WILMINGTON — “Early Dark” is a play J. Wynn Alexander has long wished to direct at Wilmington College. It runs Thursday, Friday and Saturday (April 12-14) at 7:30 p.m. in Hugh G. Heiland Theatre.
Like so many others in the extensive repertoire of plays and musicals the professor of theatre has directed, acted or otherwise produced, “Early Dark” presents its audience with a compelling story, provides challenges for its actors and offers all involved insight into the human experience.
Even more so, Alexander’s fingerprints are on the writing of “Early Dark” in a manner too difficult to pinpoint, yet too obvious to ignore. “In some small way, I feel I’m a part of this play,” he said.
He shared the story of being a sophomore literature major at Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas, during the late 1970s, taking a captivating American literature course. It was team-taught by a triad of outstanding professors he and his fellow students referred to as “The Doctors.”
“It was truly one of those college courses where class continued way beyond the ending time,” he recalled. “We soaked up every critique, every symbol, every theme presented.”
One day in the second half of the course, a “distinguished newcomer” joined The Doctors, one of whom introduced author Reynolds Price as a friend. He subsequently distributed copies of Price’s bestselling and critically acclaimed novel, A Long and Happy Life, for which he had won the prestigious William Faulkner Award.
Price, also a Pulitzer Prize nominee, remained part of the class for several weeks as they “read and tirelessly discussed — as only sophomore literature majors can do — every inch of his novel,” Alexander recalled.
Eventually Price led their discussions from “typical literature course musings” to gaining insight into the students’ hopes and dreams, personal philosophies and even religion — and maybe how elements from his novel could be applied to their own lives.
“He got us to open up about our dreams and realities as a way to see if this 1950s story related to current 20-somethings,” Alexander said.
The class came to understand that, in “A Long and Happy Life”, beyond simply the character Rosacoke Mustain’s journey to find herself, the novel exposed “a thin veil of social injustice” that lurked as the story’s background.
“Only then did we fully understand the novel’s significance: a backdrop rooted in the cotton and tobacco fields of Warren County, North Carolina, embedded in the lives of the characters and which bore actions that grew out of the novel’s proximity to the seats of civil rights, desegregation and the demands for personal freedom.”
The author led them through “peeling back Price’s rural poetry” to realize how those around Rosacoke had been shaped — “even emboldened” — by their circumstances to demand change.
“We are who we are but we are shaped by how we see what is around us, not the dream of what it should be,” Alexander said. “You either act or all remains the same.”
He later learned that Price’s motive for visiting their class was to adapt his novel into the play “Early Dark.”
“Price used our class to pinpoint the specific actions and ideas necessary and to further develop characters,” Alexander added.
“My time with Reynolds Price, my discussions with ‘The Doctors’ and now having re-read both the novel and the play many times, I understand the importance of looking beyond the path — recognizing the dream as an early dark veil masking the truth.
“We all exist in the early dark,” he added. “The question is, will you come out of the dark and let the light lead you into the long and happy life, no matter what the circumstance?”
Tickets and reservations for WC Theatre’s production of “Early Dark” are available by contacting the Theatre Box Office, located in Boyd Cultural Arts Center, at 937-481-2267 weekdays, from 9 a.m. to noon and 1 to 4 p.m.