August 15, 2006

Theater: New York troupe brings Tennessee Williams’ ‘Candles to the Sun’ to town for a rare staging

Factory’s labor struggles: at the International Shoe Company in St. Louis inspired Tennessee Williams to write “Candles to the Sun”During the Great Depression, Tennessee Williams worked as a clerk at the infamous International Shoe Company in St. Louis. (The company was a defendant in a landmark decision that all law students suffer through while learning about personal jurisdiction.) The factory’s labor struggles, among other things, drove him to a nervous breakdown but also inspired him to write “Candles to the Sun” (originally a one-act play entitled “The Lamp”). Williams was a member of the socially aware Mummers of St. Louis, which produced the play in 1937. The group worked with Williams to develop it into 10 acts. This St. Louis production was the only time the play was seen during the 20th century. The script was lost until Jane Garrett Carter, who played the young daughter (Star) in the original production, offered her copy to various theater critics in 1989. Incredibly, none bit. The Chicago’s Goodman Theatre referred Carter to Dan Isaac, a renowned Williams scholar who published the play in 2004 after laboriously comparing Carter’s script with 400 pages of a disorganized draft.This week the New Mummer Group Theatre Collective, visiting from New York City, will present “Candles” at Actors Theatre of Louisville in the play’s third staging ever.“Candles” has subjects familiar to many Kentuckians. Set in a small Alabama mining town in the 1930s, it tells of miners’ struggles to eke out a living in dangerous conditions while fighting for the right to unionize. The play spans nearly 15 years, focusing on three generations of the Pilcher family, who survive mining disasters, starvation and violent labor strikes. Like most of Williams’ work, the play’s underlying theme involves the sacrifice of the individual for the good of the group. The title refers to the metaphor of miners who are guided by candlelight, yet blinded by the sun. Interestingly, the character of Star (based on Williams’ sister, Rose) is an early sketch of Blanche DuBois.Stephanie Pistello, who grew up in Lexington and lives in New York City where she has worked as an actress, is the director of the New Mummer Group Theatre Collective, Her family has deep Appalachian roots. She noticed the script while searching for a play to serve as her directorial debut with this newly formed troupe. The miner on the book’s cover reminded her of her Uncle Paul, who died of black lung disease. Pistello considers herself lucky to come from a family with a history of coal mining in Appalachia, steeped in mining tales from her grandfather and uncle. After reading the play four times to herself, Pistello gathered 10 actors in her Brooklyn apartment for a reading (three of them landed roles in the play). All were awestruck by the play’s poetry. A few days later, Pistello heard about the Sago mining disaster. As mining accidents continued through the year, there was no question that Pistello simply had to present “Candles” to educate people about the plight of miners.“Miners are not ignorant and poor, as many people think. They are the strongest people in America, fighting under extreme pressure every day,” Pistello said.  “We have a responsibility to honor them. Too many have died.” photo courtesy of stephanie pistello: Jennifer Bowen, left, playing Mrs. Abbey, and Erin Layton, right, as Fern during the New Mummer Group Theatre Collective’s rehearsal for “Candles to the Sun.”Although the play is set in the 1930s, Pistello says it is still relevant today because miners endure the same labor struggles and unsafe conditions. Pistello elaborated that “in Bloody Harlan photo courtesy of stephanie pistello: Jennifer Bowen, left, playing Mrs. Abbey, and Erin Layton, right, as Fern during the New Mummer Group Theatre Collective’s rehearsal for “Candles to the Sun.” people died for the unions, but not many mining companies are unionized today. We can’t let their deaths be in vain.”Last week, the troupe drove from New York to Louisville, by way of Beckley, W. Va., to tour coal mines and company stores. Pistello wanted her cast to get a sense of place, to see the future of mining and to see where it is now. She wanted them to remain conscious of the miners and to recognize that their struggle continues. The troupe also picked up props along the way. It’s no coincidence that Pistello’s group shares a name similar to Williams’ first troupe. The Mummers of St. Louis included laborers, waitresses and clerks who were filled with a love for the theater. The New Mummer Group Theatre Collective believes they have been granted the torch from the original Mummers. Their love of theater is indeed deep — they are all excited about the road trip and the prospect of playing at Actors even though they are unpaid. The New Mummer Group takes an avant garde approach to acting in the tradition of Anne Bogart’s SITI Company. Several Mummer members came from SITI, which approaches theater as a shared experience between audience and actors. Its Suzuki method uses extreme physical techniques to heighten actors’ innate expressive abilities. The company also uses Bogart’s revolutionary acting technique, Viewpoints, which enables actors to function together spontaneously as a group while quickly generating bold work. It is the essence of ensemble playing.After a public reading in New York in late July, the audience begged Pistello to stage the play there. She selected Louisville as her premier venue, however, because she sees the city at the forefront of community theater. Six Louisville actors who responded to Pistello’s ad will appear in walk-on roles. Pistello said she didn’t want to turn anyone away who expressed an interest, so she chose them all, sight unseen. Interestingly, Tom Mitchell, who directed the second performance of “Candles” at the University of Illinois last fall, wrote an e-mail message to Pistello recently to offer her the play’s most essential prop — the lamp. Another torch is passed. Contact the writer at