grainger as a loyal family friend, George. Williams is also proud to be ushering onto the WCT stage three brand new actors debuting the first time in a live theater production: Saichai Bills appears as the spunky young Bo, Josiah Florido as an IRS agent, and Terri Boudreaux as Bo’s mother. What particularly excites Williams in this production is how these three new talents have stepped up and met every challenge he has put to them.

 

The entire play is fueled by the fact that an adult Bo Groden is presently in crisis and looking for a way forward. Her memories serve as the action in the scenes and we see how she discovered her strength as a child.

The story takes place in northern New Mexico, perhaps near the town of Abiquiu, along the Charma River. Joan Ackermann, a writer not widely known for her stage scripts, wrote this most humorous and touching gem.

 

Q. How did you find this play?

A. I first saw “Off The Map” performed in Mendocino some years ago. I pitched it around for a couple of years and was delighted when WCT decided to add it to this year’s season.

 

Q. What inspires you most about the play?

A. It’s character-driven, set in a rural place and we see the values and strengths that form the core of the characters moving forward from their struggles.

 

Q. The story is meant to seem familiar to our audience?

A. Exactly. We’re all going to experience at one time or another in our lives this moment where we wonder, how in the world am I going to get through this?

 

Q. So what is the central dilemma for the characters?

A. Bo Groden is in crisis and she’s looking back to see how she got through things–as a child. Her memories are what we see on stage. The young Bo complains about living out in the middle of nowhere, off the map, with her independent, self-reliant family, and she wants desperately to get out. She’s spunky, outspoken, and caring and we’re immediately drawn to her.

 

Q. So an adult in crisis is looking back on a childhood in crisis–that’s somewhat unique. What else is unique to this story?

A. Bo’s great-grandmother was a full-blood Hopi woman, a healer. She passed onto Bo’s mother the Hopi religion and the belief in the importance of the earth, respect for all living things, and its life forces. On stage, we see Arlene, her mother, teaching the young Bo these lessons and beliefs.

 

Q. That sounds like powerful stuff. What becomes so compelling for the young  Bo to want to leave?

A. Her father Charley has fallen into a deep depression. Before the crisis, he fixed things. He taught Bo how to repair a Volkswagon, fix appliances, carve, hunt, and how to jitterbug, and then suddenly he’s no longer there for his daughter or for his wife.  He’s retreated into silence, and we can’t forget the impact on Bo and his best friend, George.

 

Q. There’s a comedic element to all this?

A. It’s complicated. Everyone’s concerned about Charley. He took care of things and now he can’t take care of anything. He won’t even go see the doctor. His best friend George agrees to go to Albuquerque and pretend to be the depressed patient and get the prescription drugs. Only Charley won’t have a thing to do with the drugs and meanwhile, George ends up finding a way out for himself. This leaves the little girl Bo feeling abandonment and loss all over the place.

 

Q. What about her mom?

A. Bo’s mom likes working naked in her garden. Then suddenly, an IRS agent assigned to audit the family’s finances shows up and he stumbles onto Arlene in her garden.

 

Q. Naked?

A. Off stage naked, and then she dons the scarecrow’s raincoat.

 

Q. Thanks goodness for the scarecrow’s raincoat.

A. Absolutely!  William Gibbs, the IRS agent, turns out to be a very unlikely savior figure.

 

Q. The IRS agent?

A. It’s ironic, but yeah. He’s the stranger who shows up and helps lead everyone else to a new place.

 

Q. A savior figure in the form of the taxman?

A. Remember, Bo is desperate to get out. When the IRS agent first shows up, her first word is—“Saved”! But then she realizes he becomes trapped in the quicksand of the family life and he’s not the one to lead her out.

 

Q. Is the idea of a savior figure present in more than the taxman?

A. Yes, woven throughout the play is the savior figure. So the question emerges–faced with a crisis where do we look for help?  In others, in heroes, in saviors, within ourselves or in all of these places?

 

Q. I’m getting that the play is about more than just Bo as the main character?

A. It’s absolutely an ensemble piece. Every character has an arc in the story, and every character experiences a journey and a change.

 

Q. Your cast can handle this kind of emotional depth?

A. Yes, completely! Look, Kelly Kesey is so talented. Sometimes I think the only reason she keeps auditioning for me is to push me until I get it right.

 

Q. What about Saichai Bills as the young Bo?

A. It’s her first time on stage and she just showed up out of the blue for the audition. She had some previous training and experience at SPACE in Ukiah.

 

Q. So what made you choose her?

A. With Saichai there’s an energy and enthusiasm, a willingness to try things, take risks. She’s an eager, quick learner and she pushes the whole cast to keep up with her. She’s delightful and the audience will fall in love with her right away

 

Q. Amazing.

A. It’s the magic of live theater. The actors themselves can experience something transformative for their own lives, and in turn project it to the audience.

 

Q. You also have a brand new actor in Josiah Florido who plays the IRS agent, Williams Gibbs.

A. Josiah came wandering into the audition, without a clue what was going to happen. He had a natural reticence and I thought, we can use that for his character. There are times I’ve just sat back and gotten lost in his performance.  He’s been that engaging.

 

Q. How about Steve Marston as the depressed father Charley.

A.  His role as the father presents a huge challenge. He’s depressed and lost and struggling to interact with the world. Early on he has to act his character almost entirely without saying a word. He was excited at the challenge.

 

Q. The idea of Rod Grainger playing the family’s best friend, George, seems ideal.

A. George is a great character. He is loyalty personified, and discovers a hole in his heart which ultimately is filled. Rod is great at playing a lost soul who finds his way.

 

Q. Where did you find Terri Boudreaux as the mother Arlene?

A. I’ve known Terri for 20 years. She’s been a competitive public speaker. She’s someone comfortable being in front of people and projecting her voice. All those skills transfer beautifully to the stage. And I’ve discovered she has wonderful acting instincts and a great feel for the character of Arlene.

 

Q. Any final thoughts?

A. The story comes down to the importance and lasting impact of adults teaching or mentoring children especially in a moment of crisis. Ultimately where does our strength come from? Is it just reason and logic or something more?

 

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