Brenda Withers’ The Deer and the Antelope
by Steve Desroches
In 2012, a group of actors who had met performing at Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater (WHAT) back when it was a little black box overlooking Wellfleet Harbor, banded together to create Harbor Stage Company in that very same little theater, which had been abandoned by WHAT. Although there have been some changes, the basic format and ethos of the group have remained the same: offering challenging, provocative theater, at a reasonable cost, to summer audiences in Wellfleet and Cape Cod, generally.
Typically, the troupe, (which now consists of Brenda Withers, Robert Kropf, Jonathan Fielding, and Stacy Fischer), mount three shows: a classic, a contemporary, edgy play, and an original, new play. The latter is generally a play by Withers, who is not only an exceptional actress, but also an accomplished playwright, whose plays include Matt & Ben, which she co-wrote with good friend Mindy Kaling, The Ding Dongs, and String Around My Finger. She studied drama and religion at Dartmouth College and is currently a Huntington Theatre Playwriting Fellow.
This year, Withers offers the world premiere of her new dark comedy, The Deer and the Antelope, a play that she says is “sort of about gentrification. It’s about a young woman who moves to an unnamed city and tries to find an apartment that she can afford and [basically ends up] living in a fairly dangerous part of town. And something goes wrong and the police get involved. It’s a bit of a whodunit, but it’s more than about the mystery of the crime; it’s really about what are the underlying causes of crime in big cities.” After a moment the Wellfleet resident adds with a laugh, “and small towns.”
Spending a good chunk of her time here, with partner and Harbor Stage Company co-founder Fielding, Withers, like most actors, spent a lot of time in New York, which she credits as inspiriation for this play, at least in part. “New York realtors are big characters in every New Yorker’s life, and just finding an apartment is a huge challenge… and I think it was inspired, sort of, by those expereinces—also by my obsession with the television show Law and Order,” she laughs. But she adds, “ If you look around for things to focus your art on these days, for me I’m really interested in the idea of how the personal affects the political, and how responsible we are, each individual is, for the larger political landscape.”
Seeing a play at the Harbor Stage is unlike any other traditional theater experience on the Cape. There is no seat that could be called “far” from the stage and the small space is often sold-out or close to sold-out—not only because it is a small space, but also because the theater has an incredible track record.
The intimacy achieved here comes not only from the space itself, but also in the demonstrated desire to connect with audiences via nightly (yes, every night) casual talk-backs in the adjoining bar. In addition, everyone in the company does a little bit of everything. Not only do some of the actors also write plays and direct productions, they also sell tickets at the box office, do the publicity, answer the phones, and presumably do everything else that’s necessary.
“The way we run the Harbor, we’re used to a holistic process, so we try to have a hand in everything, even if officially we don’t. And I think I feel that way as an actor/writer now, in either circumstance or sometimes both at times,” Withers reflects. “I hope that there is a way for each to inform and improve the other, you know, not just in terms of respect for process, which it absolutely does… but in terms of the artistic process, my hope is that it opens up each project as a full world, as opposed to a single track. And my hunch is when theater, whenever it was when theater started to evolve into a common art form, that’s how things were done. You know, everybody kind of pitched in. And there’s a folk-art quality to that that really speaks to me.”
The Deer and the Antelope was workshopped at University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill a few years ago, but this Thursday will be the first time it is performed as a finished piece. It features Kropf and Fielding as well as actor Robin Bloodworth (who performed in Conor McPherson’s The Weir earlier this season and is a regular there) as well as Winslow Corbett, Emily Nash, and Withers herself.
Asked if performing in a play she’s written is any different from performing roles written by other people, Withers says, “Yeah, it’s weird! It is so strange! Because sometimes you’ll have written a joke you think is great in your head. You say it out loud, it’s like, ‘Oh, this is awful!’” she admits. “Kind of humiliated for yourself by yourself! But at the same time, it also gives you a chance to either fix it or learn how commit to something that—It’s kind of like knowing your former self, a little bit. It’s like why would Brenda from 2016 have written this for Brenda of 2018? I don’t know. Just a little self-reflexive, but usually fun.”
The Harbor Stage has no current plans to change the format that’s worked so well for them for six years in Wellfleet, although Withers admits they do come up with lots of big plans in the off-season, only to scale them back down when reality hits. It’s professional theater, but with an integration into the space and the community that’s welcomed them. They may perform only in the summer, but keeping their ticket prices down (all seats $23 with every production having a pay-what-you-can night) enables even year-rounders saving their earnings for the winter to witness great theater nearby, and it also makes it affordable for younger visitors interested in theater. It’s a win-win for everyone.
The Deer and the Antelope runs August 9 – September 2 at Harbor Stage, 15 Kendrick Ave., Wellfleet, Wednesdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 5 p.m with an additional show Tuesday, August 28 at 5 p.m. The Friday, August 10 performance is a pay-what-you-can night, with half the proceeds from ticket sales going to Habitat for Humanity – Cape Cod. For tickets ($23) and information, call 508.514.1763 or vist harborstage.org.