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A play about families, Bethel’s "Our Town" features four “sister acts”

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – Take two American families, add elements of everyday life and find the eternal. Bethel College’s upcoming performance of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town seeks to do exactly that, while using four pairs of acting sisters.

“[Our Town is] about recognizing life for what it is,” says cast member Aimee Siebert, senior from Topeka, “very transitory but exceptionally beautiful in its simplicity.”

Wilder’s American standard debuted in 1938. Bethel last presented the drama in 1950.

“I remember the play as offering a perspective on life and death, and how little people realize the true significance of things, by showing the importance of the unremarkable,” says alumna and 1950 cast member Mary Moyer Duerksen, Oxford, Ohio. She played the part of Rebecca.

“1950 was the beginning of the Cold War and the chill of McCarthyism,” adds Duerksen. “The play implies a sense of the wrongness of injustice in society, appropriate for those years as well as in the ’30s when it was written. Probably seeing the play today would still give one the feeling that it has a lot to teach us.”

And indeed, decades later the play remains relevant. “Much has changed, but much of what’s eternal has remained the same,” says John McCabe-Juhnke, director and professor of communication arts.

Our Town follows the lives of two American families, in three acts. Each act highlights different life events: a normal day, a wedding and a funeral.

In the final act, Emily Webb, played by sophomore Kelsey Ortman of Marion, S.D., relives moments of her life after her death. “Emily gets some insight when she’s dead that [living] people don’t understand,” Siebert notes.

“I don’t know if the audience gets to what the dead understand about life, but they do realize, perhaps, how much of their life they are missing or could be missing if they don’t value or think about it hard enough,” Siebert continues.

The unique structure of Our Town calls for simple staging and minimal use of props. Much of the set is created with pantomiming – an interesting (and good) acting challenge, according to Siebert.

Wilder invites audience engagement in the performance of Our Town by breaking down the “fourth wall” between actors and audience. The Stage Manager, played by Kelly Reed, senior from Edinburg, Texas, speaks directly to audience members and invites them to evaluate their own lives.

“I do think the central theme of the play is very life-affirming,” says McCabe-Juhnke. “It asks us to value the everyday relationships in which we engage and to understand the gift that it is to be alive on this earth and to be connected to a community.”

The large cast allows McCabe-Juhnke to showcase the talents of 19 Bethel individuals, several of whom have multiple and cross-gender roles. Appropriately for a play about families, of the 19 Bethel actors, eight are siblings.

Alongside Aimee Siebert is her sister Megan, freshman from Topeka, as Howie Newsome and a baseball player.

“Megan’s great at it – she’s doing a fantastic job,” says Aimee. “It’s great having her there because we’re not on stage the whole time and we can catch up on how each other’s day has been and that sort of thing.”

Although the Siebert sisters have danced in ballets together, they have not collaborated on a drama since high school.

“There are a couple of times we talk and I get to sell her invisible milk,” Megan says, “but offstage we talk and that’s fun because we haven’t been at the same school in four years.”

Audra and Julia Miller, freshmen from Hesston, performed together in many different shows throughout their years at Hesston High School. Audra, who plays Simon Stimson, the drunken choir director, says she enjoys her role and the opportunity to act with her sister.

The only challenge of having a sibling on stage, say the Miller sisters, is avoiding laughter. “It’s funny when you’re on stage and you can’t stop cracking up,” says Julia. “At one point in the play, we are both dead and Audra sits right in front of me. Actors walk by and we are supposed to show no facial expression, but sometimes she’ll start laughing. When I see her shoulders begin to shake, I start laughing and then we both break character.”

“She probably gets mad at me,” says Audra. “I break character more often and it makes her laugh.”

Both Millers cite the “simplicity” of Our Town as part of strength of the drama. The sisters anticipate sharing the stage in future Bethel productions.

“We all like drama and I guess we’re pretty good at standing each other,” says Julia when asked to about the dynamics of so many siblings onstage for Our Town.

For Amy and Sara Volweider, junior and sophomore, respectively, from Haven, Our Town will be the second time they’ve shared the Bethel stage. Both had roles in last fall’s production of Protection Program and do many things together.

“We are both social work and art majors, and many have mistaken us for twins,” says Amy. “Since we are so busy this year, we don’t see each other much so the play is one way to get to hang out.”

The Volweiders were intentional about attending the same college. “I pretty much begged her to come to Bethel. [Sara] is my best friend and I wanted to be able to share the college experience with her,” Amy says.

In addition to the Sieberts, Millers and Volweiders, Kelsey Ortman will share the stage with older sister Lindsey Ortman, senior from Marion, S.D. Lindsey joined the cast late for the purpose of being onstage with her sister.

Our Town resonates with the familial closeness of the cast.

“The theme is live life to the fullest,” says Amy Volweider. “Try to live in the moment and do what you can to live the life you want. You shouldn’t take your family for granted and [you should] spend what time you can with them.”

In addition to those already mentioned, the cast includes juniors Clint Harris, Manhattan, Joshua Powell, Basehor, and Linda Srader, Newton; sophomores Seth Dunn, Fresno, Calif., April Kabagambe, Newton, Emily Kliewer, Aurora, Neb., and Sarah Pohl, Moundridge; and freshmen Ryan Cummins, Joshua, Texas, Laura Dueckman, Abbotsford, British Columbia, Janae Janzen, Newton, and Kyle Wise, Wichita.

The Bethel College Theater Department will give three performances of Our Town as part of Bethel’s annual Fall Festival. The play will be performed in Krehbiel Auditorium of the Fine Arts Center Friday, Oct. 2, at 7:30 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 3, at 3:30 p.m. and Sunday, Oct. 4, at 2 p.m.

Tickets are $10 for adults; $8 for non-Bethel students and adults age 65 and older; $6.50 for children (ages 3-12). Bethel students and Kidron Bethel residents are free with ID. Tickets are available at Thresher Bookstore in Schultz Student Center (M-F 8:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m., phone 316-284-5205) or at the Fine Arts Center ticket window before each performance, subject to availability.

Bethel College is a four-year liberal arts college affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. Bethel is known for its academic excellence and was the only Kansas private college to be ranked in Forbes.com’s listing of “America’s Best Colleges” for 2009 and one of only two Kansas colleges listed in Colleges of Distinction 2008-09. For more information, see the Bethel Web site at www.bethelks.edu.

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