The home-grown musical Hitchin’ is about to be performed once again at Clatsop Community College’s Performing Arts Center (PAC) Feb. 7 to 9 and 15 to 17. This revival of Hitchin’ is the latest in a series of Partners for the PAC-sponsored fundraisers to keep the facility operating as an affordable performance space for the community, including nonprofit user groups who perform there on a regular basis.
Fundraising aims aside, it really is both fitting and proper that such a terrific local piece of theater is available to audiences once again. Hitchin’ was performed at the PAC in 1997 and 1999, playing to sold-out houses. The play also enjoyed a successful run at the now-defunct River Theater in 2004.
A musical, Hitchin’ tells the tale of Walter – married, middle aged and a workaholic – who looks back on his “hitchin’ days” as a young man. As he remembers, the audience watches as his younger self, Walt, meets up with a colorful assortment of characters while hitchhiking all the way from the Midwest to the West Coast, experiencing both trials and growth along the way.
Author Ned Heavenrich, of the local folk band the Brownsmead Flats, wrote the play during two winters, drawing inspiration from what was happening in his life: his own coming-of-age following the death of his father and watching his teenage son’s push for independence. In the 1970s, the playwright hitchhiked from Michigan to Seattle. With so much autobiographical content in his work, Heavenrich has compared the writing of Hitchin’ to therapy. “It was an education,” he adds. “I learned so much I didn’t know. It brought out the worst and the best in me.”
For those who’ve never seen Hitchin’, you’re in for a treat. If you’ve seen it before, don’t worry. New aspects of the play sit comfortably alongside all the things you’ve come to know and enjoy about this piece. For instance, the Brownsmead Flats – those troubadours extraordinaire – will continue to serve as the orchestra. Written by members Heavenrich, Robert Stevens and Dan Sutherland, Hitchin’s marvelous music crosses blues, reggae, country and other genres. But this year “gypsy” violinist Kim Vangelis and flutist Janet Bowler will join them.
Audiences will appreciate the fresh take on the play as conceived by director Jayne Osborn, who staged managed Hitchin’ at the River Theater. Hers is minimalist approach props-wise. Actors mime certain actions like eating or drinking, using invisible bowls or glasses. “It makes people act when there are no props,” explains production manager Bob Goldberg, who also plays the leading part of Walter. “It becomes about what is there.”
To deal with the play’s action going back in forth in time, Osborn transitions from Walter to his memories (and Walt), by casting a warm, sepia light on the stage. “The Flats,” as Osborn calls the orchestra, won’t remain behind a scrim as in past performances but will stay onstage with the actors, like a kind of Greek chorus. Osborn is especially pleased that this production has been a collaborative effort involving so many local theater groups, including the Astor Street Opry Company, The Coaster Theatre, The River Theater and Pier Pressure Productions.
Director Osborn is ably assisted by Allison Wilski as music director, Craig Shepherd, executive director of The Coaster Theater in Cannon Beach, who is doing set design, Marco Davis as the choreographer and a Hitchin’ veteran and many others.
Also new to the play this year is a number of its actors, including…
Jordan Okoniewski, who plays the leading role of Walt (the youthful incarnation of Walter). In composing his cast “bio”, he described himself as “an enigma wrapped in a riddle, wrapped in a luscious beard.” Such a mysterious, evocative description suggests a creativity and flair for the dramatic on his part. How these qualities will translate on stage in this actor’s portrayal of his character should be interesting to see.
Bree Bish-Heavenrich plays Georgia, one of the three lesbians from Boston that Walt meets during his travels. “Beautiful voice, great dancer and playwright Ned Heavenrich’s daughter-in-law,” enthuses Goldberg about this talented newcomer. The actress is no stranger to the stage, but her last experience as a thespian was when she was 12. Acting and entertaining must be a bit like riding a bicycle: Once you’ve learned to ride, you never forget how.
Daric Moore has the role of Howie, who is a walking stereotype of a VW-van-driving, pot smoking, anti-war hippie. Goldberg, who came up with the idea of bringing Hitchin’ back to the stage, says, “Daric’s a real talent – a great musician and a natural on stage.” Hitchin’ marks Moore’s return to the arts – both music (his first love) and theater. He once played Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof and worked in theater in Great Britain where he lived for five years.
What Remains the Same
The basic story hasn’t changed, and the people Walt encounters in his travels haven’t either. There’s the soldier headed for Nam and the woman who is alienated by her husband and mourns the loss of her son and daughter. Then, there’s the cop, the baseball-bat-wielding schizophrenic and the older woman Edna (the part Edna Packard, long-time Astoria thespian, made her own) and several others – each one as interesting and vivid as the next. According to Heavenrich, the character of Lulu, who joins Walt on the road for a time, is a composite but shares a few qualities with his wife, whose name is also Lulu. “Mostly, it was a way to honor my wife,” he revealed.
The hippie van, designed by John Fenton, will be on hand. (In the first production of Hitchin’ the vehicle was literally two hubcaps and a tire!) There will also be moments of humor, great poignancy and many emotions in between.
With its timeless themes of coming-of-age and letting go, Hitchin’ is likely to resonate with audiences in terms of their own lives and the larger world. For Constance Waisanen, a founding member of Partners for the PAC, “with each new character or situation, a topical issue is explored which still challenges us as a society, e.g., war, consumerism, women’s empowerment, gay liberation, the tyranny of some religious factions and so on.”
This is theater with something for everyone. Waisanen recalls, “I first saw the play in 1995 and was just blown away. It was a great show. The music was wonderful. I see Hitchin’ as that quintessential coming-of-age story. The themes throughout are universal, cross-cultural and cross time-period. I took my then-teenage son to the play (somewhat kicking and screaming), and he came out singing its praises too. He loved the music; he loved the story lines. I thought, “If my son and I can watch this show and both get a lot out of it, this is a good show.”