Last month, the Wall Street Journal reported that worldwide subscriptions to online video streaming services reached 1.1 billion. Given our recent history, few statistics can indicate how important stories are to people. With theaters, concert halls and production of filmed entertainment heavily curtailed or completely shut down over the last year, television reigned supreme more than ever. As we inch closer to normal, an inspiring sign of improvement and normalcy is the return of the stage play. While we need stories, we also need to be around each other far more than we have been. Live theater is the fusion of these human essentials. The upcoming production of “A Coffin in Egypt” incorporates themes that are exquisitely timely to our circumstances.
Written by the playwright and screenwriter Horton Foote, winner of two Academy Awards for the screen adaptation of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” 1963, and the original screenplay of “Tender Mercies,” 1983, as well as a Pulitzer Prize in 1995 for “The Young Man From Atlanta,” “A Coffin in Egypt” pays homage to his muse, writer Katherine Ann Porter. The haunting drama tells the tale of Myrtle Bledsoe, born into wealth in Egypt, Texas, in 1880. The mythical “Queen of Egypt” looks back on a life of frequent strife, immersed in class, race and gender issues of 20th century America. Seeking redemption as she approaches death’s doorstep, Myrtle reveals family secrets of sexual betrayal and murder.
“It speaks to us right now. After a year of so much reflection for everybody, the play is about thinking back on time, on our place in the world, on death, on how we’ve lived, where we’ve been, and where we want to go. We felt this is something we’ve all been facing and thinking about in our own ways this past year.” - Sharon Levy, Dovetail Productions producer
Myrtle’s reckoning is ingeniously portrayed by Obie-winning actress Maude Mitchell, who deftly carries the narrative through brushstrokes of humor, horror and surrealism, three things many of us have felt over the previous 12 months. The play was originally staged by Mitchell’s late husband, the legendary director and Chevalier and MacArthur Fellow Lee Breuer, who founded the experimental theater collective Mabou Mines in 1970 with several artists including storied film composer Philip Glass. Due to his passing in January, Breuer protege and three-time assistant director Dana Greenfield will direct the Savannah production.
The story of “A Coffin in Egypt” coming to Savannah is nearly as interesting as the play itself. A co-production of Carver’s Barn, Dovetail Productions and Mabou Mines, the play was first presented as a reading version in 2017 at Horton by the Stream, a small summer festival dedicated to the author held in upstate New York at Carver’s Barn arts center. Over the following years, Carver Blanchard relocated to Savannah. Last year, he suggested bringing “A Coffin in Egypt” to his new city in an outdoor venue. By that time, Blanchard met frequent Lee Breuer collaborator and fellow New York-Savannah time splitter, Levy.
“When Carver reached out to Maude and Lee, who I’ve produced for numerous times, they knew I’d been coming to Savannah for years and had an excellent design partner here, Jeroy Hannah,” Levy said. “We realized we could make it a real New York-Savannah production, which was very appealing to all of us.”
Photo by Robert S. Cooper
Carver Blanchard, lutenist and musical director of "A Coffin in Egypt" stums ahead of the play to open next Friday.
Since the cast is only Michell — who has played the role for years — and three musicians, it was easier to set an opening date sooner than later. The New York contingent visited Savannah in September to check out locations and consider logistics. There was a bit of wait-and-see, given fluctuating covid numbers and the lack of a vaccine at the time. By February, they felt conditions were right to proceed.
“With the small cast and outdoor venue, we decided to go for it,” Levy said.
The three musicians sharing the stage with Mitchell include Carver Blanchard, lutenist and musical director of the show. A Louisiana native now living in Savannah, Blanchard kept the Carver’s Barn arts center open in New York after relocating here. He is joined by Alex Breuer, Lee’s son, who studied under Blanchard and plays percussion, guitar and provides the Foley —sound effects. The third of the trio, Texas native George Hummel, plays flute and also worked previously with Blanchard.
A sentiment shared by the producers, performers and crew was summed up by Levy as she discussed the final decision to move forward.
“We were all anxious to get back to live performance,” she said.
The camaraderie of live performers on stage and an appreciative audience is something most of us want back, too.
See Horton Foote’s “A Coffin in Egypt” April 30, May 1 and May 2, 5 p.m. nightly, at 14 S. Rockwell Ave., in the Vernonburg neighborhood of Savannah. General admission tickets are $25 and student tickets are $10, available at coffininegypt.eventbrite.com or at the venue before the show. Parking is available on site.
Following strict safety protocols, all members of the cast and crew have been vaccinated. The outdoor show will be socially distanced, and masks will be required.