Life is – or should be – a journey of self-discovery. Those of us who fail to initiate that quest are often prodded by life’s circumstances down roads they wouldn’t otherwise have chosen.
Such is the case of the protagonist in “Underneath the Lintel,” the latest production by the Milwaukee Chamber Theatre.
The one-character play by author Glen Berger, perhaps best known for the Broadway musical “Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark,” chronicles the travels of a character simply referred to as the librarian, played by American Players Theatre veteran James Ridge. Opening his library in the small Dutch town of Hoofddorp one morning, he finds a tattered Baedeker travel guide in the night drop and discovers that it’s 113 years overdue.
The improbability of the book’s appearance sets the librarian on a global quest in search of the borrower – not so much to collect the overdue fines as to discover the story behind the book’s sudden appearance. The librarian actually is searching for his own purpose, says director C. Michael Wright.
“I love this character on a very deep level,” says Wright, who’s also MCT’s artistic director. “He’s so honest, vulnerable and quirky. And he’s dealing with such huge, important issues that we all need to be grappling with: Why am I here on earth? Do I have a purpose? Am I making a difference?”
The librarian’s journey takes him to a London dry cleaners, an attic in Australia, a government records office in Bonn and even a post office box in Dingtao, China. In the process, he uncovers a thread that might well tie the narrative back to the time of Christ’s crucifixion.
But at no point during the play do we ever discover the librarian’s name.
“The character in this play identifies himself to the audience not by name but by profession – ‘I am … a librarian,’” says Ridge, the actor who plays him. “But in the next lines he reveals that he has been fired, so who is he really? He is in limbo. He is searching for identity, for meaning, for significance, for forgiveness.”
Ridge is no stranger to one-man shows, having performed previously in MCT’s 2006 world-premier production of James DeVita’s “Dickens in America.” Being on stage alone for an entire production can be daunting, Ridge says, leaving an actor as weary and exposed as the psyche of the character he plays. Ridge often learns as much – or more – about himself as his characters learn about themselves.
“Every show, every collaboration with an audience teaches me something about my limitations as a person or artist, about patience and grace, about love of words and ideas,” Ridge says. “Working on a character, I get to know his limitations and foibles, his baggage and dark places, but I empathize with him. This empathy often awakens a greater awareness of the lives around me, making me more present to my own life.”
“Under the Lintel,” which runs through March 17 in the Broadway Theatre Center’s Studio Theatre, is the final production in MCT’s “Exploring Jewish Voices” series, produced in collaboration with Jewish Museum Milwaukee and the Jewish Community Center. Other plays in 2012-13 series included Herb Gardner’s “A Thousand Clowns” and Donald Margulies’ “Collected Stories.”
The three groups have partnered to provide additional education and outreach opportunities including pre-show “ViewPoints” lectures and “Jewish Community Ticket” performances. During the project, MCT highlighted Jewish authors from different generations.
“I’m always looking for new and interesting ways to celebrate the arts,” Wright says. “Although none of these plays would necessarily qualify as ‘Jewish plays,’ it’s still fascinating to see how each of these playwrights uses and explores his background and his roots.”
“The librarian gets hooked into a mystery that leads him all over the world, meeting all kinds of people from all kinds of cultures,” Ridge says. “He grapples with the consequences of a single decision made years ago, with questions of mortality and significance and free will.”
Eventually the librarian comes to realize and accept that life is messy and confounding, while still offering great beauty and worth, Ridge says. Whether the realization solves his mystery is less important than the insight it offers audiences, Ridge says.
“I think that this is a wonderfully crafted play, skillfully layered and very human, funny and deeply touching,” the actor says. “If I do my job right, I think people will identify with and come to care about this man.”
Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s production of Glen Berger’s “Underneath the Lintel” runs Feb. 20 through March 17 in the Broadway Theatre Center’s Studio Theatre. For more information, visit www.chamber-theatre.com.