Courtesy / Siggi Ragnar
The Classic Theatre of San Antonio embarks on its 12th season with an expanded slate of five plays, each of which introduces a family from a different time and place and part of the world, all united by the theme “The Ties That Bind.”
The families of the first play will be perhaps most familiar to audiences, as the Capulets and Montagues confront their children amid the family feud of Romeo & Juliet (Sept. 6-29). The Bennet family of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice makes a return over the holidays with Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley (Nov. 22-Dec. 22), and two family dramas combine onstage with the Pulitzer Prize-winning Anna in the Tropics by Nilo Cruz, as Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina overlaps a Cuban immigrant family’s cigar factory in 1920s Miami (Feb. 7-Mar. 1, 2020).
Two true classics round out the season in the spring, with Thornton Wilder’s Our Town running Mar. 20-Apr. 12 and Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs May 8-31.
In planning for a new season, Executive and Artistic Director Kelly Hilliard Roush essentially takes the pulse of her community. She said she sees what’s going on in San Antonio and how events in the larger world affect this place, then pulls together plays that speak to the moment.
As Roush reads new plays and re-reads familiar works, she focuses on the ones “that make my body tighten, excite, twist — I have a visceral reaction when I read a play that says ‘now’ to me.”
Even a 400-year old classic like Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet can speak to the moment, sometimes with stunning particularity. While directing A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Classic last year, director Joe Goscinski was going through the difficulties of a long-distance relationship complicated by tightening international borders. For this season, he suggested Romeo & Juliet to Roush, specifically because of one feature of its setting in the walled city of Verona, Italy.
“[Goscinski] had been in a relationship separated by a wall, separated by countries,” Roush said, and Romeo’s lines resonated:
There is no world without Verona walls,
But purgatory, torture, hell itself.
Hence-banished is banish’d from the world,
And world’s exile is death.
Roush and Goscinski spoke of hearing so much conversation about walls and fear, they agreed the play would speak sharply to the moment. Even 400 years after being written, the play is “so timely, that love conquers hate and hate comes from fear, it’s an intergenerational conversation,” she said.
Once that piece of the season puzzle was in place, Roush looked for other plays that would speak to the community.
The language of women’s empowerment can be heard in how Roush describes the experience of the least-known Bennet sister Mary, whom Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley focuses on. Written in 2017 and set two years after the better-known sister Elizabeth marries Darcy, the play represents the 20-year-old Mary finding her voice.
“See me for who I am, not who you think I am,” Mary says to her sisters, Roush said. “Ultimately, she finds her way to say ‘look at me, listen to me,’ and [the sisters] say, ‘you’re right, and we’re better for that.’ It’s joyful and honest.”
Anna in the Tropics is “all atmosphere and smoke and romance,” Roush said, set in a traditional cigar factory where hand-rolling is still practiced, and workers are read to by lectors during shifts, educated as they toil. The convoluted relationships of Anna Karenina reflect the complexity of the immigrant family itself, and ask “when do we bind each other in a negative way, and when do we hold each other close?” Roush said.
Roush said she considers how the entire season will play out, aware that some audiences might see multiple plays. Our Town is a holds a more hopeful mirror up to the warring families of Romeo & Juliet, with its story of two young people the same age who fall in love, “and the whole community gets behind them,” she said.
The season closes with Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs, which is set in postwar Brooklyn and centers on members of a Jewish family who, even as they have trouble making ends meet and finding their own place, open their home to refugees.
“So despite all the little things that can make us crazy with family, the embracing of those who don’t have — it just all spoke to me this year in a way because we’re surrounded by it,” Roush said.
The season’s stories present “five different families from five different world viewpoints and cultures, who are still struggling with all the same things that me and my husband and our teenagers” struggle with, she said.
Romeo & Juliet, directed by Goscinski, opens Friday with an 8 p.m. performance. Tickets for the show, and all Classic Theatre season performances, are available on the company’s website.