Amherst Bulletin

Kissing frogs: Amherst author brings pitfalls of midlife dating to the stage in newest work

By Bonnie Wells
Staff Writer

Published on March 20, 2009

Actress Sarah Wilson performs in "Blue Straw Hat," a new play by Corinne Demas, which is set for upcoming productions at Mount Holyoke College and at the Amherst Cinema Center in Amherst.

We've all been there. What's the old saw - before you find the handsome prince (or princess), you have to kiss a lot of frogs?

A new play by Amherst writer Corinne Demas, set for production this month and next, treats audiences to a veritable buffet of amphibial smooching that manages to be sweet, humorous and humane along the way.

Demas, a professor of English at Mount Holyoke College and fiction editor of the Massachusetts Review, is the author of a brace each of novels and collections of short stories, a memoir and a couple dozen award-winning picture books for children. But while two of her short stories have been adapted for the stage, playwriting is a new adventure.

"I had this character in my mind for awhile," Demas said last week in a conversation about her play "Blue Straw Hat." But the character didn't seem to gravitate to any of her usual literary forms. Ultimately, Demas said, "She burst out there and said, 'I need to be a play!' "

"She" is Beryl, a divorced woman with grown children whose gal pal has gifted her with a package deal of 10 dates from an online matchmaking service. The one-hour, one-woman show invites an audience along for the meetings at an outdoor cafe.

"One of the things I really like about the play is that I found a lot of empathy with Beryl," said Valley veteran actor Sarah Wilson, who portrays the character. "Dating at midlife is a very treacherous thing. She's letting herself be vulnerable in ways that she hasn't in a very long time."

In the beginning, Beryl falls back on her past experience of dating from years ago. She's fairly demure and compliant. "But through the landmines of masculinity," Wilson says, "she begins to learn a bit more about herself at midlife, to reveal herself and take more charge of the situation."

"It's about finding someone to love you as you really are, and to do that, you have to find that out too," said Demas. "It's really about someone finding herself as well a guy."

Wilson was a longtime actor and director with the Hampshire Shakespeare Company and has also performed with Old Deerfield Productions. She ended a five-year hiatus from acting with a role in Old Deerfield's production of "A Christmas Carol" this past December.

One of her challenges in "Blue Straw Hat" is that she must breathe life into the various swains through Beryl's side of the conversations only.

"I set a particular challenge for myself to have one character onstage who creates the entire world," said Demas. "That was the fun of it."

And while one could be forgiven for assuming that the show has "chick flick" written all over it, the situations presented are actually universal. "I certainly know there are men in the same situation," Demas says.

Director Steve Morgan laughingly envisions a sequel in which the men come back and talk about Beryl. "I think women will really love this play, and I think men will be amused," he said. "It's not a feminist play. It's more about the human condition - what happens in the modern world when you find yourself alone."

Morgan has worked in the gamut of theater roles in the Valley - as actor, stage director, stage manager, technical director and producer - with the gamut of local companies, including Arena Civic Theatre, The Country Players, Mount Holyoke Summer Theater, Hampshire Shakespeare Company and LSSE Community Theater, among others.

He earned his most recent directing credits in last year's Valley Light Opera production of "Princess Ida," corralling a cast of 50.

"This is a very different experience," he said. "Sarah is a wonderful actress. She's building the character. I see my job as giving her support and feedback on her choices."

Overall, he says, "What I want to do is give Corinne's play an airing so that she can see it as much as possible as she envisioned it."

But as for that, Demas said that for her the thrilling part of this venture into playwriting is its collaborative aspect, seeing the material become more than she envisioned through the craft of the actor, director and stage manager, Connie Capelli.

"What I hope of course is that [the audience] forgets they're watching a play," said Demas, "that they'll enter the character's world as a voyeur."