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HOMESTEADERS by Nina Shengold, Directed by Sam Weisman

STEPHEN MACHT as "Neal Raftery"
JAMES N. STEPHENS as "Jack Raftery"
ANNE KERRY as "Jacqueline 'Jake' Robbins"
VIVEKA DAVIS as "Laurel Sierra Millis"

Setting: An island fishing community in southeastern Alaska.  Summer, 1979.

...About South-Eastern Alaska...

Imagine you're in northern California, Oregon: lush green rainforests, a rocky, rugged coastline. You travel north and everything intensifies. The coastal mountains rise to awesome heights. The offshore rocks become a maze of islands, salt fjords and inlets. The signs of man are fewer, farther, wilder — a rusted-out Cat tractor left to rot in a logging clearcut, the weathered wood shacks of a long-abandoned mink farm, ribs of a boat wreck washed up on the shore. You travel for hours seeing nothing at all except forest and water, always water.

This is Southeast Alaska. In summer the sun stays high till midnight and rises at three. The air is fresh and cool with mist, and when the sun burns through it shimmers through the air in double rainbows, sundogs. More often, though, it is a land of moody rains, of shrouded mountains and twisting veils of mist combed sideways through the crowns of pines.

The towns are so few that a place name on a map may be five or six cabins huddled on the shoreline. Most of the towns in Southeast are on islands; the roads, if they have them at all, lead nowhere. The only access is by floatplane or by boat. It is a region of extremes — a thousand different shades of blue and green, a beauty as stark and changing as the sea's.

Actually, only a small minority of the human race will ever consider primeval nature a basic source of happiness... Mankind as a whole is too numerous for its problem of happiness to be solved by the simple expedient of paradise.

- Robert Marshall, an early explorer of the Brooks Range in Alaska

PHOTOS by I.C. Rapoport
Click on the picture for a larger version

L-R: James N. Stephens as "Jack," Veronica Cartwright as "Edra" & Stephen Macht as "Neal"

L-R: James N. Stephens as "Jack," Anne Kerry as "Jake," Viveka Davis as "Laurel,"
Stephen Macht as "Neal" & Veronica Cartwright as "Edra"

L-R: Viveka Davis as "Laurel," James N. Stephens as "Jack," Anne Kerry as "Jake,"
Veronica Cartwright as "Edra" & Stephen Macht as "Neal"



L.A. TIMES, Tuesday, June 26, 1984

Times Staff Writer

If you listen to what playwright Nina Shengold has to say, you learn something. That's as much as one has a right to expect from a theatrical experience. When that experience is both old and fresh at once, the suspicion is that there's a real writer in the house.

Certainly that's the feeling one gets from sitting through Shengold's "Homesteaders" at the Matrix, where it opened an Olympic Arts Festival engagement Sunday.

Shengold is not only a writer, but also an honest woman. She reports life as it is—no matter how disheveled, painful or tough.

Her homesteaders are not the huddled masses in search of a new life, but poor little rich kids from New Canaan who chose to burn draft cards and credit cards and flee to America's last frontier.

Indeed, brothers Neal and Jack Raftery (Stephen Macht and James N. Stephens, respectively) have survived 11 years in the inlets of southeastern Alaska. As small "independent" fishermen, running their own boats, living in their own homes, they have talked themselves into believing the dream.

Jack lives with his "fiancee," Edra (Veronica Cartwright), a hard-working native Alaskan nervously watching her child-bearing years go by. Edra's a realist who's not afraid to spell out the flip side of the dream. She reads it out clearly for "Jake" (Anne Kerry), another member of the disaffected rich, whom Neal has "hired" out of-Seattle as his new "deckhand."

"Independent fishing," we soon find out, means subsistence at the mercy of weather, long hours, the stink of fish and seasickness. "Self-contained home" is a clapboard shack (Neal's) which generates its own electricity—now and then, if and when the generator kicks in—or an equally primitive houseboat (Jack's) moored nearby.

Nearest store: 50 miles. Phones: none (CB radios do the trick). Neighbors: none. Ditto street lights—and, for that matter, streets—while the surrounding nature's majesty says nothing of the long, dark, idle winters.

When Neal's 14-year-old daughter Laurel (Viveka Davis) bursts onto the scene (as only furious 14-year-olds can), her effrontery becomes a catalyst—the knife that skewers the truth out of everyone.

