Cast before the pandemic, actors take the stage in family drama “Independence”

The cast of “Independence,” Rebecca Rowland Hines, Yelena King, Bella Steele and Abby Jones. The show opens April 15 at Keizer Homegrown Theatre (Courtesy/Trill Performing Acts)

The premise of “Independence,” an upcoming show opening at Keizer Homegrown Theatre, is so intimate that it borders on claustrophobic.

It takes place in 1980s Independence, Iowa, entirely from the confines of a dysfunctional family’s living room. 

“It’s about a mother and three daughters trying to put together some sort of family, but they have all sorts of history, and it’s difficult,” said Joseph Silva, the show’s producer and co-director.

“Independence” is a drama – it focuses on the fallout of one of the girls’ sudden pregnancy, which forces her successful, distant older sister to come back home and deal with their mothers’ dwindling mental state. For the semi-estranged characters, their newfound proximity is the pressure cooker that drives the plot. 

But for the actors cast to play them all the way back in February 2020, that was exactly the problem: how do you manufacture forced closeness when you’re rehearsing over video chat, miles away from each other?

“We started right around the time Covid hit. We did some Zoom rehearsing as far as that could take us,” Silva said. 

Though the actors were cast more than two years ago, they weren’t able to meet up in person until September 2021. They gathered in Silva’s living room, where the first order of business was to figure out the fundamentals of the actors’ blocking. They needed to get a sense of how they should move around one another.

Most of the cast had never even met, said Rebecca Rowland Hines, who plays the mother of the family, Evelyn. But everyone was already off-book for that first in-person rehearsal.

“It was giddy. We were in there hugging each other, just like we’d known each other as family for the last few years,” Rowland Hines said.

And finally gathering the cast together also proved incredibly valuable for the subtler aspects of the show, which hinges on the audience buying into the specialized, highly personal ways that family members can hurt and heal one another.

“Once we got together in the same room, it just altered the show quite a bit. In a good way. That’s the acting process. You need each other to act,” Silva said.

“It became more dynamic, personalities emerged more clearly. Just the ability to know what the other person is doing,” he continued. “You bounce off whoever is onstage with you. What you give each other is always crucial.” 

For Rowland Hines, the lengthy rehearsal time was a “double-edged sword.”

It was hard to jump in and out of Evelyn’s mind and body, she said. But she also had the luxury of enough time to get to know a uniquely complicated character.

“This particular role, for me, is the most challenging I have ever had. She’s a difficult personality –at most points, just not likable,” Rowland Hines said.

Keizer Homegrown Theatre offered to host the play, Silva said. He jumped on the opportunity, considering it a perfect space for such a close-knit production.

“It’s not a normal venue,” Silva said. “It’s in a historical building, it’s small and intimate and it fits the show just right. It’s almost about 60 seats. It puts you right in the living room of this family.” 

“Independence” was written by Lee Blessing in 1985. Silva, who runs the production company Trill Performing Arts, co-directed the show alongside Valarie Steele. It stars Rowland Hines alongside Yelena King, Bella Steele and Abby Jones as the three daughters.

Keizer Homegrown Theatre will host the show for two weekends: Friday through Sunday, April 15 to April 17 and April 22 to April 24. Friday and Saturday shows begin at 7 p.m. and Sunday shows begin at 2 p.m.

The theater is located at 980 Chemawa Rd NE in Keizer. Tickets cost $15 and can be purchased at keizerhomegrowntheatre.org. Audience members must wear a face mask and show proof of vaccination against Covid.

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