Logan Reed '21 Presents 'Wilder Shorts!', a Directing Thesis Production

BY Emily Johnson, October 14, 2021

Wilder Shorts! opens with a pair of people on stage, chatting. An actor, and a stagehand; they’re not in character, they’re simply talking. They’re gradually joined by other performers, in costume and out, stretching, joking, trilling vocal warm ups. When the Stage Manager announces five minutes to curtain, the pace picks up. Performers and stagehands now race past, shouting about props, exhorting each other to hurry, as they bustle to their places.


Finally, the Stage Manager (a vivid Naomi Honig) takes center stage. They welcome the audience, and remind them to keep their masks on. To the cast, over their shoulder they shout, “You look great!” The ‘curtains’—several rollable clothing racks—glide apart, and the scene is set for the first short, Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden.


There’s something about Thornton Wilder’s early work that feels a little like dress-up. Maybe it’s the sparse sets, relying on configurations of chairs, ladders, and staircases to create trains, cars—even other planes of existence. 


Director Logan Reed '21 leans into this feeling of make-believe by crafting interstitial behind-the-scenes moments, showing us the cast and crew joyfully, frantically, making stories come to life. It brings tremendous energy to the two one-acts, uniting them in a sense of play. It feels like an honest expression by theatre artists who are at last able to create together in the same space.

Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden follows the Kirby family on a drive to visit the family’s eldest daughter. Pullman Car Hiawatha brings us aboard a train racing through the night, visiting the passengers in their berths as they contemplate worries, new loves, and their reading material. Though written in the 1930s, both short plays find the universal in the most ordinary-seeming moments of life. 


They are also touched deeply with mortality. Once the Kirbys have completed their happy journey, we learn that Beulah Kirby, the eldest daughter, has suffered a tragic loss. One of the passengers on the Pullman Car Hiawatha dies in the night.


After his final production was forced to a halt in 2020, Directing student Reed discovered Wilder’s short works, and found something in them that spoke to the new questions he had come to ask in the midst of the pandemic.


From Reed’s show notes: “At their core, Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden and Pullman Car Hiawatha explore what it means to be alive when death is an essential part of life.” 


Guided by the Stage Manager (Honig) across both plays, eight actors take on over 30 roles, dashing through hats, jackets, sock puppets, and sheets. Such madcap meta-theatrics are on full display in Pullman Car Hiawatha. A hand-operated spotlight illuminates each passenger’s private thoughts on the inside of the car, before we are invited by Honig to consider the train’s position “geographically, astronomically, meteorologically, and theologically.” Fields, towns, hours, philosophers, and a ghost all have their say, brought to life through distinctive choices by each artist.


The ensemble thrives on the strength of all its performers. Special mention must be made of Hilary Asare, who delivers a Mrs. Kirby so earnest and steady she breaks your heart. Likewise the thoughtful Lindsey Ackerman, and Columbia’s own Michael Karadsheh, who brings innocence and intensity to both Arthur Kirby, and the Pullman Car Hiawatha Porter. 


Wilder Shorts! was available to stream online, and some care was invested in making this experience enjoyable for the at-home viewer. The use of multiple cameras gave us close angles on actors in important moments, as well as the breadth of the stage, so as not to miss the very fine stage pictures rendered by Reed’s inventive eye.


The meta-theatrical in both Wilder’s text and Reed’s staging feel appropriate, as many of us are hyper aware of the poignancy of seeing a play during a pandemic. How thrilling to see theatre artists at work again, with the humble human experience in the spotlight.