Some cutting edge.

Shengold clearly knows plenty about angry 14-year-olds. But she also has listened to intelligent adults defend themselves—parry, thrust, talk back, reason, reveal.

She keeps us uncovering layers in all these people— those with and those without layers to hide. And when Life (or, more precisely, Death) decides to run interference with the brothers' master plan, Shengold's ear and eye report with scouring accuracy not only on the turbulence created, but also on the serious moral and philosophical issues thus disinterred.

Chief among her talents is fearless dialogue, as blunt and merciless as ever flowed from a woman's pen. It takes a scathing look at motivations. If Shengold's voice is remarkable for anything, it is remarkable for its eviscerating honesty.

Gerry Hariton and Vicki Baral's lighting and interior setting, with their suggestions of splintered age and dirt and a black, surrounding void, set off the realism of the piece with just enough abstraction to remind us we're in a theater. And Carol Brolaski's costumes are appropriately unnoticeable (except for Edra's humorous fling at re-entering civilization).

The acting is balanced throughout, although a touch more definition from Kerry as Jake—the least defined character—would not be amiss. Especially vivid are Davis' fuming Laurel and Stephens' playful, timid Jack.

Sam Weisman has directed the play with force and a cool hand, correctly letting the writer's words do the work. Ultimately it is that writer and those words that are the stars of the show. Shengold at 28 is very much someone to watch.


Playwright Nina Shengold is a name to remember

Edra: "Want some coffee?"
Jake: "Oh, I'd kill for some coffee."
Edra (pointedly): "It's on the stove."

This snatch of seemingly innocuous dialogue occurs shortly after "Homesteaders" begins and introduces us to a striking new playwright and play. If "Homesteaders" is any example, we're going to be seeing quite a bit of Nina Shengold's work in years to come.

Jake, whose real name is Jacqueline Robbins, is a 24-year-old refugee from New York who's recently arrived at a small fishing village in Alaska. She's been brought here by Neal, a local fisherman who's taken her on as a deckhand and lover. When Edra tells Jake the coffee is on the stove, what she's really saying is: "Get it yourself, New Yorker. You're in Alaska now, and it's no picnic."

"Homesteaders" is one of those plays in which things aren't at all what they seem to be (although, paradoxically, once we get the drift of things, it is fairly predictable, the play's one flaw). Plays of this kind aren't unusual, but Shengold displays a rare talent for integrating her plot, themes and characters so harmoniously that for once the reversals that take place appear to be anything but tricks. And she also writes with humor, true seasoned character humor, not the sort of brittle one-liners spawned by generations of TV sitcoms.

The most important reversal in the play concerns Neal, who has presented himself to Jake as a born frontiersman, son of a logger, and an authentic Alaskan lone wolf. But Neal turns out to have an even preppier background than Jake, not to mention a 14-year-old daughter with the disposition of a rattlesnake. The conflicts and themes growing out of this situation are many and run about as deep as you care to follow. One trail takes us to the America of the 1960s: Neal and his brother Jack (who lives in back with Edra) were Vietnam draft-dodgers who imbibed too much Jack Kerouac and hit the road for Alaska. They changed their names (taking their cue from Kerouac), changed their identities and have tried to change their values. Shengold explores this theme of burned bridges and burned draft cards without taking sides or turning it into parlor debate like several recent plays and films.

Another trail leads skillfully into the vast expanse of Alaskan wilderness that surrounds these five characters: the lure of hunting, fishing, trapping — giving up all the civilized amenities in exchange for near-absolute freedom and the raw beauty of the land. Neal, for all the furies that drive him, is truly in love with his life, while the two women and Jack (to a certain extent) feel the tug of indoor plumbing.

Shengold and director Sam Weisman, with the help of a superlative cast, have put this story together beautifully. Stephen Macht's Neal is an unforgettable character, a man of iron with a seething mass of contradictions boiling dangerously beneath the surface. Veronica Cartwright's overworked Edra, who's had her fill of Alaska and is just dying to get into a miniskirt, is another performance gem. James N. Stephens brings an enormous amount of vitality to Jack, and Anne Kerry copes fairly well with Jake, the play's least-developed character.

Gerry Hariton and Vicki Baral's cabin set and lighting are among this teams best and Carol Brolaski's costumes are patchwork perfect. The production is a model of the kind of thrilling work that can be done on the Equity-waiver level. As for Shengold — what an extraordinary debut.

