Actor-director-administrator-set decorator-artistic director Lori Renick readies the detail-intensive set of ‘Blithe Spirit’ for Saturday’s opening at Monmouth Players. (Photos courtesy of Diana Moore)
By TOM CHESEK
It’s a busy Monday evening at Middletown’s Navesink Library, and Lori and Paul Renick are putting the finishing touches to another of their typically labor-intensive set designs even as they begin the crucial final week of rehearsals for their latest show.
At the moment, they’re trying to rig up a plate so that it will fall off the wall on cue.
“Actors like to make things as complicated as they can,” says director-stage manager-set designer and sometime actor Paul. “I try to make things as fail-safe as possible.”
Carpenters and remodelers by trade, the Highlands couple are charged with reinforcing the physical and spiritual foundations of Monmouth Players, the area’s longest continuously operating theatrical company. And as workaholic visionaries and creative perfectionists, the Renicks have recently added a whole new experimental wing to the venerable institution, rewiring the Players to compete on a slicker, more sophisticated level here in the 21st century.
In the days before GPS, it was easy to overlook, bypass or otherwise misplace the tiny Navesink Library. Ramble past the bucolic banks of Many Mind Creek, turn hard-to-port by the centuries-old gravestones of the Old Stone Church, and you still might blow right past the World War I-era house, seemingly a world removed from the ambient hum of nearby Route 36.
Bequeathed to the community as a cultural resource and meeting hall, the old place has quietly held its post at the corner of Monmouth and Sears Avenues even as it’s played host to one of Monmouth County’s best loved, best kept secrets.
Since that evening in 1953 when a band of inspired amateurs got together to “put on a show” with a production of Noel Coward’s “Blithe Spirit,” the Monmouth Players have staged more than 175 plays, nearly all of them in the historic building’s Navesink Library Theatre. For the latest offering in their 55th season, the community troupe comes full circle, with a revival of Mr. Coward’s droll drawing-room comedy that opens on February 2 and showcases some surprising strengths of the latter-day Players.
The 1941 play, about a debonair socialite whose second marriage is complicated by the re-appearance of his first wife’s ghost, is a natural choice for a company that’s long specialized in both Agatha Christie-ish mysteries and Neil Simon-ized romantic farces. With master craftsman Paul in the director’s seat (he’s also the company’s president) and a cast that includes newcomer Audra Taliercio and Players perennials Lori, Robert Kern and Kevin Vislocky, the production promises such special stage effects as “objects flying off shelves, doors slamming and other mayhem from the great beyond.”
The seemingly possessed crockery, flowers and curtain rods are just a few of the value-added details in Lori and Paul’s pleasing set. It’s a comfy-looking creation that’s fully furnished with hand-selected fabrics, ceiling-level custom moldings and other flourishes that most community companies are all too happy to leave to the audience’s imagination.
It’s actually business as usual for a man who maintains that “I can’t put time into something if I can’t put in a hundred percent.” Under the Renick regime, which began in earnest two years after Paul’s first involvement with the troupe in 1993, the historic library funded through the nonprofit Duryea-Navesink Library Foundation and its spacious auditorium have seen some remarkable changes. New handicap-accessible main entrance and facilities were added, walls were refinished and an all new, enclosed tech booth was built and brought online by Paul last year. For the new season, the entire lighting system has been replaced.
“Upgrading the sound and lights is something I can give back to the patrons,” says the multitasking Renick, who points out that the room’s hearing-assist system is the only one of its kind in a small New Jersey performance space.
Another recent development under the Renicks has been the annual addition of a “Not Necessarily the Players” production, with edgier-than-normal fare like “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “The Laramie Project” and “Glengarry Glen Ross” proving popular with actors and audiences alike. Thankfully kept status-quo are the troupe’s traditional intermission spread of homemade desserts, and a general air of customer service that’s often lacking in other local outposts of show business.
“I think of it as a hundred-point system,” explains Paul, ticking off a litany of hypothetical offenses was the door person rude to you? Are the desserts Archway cookies? Are the chairs uncomfortable? Does the set suck? and deducting people-pleasing points for every disorderly detail. “We want to make the people who come here feel like they’re part of this theatre,” he says.
“It’s like ‘Cheers’ when you’re here,” he adds. “Even if you didn’t care for the show, if you like everything else we do, you’re gonna come back and give us another shot.”
Going up Saturday at 8:15p and running nine performances through February 23, “Blithe Spirit” is followed in March by the stylized domestic drama “Taking Leave.”
All shows are presented at Navesink Library Theatre, 149 Monmouth Avenue in Middletown. Tickets are $15 and may be reserved by calling 732.291.9211 or visiting the Players’ website.