“In the Deep” explores grief, resiliency in world premiere at Willamette

Willamette University’s newest musical is about chosen family — both on stage and off.

“In the Deep,” a one-act show opening this week, follows a group of friends reckoning with loss and grief after a storm disrupts their calm college town life.

It’s also written, composed and directed by three generations of Willamette University alumni who hope its themes of finding community support resonate with a Salem audience.

“It’s really fun that it was written by an alumni and composed by an alumni. They wanted to keep it in the alumni family,” said director Carly Christensen, a 2016 graduate.

The six-person ensemble cast goes on a “journey through grief” over the course of the 50-minute show, Christensen said. The group is drawn together at a cabin in the woods following the storm.

“As they navigate the aftermath of destruction, they are confronted with the question, ‘When the water is over your head, who can pull you up?’” a description of the show reads.

The show’s cast and crew have become tight-knit and cared for each other during the rehearsal process, Christensen said, mirroring the characters’ journey through the heaviness of loss. 

“That’s been a really beautiful thing to see,” she said.

Ash Scott as Rowan and Ella Noel as Sandy in dress rehearsal for Willamette University’s world premiere production of “In the Deep” (Courtesy/Willamette Theatre)

The show’s book and lyrics were written by E. M. Lewis, a 1993 graduate, while the music was composed by 2023 graduate Clarence Roscoe McDonald for a senior project.

Both were involved during rehearsal, Christensen said, allowing them to make changes to the script and music as she and the actors discovered what worked well and what didn’t in real time.

The result was a new scene, monologue and song all added during the rehearsal process in the last week of September.

McDonald’s musical influences are diverse, including The Who and musicals “Rent” and “Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812.” The result is a contemporary sound with harmonies “that are fun and challenging,” Christensen said.

“I hope people come away from this show wanting to reach out to the people they know and love, and hold onto each other the best they can,” McDonald said in a statement.

Christensen said the musical’s themes will resonate with struggles many people felt during the pandemic.

“How many people have experienced this kind of loss suddenly?” Christensen said. The show explores “really holding onto the people you have in your life who are your support system and who make life beautiful even in the hardening moments of grief. It really is this reminder that love is abundant and it is always around.”

“In the Deep” opens Thursday, Oct. 26, at 7:30 p.m. in the M. Lee Pelton Theatre, 289 12th St. S.E. The show runs through Sunday, Nov. 12, with shows Wednesday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m, and matinees Sundays at 2 p.m.Tickets are $15 for general admission, $12 for seniors and $9 for students For more information or to buy tickets, visit the Willamette theater website.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.