READER, June 29, 1984


How do Americans see themselves these days? That's one of the questions foreign visitors to the Olympic Arts Festival must be asking themselves. Of course there's an overwhelming volume of various types of evidence, since our narcissistic culture has made self-examination a major industry. Yet the discerning visitor will slough off the countless popular self-help fads, the embarrassingly crass television programs and the movies aimed at children and adolescents, and take a hard look at the best our serious artists have to say. One example of such work worth thinking about is Homesteaders, a play by Nina Shengold currently being presented at the Matrix Theatre on Melrose Avenue.

Homesteaders deserves consideration not because it's an Olympic Arts Festival offering, of course—much of the stuff in the festival is simply light entertainment, which is as it should be-but because Shengold takes up questions that have been troubling many of us for years: It's a play about how to live, how to come to terms with the past—including your parents—and the future—your children. Shengold has constructed a well-made drama about middle-class values told in a naturalistic style. As it unfolds before you it is, in a dramatic sense, completely convincing; its better touches are like something by Arthur Miller. In many ways this production is as good as any Los Angeles theater has presented lately, and you leave the play with something to chew on. Whether you choose to swallow the message and digest it is another matter.

Specific details are important here. Homesteaders is set in a wooden cabin in southeastern Alaska. Five Americans spend two months together here at the edge of the last frontier. It is the summer .of 1979. The family that lives here is part of an island fishing community. The play begins in the dark: You hear good-natured joshing on a CB radio. Someone is calling home, bringing a new deckhand to work on his fishing boat with him. One of the voices uses a few four-letter words in a familiar, harmless way, and another threatens to "turn you hippies in to the FCC." It's the sort of rough banter that passes constantly between people who know each other well. A mature woman's voice extends an invitation to bring the newcomer over to get acquainted as soon as possible.

The lights come up to reveal Edra (Veronica Cartwright), a blond-haired woman of thirty-three. She's dressed in jeans and a heavy shirt, and she's peering anxiously out a window, listening to the CB and watching for the others' arrival. When Neal Raftery (Stephen Macht) and the new deckhand "Jake" come in, we see that "Jake" is the nickname of a pretty brunette named Jacqueline (Anne Kerry). Jacqueline is struck with admiration for the interior of the cabin, so our eyes follow hers around the room.

The set is remarkable: raw wood, a wood cookstove, a plank table, shelves of groceries, a bed on a platform built at chest level, an old refrigerator with postcards taped on its door. Gerry Hariton and Vicki Baral have designed a room that seems starkly real and at the same time romantically inviting. On some pretext Neal steps out for a minute, and the two women start to get to know each other while Edra stows the fresh supplies Neal bought in town. Jacqueline is friendly and tries to be helpful, but Edra spurns her at first, obviously resentful at her intrusion. So far we can't tell what Homesteaders is about, but the people seem real and sympathetic, and when the others show up the play becomes even better.

The others are Jack Raftery (James N. Stephens), Neal's bespectacled younger brother, and Laurel Sierra Millis (Viveka Davis), Neal's fourteen-year-old daughter. As played under Sam Weisman's direction, Jack and his niece are the most vital members of the quintet. Like Neal, Jack is a fisherman who works ordinarily by himself. His was the voice of foul-mouthed raillery we heard on the CB. His is the only one with a sense of humor and his wit is not a matter of jokes but rather a light, tolerant, flexible approach to his surroundings. Stephen's portrayal is a subtle, affectionate one of a man who has chosen a life of action but not brutality; he brings out the ridiculousness in an anecdote about a barroom brawl that resulted when someone else quoted Milton at a couple of tough loggers. Jack is Edra's "fiancee'"; she tells Jacqueline they have been engaged four years; they live in a nearby cabin on a raft.

Laurel is a stereotype, the angry teenager on the verge of sexual exploration, yet in Davis's interpretation she comes to life—her frustration and rage at her divorced parents (her mother is an acupressure therapist in Sausalito) seems genuine and, from her point of view, thoroughly justified. She is here to visit for the summer, yet since her father spends most of his time fishing, and she hates fish, she's bored and restless and bound to get in trouble.

