INSIDE BINGHAMTON UNIVERSITY
‘October Light’ to shine again onstage
By : By Eric Coker
The Anderson Center for the Performing Arts’ 25th anniversary celebration comes full circle this month when October Light, the play that opened the facility, returns to the campus stage.
“I thought it would be poignant to bring October Light back to open the next quarter-century like it did the first,” Anderson Center Producer/Director Floyd Herzog said. “The poignancy is not just in bringing it back to open the second quarter-century, but to have the same director and some of the same cast members. It truly is a revival.”
The play, based on John Gardner’s novel and adapted by John Bielenberg, professor emeritus in the Theatre Department, will be staged at 8 p.m. Nov. 13-14 and 20-21 and 2 p.m. Nov. 22 at the Chamber Hall. Tickets are $18, general admission; $16, faculty, staff and senior citizens; and $10, students.
The revival features the return of Tom Kremer as director, Bielenberg as scenic designer, and local actor Bill Gorman as lead character James Page. Gorman played the role of Sam Frost in the original production.
The cast of 13 includes seven students and six professionals, Kremer said.
“It is set up exactly the way it was the last time, with faculty and professionals working with our students,” he said. “The cast breakdown is exactly the same.”
October Light tells the story of a penniless widow, Sally Abbot, who moves into the Vermont farmhouse of her brother, James Page. The siblings are political opposites who do not get along.
“The play explores political extremes, extreme actions and the results of those actions,” Kremer said.
“He’s a Republican and conservative,” Gorman said of farmer James Page. “He doesn’t believe in welfare or Social Security and thinks people should be able to take care of themselves. Suddenly this liberal sister moves into his house and says she can live there any way she wants. He makes it clear that he’s the rulemaker. This is his house.”
This microcosm of America in the 1970s still resonates today, Kremer said.
“The political scene now is incredibly extreme,” he said. “We see it all the time now with cable TV and 24-hour news cycles. These extremes are really in our culture.
“It’s not preachy, but you’re not going to leave the theater with an empty head. You’re going to leave with questions and ideas.”
Gardner’s 1976 novel won the National Book Critics Circle Award. Bielenberg had adapted Gardner’s The Sunlight Dialogues when the novelist was teaching creative writing at Binghamton University. After Gardner’s death in 1982, Bielenberg was asked to revive The Sunlight Dialogues for a commemoration.
“I countered that I would be willing to look at another novel instead that was far less daunting to adapt: October Light,” Bielenberg said.
The Theatre Department debuted October Light on Oct. 12, 1984 in Watters Theater. It was brought to the new Anderson Center stage on Oct. 4, 1985.
Bielenberg, Kremer and Gorman were quick to offer their initial memory of opening night at the Anderson Center: A fire alarm cleared the house. Bielenberg believes a shotgun blast in the play raised some smoke and set off the alarm.
“I do remember us standing out on the loading dock in the middle of the show, because that’s where we went when the alarm went off,” Kremer said. “We were actually wondering whether we were even going to continue.”
“Here was our opening night going beautifully,” said Bielenberg, who now lives in Belfast, Maine. “To take the audience out of it for 15 minutes, you wondered if we’d even get them back emotionally into the show.”
“But we did,” Kremer said.
The three also recalled the work of Richard Smith, the late University acting teacher who played James Page in the original production. Gorman called Smith’s performance “wonderful and strong, insightful and touching.”
“I was always an admirer of this play and James Page,” said Gorman, a company member of the Cider Mill Playhouse. “He’s a cantankerous, strong moral character. It’s wonderful to play characters like that because they aren’t worried if you like them or not.”
Kremer, Bielenberg and Gorman still find it hard to believe that it has been a quarter-century since October Light first reached the stage.
“It’s staggering to think it’s been 25 years,” Bielenberg said. “That’s a third of our life.”
“Thankfully, I was only 8 at the time,” Kremer quipped.
“It’s good to revisit it,” Bielenberg said. “We have not forgotten John.”