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Friday, October 23, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Wheatland Theatre Co., guest director put story of ‘Oklahoma!’ first

No matter the time or place, love has an uncanny ability to tangle itself up into a triangle.

Take Oklahoma in 1906, for instance.

The musical “Oklahoma!,” which opens at Wheatland Theatre Co. on Friday, centers on the independent Laurey Williams (Jayce Fortin) and cowboy Curly McLain (guest artist Nathan Robert Pecchia) and the mysterious farmhand Jud Fry (Adam Cogswell), both of whom are in love with Williams.

All the while, the flirtatious Ado Annie Carnes finds herself in the middle of a love triangle herself, trying to decide between cowboy Will Parker (guest artist Ellington Berg) and a Persian peddler named Ali Hakim (Tony Caprile).

If that wasn’t enough tension, the musical also deals with a rivalry between cowmen and farmers.

“Oklahoma!” features music by Richard Rodgers and a book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II and marks the pair’s first time working together.

The musical also features original dances by Agnes de Mille, and it’s based on the Lynn Riggs play “Green Grow the Lilacs.”

Wheatland’s production of “Oklahoma!” is directed by Lee Mikeska Gardner, assistant directed by Lynn Hernas and stage managed by Jessica Smith.

Gardner is the artistic director of the Nora Theatre Co. in Cambridge, Massachusetts, but she’s been in Davenport for about six weeks working on “Oklahoma!” as part of Wheatland’s guest artist program, which brings professional theater artists from around the country to Davenport for one production each summer to work alongside and mentor local performers.

Gardner met Wheatland managing director Drew Kowalkowski when he worked as Nora’s patron services manager.

After Kowalkowski started working with Wheatland, the two got to talking about whether she would be interested in participating in the guest artist program and eventually decided “Oklahoma!” was the right show for Gardner to direct.

“Unless an opportunity isn’t logistically viable, I always say yes …,” Gardner said. “It’s like ‘Just say yes. You never know what’s going to happen.’ Some of my best, fun opportunities, productions as an actor and a director have been because someone’s asked and I just said ‘Sure, why not?’ ”

Gardner has both performed in and directed musicals in the past, but she said they’re not her bread and butter.

She considers herself a storyteller and said no matter the style of play – musical, Shakespeare, new works – it all comes back to the story being told.

“There’s a saying about musicals that people burst into song because the emotion is so heightened, words can’t express it anymore …,” she said. “The show doesn’t stop just because somebody sang. The song actually moves the story forward in some way.”

Gardner and the rest of the company hope their production gives audiences another look at the story of “Oklahoma!,” which Gardner said can sometimes be made a little bland if all the focus is put on the music.

“If you look at it from a storytelling point of view, it really works through the ‘one thing happens, another happens, another, this is how people respond to the situation,’ ” she said. “Then you get a much more complex and interesting musical than just Laurey loves Curly and Jud’s sort of a problem.”

Wheatland’s production of “Oklahoma!” also stars Karen Brewster as Aunt Eller.

The ensemble features Steve Brewster, Joyce Brock, Patra Canfield, Daniel Coriell, Lawrence Hansen, Erin Henry, Heather Fisher, Paul Scott, Courtney Durrant, Kady Cullen, Mark Cullen, Fritzie Tugahan, Elaine Van Belle, Carolyn Wesselius, Knute Hernas, Marissa Koeller, Audrey Parks, Paula Reed, Alexa Robinson, Mary Mendenhall, Daniel Moldrem, Debbie Mielke, Brad Sweet, Cord Sweetland and Chris Warwick.

Though she’s only been working in Davenport for about six weeks, Gardner said she and the cast have already formed close bonds.

She’s experienced this before with other productions, but it doesn’t make saying goodbye any easier.

“We’ve haven’t even opened and I’m already starting to feel sad about the fact that I probably won’t see some of these people again,” Gardner said. “The bonds you form are always very strong. Even though geographically I’ll be back on the East Coast, it doesn’t necessarily mean the bonds go away.”

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