ANGRY ORCHARD: SECRETS, PAIN RIPE FOR THE PICKING AT NJ REP

Kersti Bryan and Christopher M. Smith co-star in APPLE SEASON, the play by E.M. Lewis making its world premiere at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. Photo by New Jersey Repertory Company

The Russian master Anton Chekhov had his Cherry Orchard and its group portrait of a fast-fading aristocracy, rotting from the inside out as it falls to the axe of social change. In the latest drama to make its world premiere at New Jersey Repertory Company, it’s Apple Season in the Pacific Northwest’s Willamette Valley — and it’s there where the low-hanging fruit of past behaviors and secrets threaten the members of one local family with a one-way trip into a wormhole of regret and suffocating grief.

Opening this weekend at the company’s downtown Long Branch playhouse, the play by E.M. Lewis represents NJ Rep’s first staging of a work by the the Oregon-based playwright who, by her own admission, is “the kind who goes back and forth between smaller, personal stories and bigger political plays.” Describing this one as “an intimate little three character play,” the award-winning dramatist declares that its themes of “the danger of secrets and the importance of truth telling” operate within her desire to “write about rural people…the ones who are less visible on most theatrical stages.”

“Sam Shepard wrote about non-urban people in a way that captured the largeness of human questions,” she observes. “People who live in ‘small’ places are people who are still wrestling with some big issues.”

In the production under the direction of Zoya Kachadurian, a funeral brings a sister and brother (Kersti Bryan, Richard Kent Green) back to the family farm that they turned their backs on years ago — leading to an encounter with a neighbor (Christopher M. Smith) who shares a history with both of the siblings, and a situation in which “a legacy of violence” puts an indelible stamp on the here and now. It all unfolds within “the season when the apples are hanging and ready…with no one there to pick them.”

Like so many of the scripts that have made their way to NJ Rep’s mainstage through the years, Apple Season is one of the National New Play Network’s “rolling world premiere” properties that debut in multiple locales, with different casts and directors — and in this case, it’s the New Jersey audience that gets to see it first, with additional 2019 productions scheduled to follow in Iowa City and Los Angeles.

“This play has had a past life of readings in places like Boca Raton, and the Women Playwrights Initiative in Connecticut,” explains Lewis, who like her characters resides on her family’s farm in Oregon — and who also spent three years as a resident of Princeton. “It’s exciting to have three theaters tackle my play, with three different directors’ perspectives…but I’m especially delighted to have it seen at New Jersey Rep!”

The months ahead also promise to see Lewis continue work on “two opera commissions and a few new plays,” among them a “big new political play” entitled The Great Divide. Inspired by the 2016 armed occupation of Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, and “set against our crazy election…neither of which turned out the way most of us thought they would,” the work in progress touches upon a theme that’s dear to the author — that of communication and connection. 

“On social media, you can shout awful things with little consequence and no visibility…but social media doesn’t do what we do in a theater,” says the playwright whose oft-produced The Gun Show was selected as one of the best short plays of 2015-2016. “I’m still a believer in human connection.”

Apple Season previews on January 10 and 11 at 8 p.m., with the show opening on Saturday night, January 12; continuing on January 13 and Thursdays through Sundays until February 10. Full schedule details and ticket reservations ($50; opening night $60) are available by calling 732-229-3166 or visiting njrep.org.