THEATER REVIEW: “Under the Sycamores” by Laura Kennelly

Looking for the perfect pandemic play? No masks needed? Gorgeous sets in the fresh air? Here it is.

A newly created audio production, Under the Sycamores, uses local stories and scenery to provide an on-demand, unique theatrical experience centered in Cleveland’s heart. Written by Les Hunter, and directed by Jimmy Noriega, it’s co-produced by the the Borderlight Festival and  Radio on the Lake Theatre. Tickets for this audio presentation can be downloaded through September 30 from the Borderlight website.

The show offers an immersive audio tour of the Erie Street Cemetery located on East 9th Street across from Progressive Field. This graveyard was established in 1826 by Cleveland settlers. (In those days East 9th was known as Erie Street.) Today the cemetery is a quiet space, perfect for a walk and, as shown in Under the Sycamores, it’s also an inspired stage set for an audio drama.

What’s the play about? Not ghosts, not really. The story, after a brief introduction and orientation, moves quickly. Local characters speak. First comes “Darryl” (1960s poet d.a. levy) who muses in “Lines for the Erie Street Cemetery” (c. 1965) about being in the cemetery “under the sycamores/broken white sandstones/[that] lean & fall with age.” There are also segments about others — Henry and Sarah, John, Rose (and Rose’s father, Chief Thunderwater).

While there’s no required order for listening, I found the 1796 and beyond experiences of early settlers “Henry and Sara” most absorbing. Sarah’s actual letters to her sister in Connecticut (letters never delivered but saved) detailed hardships both physical (she endured a Cleveland winter alone in a hut) and mental (her husband left her alone and starving during said winter while he “walked to Buffalo”). Her jealousy seeps out as she suspects a lover kept him “stranded” and away for two months.

Reader-actors — all convincing — include Robin Pease, Treva Offutt, Ray Caspio and Leilani Barrett. John Watts served as artistic director as well as sound designer and editor. The audio play is available for download through September 30.

Bottom Line: There’s enough here to send one (and it did) hastening to Internet search all the names dropped and stories hinted at. Under the Sycamores— lasting up to 90 minutes if one listens to all the segments — gives a vivid picture of past lives (and deaths) in Cleveland. It also sounds as if it might serve as notes for an epic novel if one cared to write it. Thanks to CSU and other area libraries that store and hold historic documents, newspaper clippings and so on, there’s plenty of online material to lead fancy where it wishes to go.

[Written by Laura Kennelly]


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