Theater Takeaway: Trinity Rep’s Oklahoma!

You’ll laugh until you cry, and you’ll cry some more when it’s over.

When you wake up singing “Oh what a beautiful morning, oh what a beautiful day,” you know you did something right the night before.

For me, it was catching Trinity Repertory Company’s Oklahoma!, the theater’s final show of the 2015/2016 season. Trinity Rep decided to go out with a bang, and they brought in directorial reinforcements in the form of Hollywood star Richard Jenkins and his wife, Sharon, a choreographer, who live in Cumberland and earned their stage chops at Trinity Rep back in the ’70s.

With thoughtfulness and precision, the Jenkinses introduce us to Curly, Laurey, Ado Annie, Jud Fry and other down-home characters searching for companionship and revenge in Oklahoma territory at the turn of the twentieth century. With the Trinity Rep touch, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical, which opened on Broadway in 1943, still feels relevant and — dare I say it — a little bit risky, too.

Trinity Repertory Company’s Oklahoma! sticks with you several hours after the curtain drops and, if you’re lucky, well into the next day. It’s the most fun you’ll have at the theater, and you’ll be sad when it’s over.

Here’s the takeaway:


The Star Power is Potent.

I’m not ashamed to write that I creeped on an unsuspecting Richard Jenkins (of Olive Kitteridge, Stepbrothers and Eat, Pray, Love fame) from the second-floor balcony before the show on Monday night. (Read Pippa Jack’s Q and A with the actor and director here.) But I forgot all about Hollywood’s rising cult figure mere bars into actor Charlie Thurston’s chill-inducing rendition of “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning.” As cowman Curly McLain, Thurston is charming and boyish and wholesome and brash. Despite his flaws, we root for him to win the heart of tough-as-nails Laurey (played by resident actor Rachael Warren, who surprises me every time with her incredible, booming vocals). Although Thurston has worked as a resident actor at Trinity Rep for three seasons, I couldn’t help but think: A star is born.


The Design is Gorgeously Minimalist.

According to a story by Channing Gray in the Providence Journal, Richard and Sharon Jenkins approached Trinity Rep artistic director Curt Columbus with a black and white photograph and a big idea. The photo, according to Gray’s story, depicted a group of settlers with “their most prized, or perhaps only, possessions in tow: a buckboard, cow and organ.” The couple wanted to deconstruct Rodgers and Hammerstein’s groundbreaking musical — strip it bare and focus on the people at the center of the story.

But the final production — designed by the inimitable Eugene Lee — takes it one notch further. The set is nothing more than a handful of sepia posters and a few perches made from unfinished two-by-fours. It forces the audience to focus less on the corn “as high as an elephant’s eye” or the “Surry with the fringe on top” and more on the characters. According to Denise Dowling’s May 2015 profile of the set designer, Eugene Lee “hates scenery but loves theater; he believes that actors are always more important than the scenery.” Oklahoma! exemplifies that notion.


Rebecca Gibel Plays a Riotous, Libidinous Ado Annie.

Oklahoma! opened on Broadway seventy-three years ago, yet I’m still scandalized by all the sex talk. (Scandalized, but loving every minute it.) Trinity Rep resident actor Rebecca Gibel’s Ado Annie, like Thurston’s Curly, is an unusual amalgam of traits: She’s sweet but oversexed, wide-eyed yet cognizant of the urges of men — and happy to oblige them. She has a couple of boyfriends and gives in to each of them, trembling with her own uncontrollable desires. During Gibel’s solo number, “I Can’t Say No,” the audience literally roars with laughter. Rare is the day when you can sit in a room with hundreds of people and hoot in harmony. Thanks, Ado Annie and Rebecca Gibel, for the belly laughs.


The Drug-Induced Dream Ballet is Scarier than the Actual Violence.

…And I prefer it that way. Laurey, played by Rachael Warren, huffs smelling salts peddled by a slimy travelling salesman (played by the hilarious Stephen Thorne) to decide who should take her to the box social dance: Curly or Jud, a disturbed farmhand played by Joe Wilson Jr. Laurey’s ballet scene, lit only by a swinging light bulb, begins sweetly, with Laurey imagining a life with Curly. But it takes a foreboding turn. Laurie’s afraid of Jud, and her dream sets up a violent scene later in the show that happens fast and doesn’t dampen the hard-earned laughs from earlier in the play. Oklahoma! is an escape, after all.


Joe Wilson Jr. is as Versatile as it Gets.

He’s played a martyr (Jim Casy, Grapes of Wrath). He’s played a redeemed villain (Scrooge, A Christmas Carol.) He’s even played a conman of epic proportions (George, Intimate Apparel). But a kicked-dog of a man with a menacing, violent streak? Well, Joe Wilson Jr. can do that, too. We, as the audience, understand why Jud Fry is sick in the head. He’s a hired hand who’s cooped up in a smokehouse with little human interaction. His rival presses him to kill himself in an ironically upbeat ditty. His life savings is $40. And the woman he loves is afraid of him. But even though we understand, we still fear for the lives of our darling couple, Curly and Laurey. Wilson Jr. accomplishes a great feat in his portrayal of Jud Fry: He’s not the redeemed villain, nor is he the opportunistic conman the audience comes to loathe. He’s somewhere in between — a place that’s rooted in reality, where we can sympathize with him but we don’t want him to get too close.  


Trinity Repertory Company’s Oklahoma! is onstage now through June 5. Visit for more information.