oly Matrimony” has had a long journey to arrive at the stage of Starlight Community Theater.
The winner of the 2019 Playwrighting Contest, sponsored each year by the theater company, “Holy Matrimony” was written 30 years ago by playwright Daniel Marburger. He typed it on a typewriter, and while it was a finalist in a national playwrighting contest, it had never been produced and was still available only on hard copy.
When he was down to a single hard copy, he decided he’d better transcribe it—which allowed him edit it.
“Over the years, I would reread it and think, ‘I don’t like this line, it’s too long,’ or, ‘I don’t care for this choice of words,’” Marburger said.
“A week or two after I transcribed it, I found the (Starlight) competition. So, at long last, I’m going to get to see it performed.”
Starlight is planning to stage this show live in its theater Friday, November 13, to Sunday, November 15, with streaming available for those who don’t feel comfortable coming to the theater.
A maximum of 40 people will be in the 86-person theater. Every other row is being blocked out, and there will be at least two seats between each party who makes reservations.
The play is staged so that the actors will be 2 feet back from the front of the stage. The closest actors will be well beyond the 6-feet mark.
“Holy Matrimony” is a three-act comedy that follows a couple through 44 years of their married life. It starts in 1939 and ends in 1982, which was about when the play was written.
The first act shows them on their honeymoon, the second act has them celebrating their 25th anniversary, and in the third act they are talking about their forced retirement. All of the scenes take place at the same hotel suite at a resort.
“What still makes this relevant is that it really focuses on the relations between the two people,” said Dan Ashlock, Starlight’s artistic director and co-director with Susan Gibson for this show.
“In today’s world, especially in 2020, with so many people being quarantined or isolated, being forced to spend every waking moment with their spouse or partner, the relationship of Donald and Betty, the two characters in the show, really lends itself to almost holding up a mirror to each person and asking, ‘Do I do these things? Do I act this way? Do we solve our problems this way?’”
The two actors in the show are Paul Hartwell (Donald) and Harleigh Irizarry (Betty). They will both wear clear masks with flesh-colored straps, a design Starlight borrowed from the Musical Theatre of Anthem. They’ll be miked under the mask. Rehearsals for the first three weeks were done remotely, and the last three weeks brought the six-person cast and crew together.
“It will be really good for us to social distance and remain positive health,” Ashlock said.
It helps, Ashlock added, that these characters, while married, are not the touchy-feely type and there are very few times that they have to touch.
“It’s not like a love story where you’re watching two people who can’t live without holding hands or embracing the whole time they are talking,” Ashlock said.
Marburger first wrote the play when he was single and in his mid-to-late 20s. It was a play that was aspirational and based on long-lasting marriages he’d witnessed and what they have to do to survive.
“What I was thinking, something I believe, is that marriages can be salvaged,” Marburger said.
“The irony is that five or six years later, I got married for 17 years and I got divorced. It was not my choice, not my vote. My sentiment (from the play) is one I still have as someone who is divorced.”
It is the arc of the couple’s marriage that Ashlock finds likeable and entertaining. The play begins when they are ages 19 and 21. It then goes through when they are in the 40s and then when they are in their 60s. It is something he works with both his actors—making sure they understand the differences in how people move and sound when they are at different ages.
“I really like the ability to work with these actors to have continuity between the characters between decades,” Ashlock said.
“They’re the same people when they’re in each of the three time spans, but they are different in the ways we all age, mature and develop. We take on different traits. We’re basically the same throughout our entire life, just our circumstances and our relationships kind of shape how we manifest (our personality traits) throughout our lifetime.”
Ashlock has encouraged his actors to watch videos of people at different ages as well as watching people who are currently the ages of the characters throughout the play’s three acts. They’ll use wigs to help with age and to create the time periods. What people looked like in the 30s is different from the 60s and the 80s, Ashlock points out, and the wigs will help define those eras.
He also said there is a difference between being in your 60s now in 2020 than there was in 1980, when there were not as many medical and technological advantages, and people were closer to death in their 60s than they are now. It is something he is working with his actors to be able to portray.
In addition to the two actors, Ashlock said the third character in the play is resort’s hotel suite. It is first the site of their honeymoon, their 25th anniversary celebration and where they go to “celebrate” their retirement.
While they can’t change the walls, they will move around furniture in each act, changing bedspreads and wall decorations to fit the style of each decade.
Hartwell and Irizarry have appeared on Starlight’s stage many times. Hartwell was last seen as Syd in the “The Pajama Game” in 2019, and Irizarry was in the teen cast of “Murder in the Air.” Irizarry, who is now 19, has been doing shows with Starlight since she was 10.
“They are both really excellent actors and take their craft very seriously,” Ashlock said. “Through rehearsals, we’ve kind of discovered that Paul and Donald share a lot of qualities and Harleigh and Betty share a lot of qualities, which we didn’t necessarily know when we cast them.”
The playwright, who is on the board of Mesa Encore Theatre and has been acting regularly since 2001, has performed with Hartwell’s wife, giving him a chance to get to know the actor playing the husband he created.
“Paul is a very funny guy. He’s just naturally funny,” Marburger said. “I’ve performed with his wife. She had seen the script and said, ‘Paul is just like this in real life.’ He’s a funny person in general and a good comic actor. If Donald’s personality is close to his, I’ll be looking forward to his portrayal.”
The playwright and director hope that audiences are ready to come back to the theater to enjoy a nice evening out. Ashlock said they are very excited about starting live theater again and that they will do everything in their power to make it safe and enjoyable while still providing the streaming for those who cannot make it.
“I think it is a show that is very funny, but it isn’t just a bunch of laughs,” Marburger said about his play. “There’s a storyline and characterizations. It’s not too heady, it’s not experimental theater, nothing fancy—just a comedy that has a point.”