It isn't only his daughter that Neal doesn't have time for. He's a brooding, macho type with a take-it-or-leave-it attitude toward everything. He neglected to tell Jacqueline that he had a teenage daughter at home when he hired her. He dazzled her with a story about coming from a tiny village in Canada, the son of an alcoholic logger who lost a leg in a sawmill accident. Jacqueline is a typist from New York, fresh from visiting her father in Seattle, where he lives with—she curls her lip with contempt—his third wife. At the beginning she sees herself in the midst of an adventure, and Jack and Neal are like two frontiersmen in the Old West.

Already we've seen plenty of material to base a domestic drama on: The delicate balance of a family is upset by the addition of a newcomer, and the action proceeds until the outsider is definitely included in (or excluded from) the group.

But that isn't the story Nina Shengold wants to tell. In the second scene Homesteaders takes an unexpected turn, and the playwright raises the stakes. Neal and Jack have been living an eleven-year imposture that borders on fantasy. They're brothers, but their name isn't Raftery, it's Lowry; they adopted their new first names from Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady. They live on the edge of civilization, not outside it; their trips to town for supplies are infrequent yet essential; they want to pretend that the past doesn't exist or matter, but they can't get away with it.

It's a real American topic—a lot of us still daydream about escaping to Alaska or Australia or someplace, and from time to time some of us try it. Shengold has worked in southeastern Alaska herself, and much of Homesteaders rings true. I don't want to give the rest of the plot away—more surprises come in the second act; one of the play's major themes is secrecy and its harmful effects. I think Shengold got stuck and decided to introduce a modern-day deus ex machina to help keep the action going. Yet in spite of what strikes me as an unfortunate flaw, Homesteaders is worth your time. If a visitor from Norway or Bolivia called me as a witness and put it to me: Does the play tell the truth? I would be obliged to admit, well, it's not the whole truth, it's not nothing but the truth—but it tells part of the truth about some of us.

ARTICLE: "From Wesleyan to L.A., Via the Alaskan Route"
L.A. Times, Friday, June 22, 1984


When her play "Homesteaders" opens at the Matrix Theater Sunday, Nina Shengold won't be surprised if some members of the audience assume she's a man.

At the play's previous productions, Shengold says she observed theatergoers "looking in their programs at intermissions and saying, 'Oh, my God. This is by a girl,' " The play'rf strong masculine characters and themes, she says, have led many to believe that it must have been written by a man.

That's fine with her: She says she's always "rather enjoyed" people's perplexity about her.

Earlier this month, Shengold, 28, sat upstairs at the Matrix and recalled how growing up in Bayonne, N.J., she was "a pretty ambitious kid" who was directing plays by the time she was a senior in high school. She completed Wesleyan University in three years with a degree in directing, in 1974. and went to New York to become a director.

After four years of backstage work (lighting, carpentry and the like), however, she was still no closer to her goal. So, in the autumn of 1978, she headed west, and, for six months in 1979, lived and worked in the southeast Alaskan panhandle as, among other things, a deckhand on a salmon trawler.

"When you're steering a boat for anywhere from six to 12 hours all day—and all you're basically doing is looking out for floating debris and keeping your eye on the depth sound—it's very meditative. I got a tremendous amount of writing done just in terms of having that much time to think," she says.

Upon returning to New York, Shengold says she developed "Homesteaders" out of her reflections about people, like herself, who had sought an alternate, and often ragged, life style in Alaska, which she describes as "the opposite of the American dream... downward mobility."

"I was wondering why people in the 1980s would want to try to find themselves by living a very primitive life style, basically living off the land. To me, it was tied into the '60s dream," Shengold says.

"Alaska seems like a place outside of time. It's a place where people can get stuck in their own past."

"Homesteaders," which opened at the Capital Repertory Company in Albany, N.Y., in 1983 and was performed at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Conn., in February, is being given its West Coast premiere here.

It concerns five people (two men and three women) who are part of what Shengold calls the "subsistence-fishermen-hippie-dropout population" of southeastern Alaska. Although the play is set in 1979, Shengold says it's "as if '79 had stopped about 10 years earlier."

But, Shengold notes, Alaska is not truly an escape hatch: "You can't make your solutions geographically. However much you want to take yourself out of your old way of life, you're the same person. Ultimately to start over you have to come to terms with what you've been.

"That's universal. I don't think that just happens in Alaska."

Also read about HOMESTEADERS actress Veronica Cartwright

HOMESTEADERS was a selection of the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival
(see article below)

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