“Kind of Alaska” to play up the unexpected

Jordan Beck

When NMU senior theater major York Griffith first discovered “A Kind of Alaska,” he wasn’t anywhere near the Upper Peninsula. In fact, he was attending the School at Steppenwolf, a residency created by Chicago’s famed Steppenwolf Theatre Company. “There were a couple girls there who were working on a scene from it,” Griffith said. “I thought it was really fascinating, and it’s kind of stuck with me since then.”

Junior theatre majors John Scheibe and Jesse Morrow play Hornby and  Deborah, as they rehearse a scene from “A Kind of Alaska.” (Katie Stumman NW)
Junior theatre majors John Scheibe and Jesse Morrow play Hornby and Deborah, as they rehearse a scene from “A Kind of Alaska.” (Katie Stumman NW)

Now, after a 15-year-long hiatus, Griffith has returned to NMU to earn his bachelor’s degree, and he’s chosen to direct “A Kind of Alaska” as his capstone project. Serving as both a homecoming and a farewell, he said, NMU’s production of “Alaska” promises to present a classic drama in a bold new light.

Written by Nobel-winning playwright Harold Pinter, “Alaska” tells the story of Deborah, a middle-aged woman who’s been in a coma for the past three decades. Over the course of the play’s single act, Deborah tries to come to terms with a world that’s radically different from the one she remembers.

According to Griffith, one of the primary reasons he was drawn to the play was its deep, fully-drawn sense of characterization.

“One thing that often happens with shorter plays is that they tend to rely on archetypal or stereotypical characters,” Griffith said. “Thanks to Harold Pinter’s writing, this play is far from that.”

Jesse Morrow, a senior theater major playing the role of Deborah, agreed.

“This role has been a nice challenge, since it gives me a chance to create this person who doesn’t have an obvious, stereotypical ‘box’ that she fits in,” Morrow said.

While Griffith is the play’s director, his creative process is one of collaboration, he said. Instead of making every artistic decision for the production before rehearsals began, he and the play’s cast worked together to determine its creative direction.

“We started the process in a somewhat typical way: learning dialogue, blocking scenes and so on,” Morrow said. “But, then, we took a step back to get at the heart of the characters and their energies, as well as their relationships with each other and their surroundings. We did some exercises to explore that, and the piece ended up taking on a new shape, which is very interesting.”

Griffith said among the most appealing traits of his production is the fact that Pinter’s plays aren’t often produced in the U.P.

“It’s one of the best short plays ever, written by one of the most important playwrights of the last 50 years,” Griffith said. “I think it’s a rare opportunity to see a very important play that isn’t performed often done well.”

According to Morrow, Griffith’s production of “Alaska” will be an interesting experience for the audience and the cast alike, especially since it’s not typical in any sense of the word.

“Come in open-minded, because it might not be like what you’re expecting,” Morrow said. “It’s got a different aesthetic than you might expect, and it’s not a comedy by any means. Just be ready to take the journey with us.”

“A Kind of Alaska” will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 18 and Saturday, Oct. 19 in the James A. Panowski Black Box Theater.