No one could say that first-time playwright Sheri Reynolds is afraid of bold moves and big metaphors. In her Orabelle's Wheelbarrow which won the Women Playwrights' Initiative's second annual writing competition and has its world premiere this week at the Orlando Rep an elderly woman moves about the stage pushing a wheelbarrow full of broken promises. That's no euphemism: The wheelbarrow is a real prop, and the "promises" tumble from and into it at regular intervals, spurring monologues that reinforce the play's themes.
Some writers might recoil from such overt theatrics, but not the South Carolina-born, Virginia-based Reynolds. "I am often too dumb to worry about those kinds of things," she says. "My instincts are bigger than the rule books." And as an author known primarily for her novels (including Bitteroot Landing and The Rapture of Canaan) she felt she had nothing to lose in making her first play script as daring and experimental as she wanted.
"[There's] a great, fantastic element to the play," Reynolds evaluates. "You never quite know if [Orabelle] is magical or if she's senile." The idea, the writer says, is to demonstrate "that promises have manifestations aside from their words. They have an essence or a presence." And sometimes, she offers, breaking one isn't such a bad idea at all.
The story began its life as another of Reynolds' novels, but when the result proved "too dramatic" for the printed page, she hit on the idea of adapting it to the stage. Seeking mere feedback, she submitted an early draft to WPI's annual nine-state competition and found herself the winner. Orabelle's Wheelbarrow has since undergone extensive revision, with Reynolds incorporating ideas and suggestions from a variety of sources, most significantly the attendees of a public reading that WPI staged last June.
"This thing has been through so many drafts now, I'm not even sure what's in it anymore," Reynolds admits.
Seeing it produced will be the latest learning experience for the author (who, in addition to her publishing endeavors, occupies the chair of Southern literature at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va.). She'll be on hand for the show's Orlando debut, and hopes that the choices the actors make will teach her to create better, more fully realized characters. Though she hasn't given up on novels by any means her latest, The Firefly Cloak, comes out next spring she obviously hasn't shaken the drama bug, either.
"I want to learn this craft," she says. "I want to learn to be a better playwright."
Sounds almost like a promise.
Through Sunday, Sept. 18
Tupperware Theatre, Orlando Repertory Theatre