Girl Friday Productions might be aptly redubbed the Thornton Wilder Playhouse. The small theater company that does a show every other summer has chosen “The Matchmaker,” the most conventional of Wilder’s three big theatrical hits, as its latest staging. It opens Friday at the Boss Thrust at Park Square Theatre in St. Paul.
This is Girl Friday’s sixth production since 2005, and three of those have been Wilder. “Our Town” went up in 2007, and “The Skin of Our Teeth” followed in 2009.
Wilder wrote lots of one-acts, and his last novel, “Theophilus North,” has been adapted for the stage. Plus, a Seattle company made a puppet-and-human version of “The Bridge of San Luis Rey” in 2006, so producer Kirby Bennett could keep this Thornton Wilder thing going for years.
“There are these themes of human resilience and human redemption in Thornton Wilder,” Bennett said before a recent rehearsal. “We’re attracted to the cosmic consciousness in his work.”
The Ruth Gordon connection
With “The Matchmaker,” Wilder was less on that stars-and-moon theme and more about the means of making a living. The play started as “The Merchant of Yonkers,” which Wilder got to Broadway in 1938 with director Max Reinhardt.
The play flopped, but the writer kept poking at the story — mostly at the insistence of his good friend Ruth Gordon. The actor and her husband, playwright Garson Kanin, persuaded Wilder to elevate the relatively minor character Dolly Gallagher Levi into the central role. Of course, Gordon would play Dolly.
Wilder was fine with that, and director Tyrone Guthrie staged “The Matchmaker” in 1955. Gordon was nominated for a Tony. Guthrie won the award for directing.
The play was then stretched into the basis for Jerry Herman’s blockbuster musical “Hello, Dolly!” in 1964.
“You don’t get the real meat of Wilder’s writing in ‘Dolly,’ ” Bennett said.
Girl Friday Productions favors plays with big casts, and Bennett likes the strong women Wilder writes — Emily Gibbs in “Our Town” and Sabina and Maggie in “The Skin of Our Teeth,” for example. Dolly is one of several women who figure prominently in “The Matchmaker,” which on its surface can feel impossibly old. Bennett finds the glass half full (as any good producer would) and notes that these are strong female protagonists who work during a time (circa 1900) when that was unusual for women.
“He gives every woman in the show a chance at great self-awareness,” said Lindsay Marcy, who plays Irene Molloy, a widow who runs a dressmaking shop.
For Karen Wiese-Thompson, Dolly is one of two roles on her bucket list. (The other is Falstaff, which she will play this fall in a Ten Thousand Things production.)
“I did this role when I was 18,” she said of a performance that has earned her a spot on the Fine Arts Wall of Fame at Windom (Minn.) High School. She joked, “It might be time for me to die.”
Actors old and new
Craig Johnson returns to direct “The Matchmaker.” Johnson, a respected director and actor among theater folks, won an Ivey Award for his work on Girl Friday’s 2011 production of “Street Scene” (which feels like it should be a Wilder play but actually is by Elmer Rice).
Of the six men in the cast, four have been with previous shows. Other than Bennett, however, all the women are new.
That includes Marcy and Christian Bardin, two actors who have made an impression in several venues. Bardin was in this spring’s “The Crucible” at the Guthrie and has often worked with groups such as the Moving Company and Sandbox Theatre, which devise performances. She said she uses the same set of instincts of innovation in approaching Minnie Fay, Irene’s assistant in “The Matchmaker.”
“I love to take the words, something on the page, and breathe life in it with a left turn,” Bardin said. “It brings more life to a sidekick.”
Marcy characterized Irene as “a bulldozer; she forces things to move forward.”
Dana Lee Thompson, who performs with the educational group CLIMB, is playing several roles in “The Matchmaker.”
“I’m an obedient actor,” she said with a little tongue in cheek. “I’d heard good things about Girl Friday, so I appreciate working with a director who has a vision.”
This is Girl Friday’s first foray into St. Paul. The company was one of three chosen as resident partners in Park Square’s new basement stage. It’s a quirky space, but Johnson has a good team (including set designer Rick Polenek, who frequently has worked upstairs at Park Square).
“Girl Friday has made its mark as the little theater that does big plays,” Johnson said.
And if Thornton Wilder has a hidden play in an old trunk somewhere, Johnson and Bennett will be happy to have a look.
Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299