WHAT’s 2024 Season Marks 40 Years Of Bold Theater

by Jennifer Sexton-Riley
Christine Farrell and Kea Trevett in “Smart.” CAROL ROSEGG PHOTO Christine Farrell and Kea Trevett in “Smart.” CAROL ROSEGG PHOTO

Wellfleet Harbor Actors’ Theater is marking its 40th year of producing bold, eclectic contemporary theater on Cape Cod with a tantalizing 2024 season.

Producing Artistic Director Christopher Ostrom said it is very exciting to be celebrating this milestone year.

“WHAT has proven again and again to be remarkably resilient, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Ostrom said. “I credit the support of our community. Wellfleet is one of those unique places where the arts are central to its identity.”

Ostrom said that he never starts planning a season with a specific theme in mind. Instead he is drawn to works that speak to the human condition and resonate with our time.

“First and foremost, I'm drawn to great writing and works that inspire the dramatic imagination,” Ostrom said. “I want to tell great stories in new and unexpected ways. Perhaps it is my background as a designer, but if I am completely absorbed into a play on the first read and can visualize it in my mind's eye, I immediately add it to the ‘maybe’ pile.”

The first production in the 2024 season is “Smart” by Mary Elizabeth Hamilton, a play about how and why we let technology into our homes, and the unexpected changes that tech can bring. Elaine's cantankerous, ailing mother, Ruth, won't let aides in the house to help her, making it impossible for Elaine to go to work. In desperation, Elaine buys a "Jenny,” a smart device which doubles as a babysitter/companion for her mom while allowing Elaine to check on Ruth from anywhere. Jenny quickly feels like another member of the family, playing games with Ruth and talking Elaine through her insomnia. But what if Jenny isn't the only one listening? “Smart,” directed by Jess Chayes, will run from June 8 to 23. “‘Smart’ struck me for its beautifully rendered complex characters caught in an incredibly relatable situation,” Ostrom said. “As the relentless march of technological innovation progresses, what do we sacrifice when adopting the convenience of AI and smart devices? What is the cost of being always connected in the digital age?”

Next on the WHAT stage, from July 5 to 27, will be “Reefer Madness, the Musical,” with book by Kevin Murphy and Dan Studney, lyrics by Kevin Murphy and music by Dan Studney, directed by Ostrom, with musical supervision by Kevin Quill. Inspired by the original 1936 film of the same name, this raucous musical parody takes a tongue-in-cheek look at the hysteria caused when clean-cut kids fall prey to marijuana, leading them on a hysterical downward spiral filled with jazz music, sex and violence.

“‘Reefer Madness’ is a campy and fun, old fashioned musical,” Ostrom said. “It playfully parodies the 1936 propaganda film that has now become a cult classic, while skillfully satirizing the puritanical, and frankly racist, origins of anti-cannabis laws in the US. Its over-the-top depictions of teens imperiled by this new drug menace feels quaint in the modern age where we have come to embrace the medicinal and recreational use of cannabis. I love its jazz and rock-and-roll influenced score.”

“Summer, 1976” by Pulitzer Prize winning playwright David Auburn, directed by Daisy Walker, takes the WHAT stage from Aug. 9 to 31. Over one fateful summer an unlikely friendship develops between Diana, a fiercely iconoclastic artist and single mom, and Alice, a free-spirited yet naive young housewife. As the Bicentennial is celebrated across the country, these two young women navigate motherhood, ambition and intimacy, and help each other discover their own independence. It’s a deeply moving, insightful piece about connection, memories, and the small moments that can change the course of our lives.

“I consider David Auburn's ‘Proof’ to be one of the greatest plays of the last century. I immediately jumped at the opportunity to produce the regional theater premiere of his latest play, ‘Summer, 1976,’” Ostrom said. “It is a gorgeous play about the unexpected paths our lives take, and the ever changing nature of friendship.”

September brings the world premiere of “Liberty Talks!” by local playwright Fermin Rojas, directed by Rebecca Berger, Sept. 14 through Oct. 6. “Liberty Talks!” is a thoughtful comedy exploring the origins of one of our nation’s most enduring symbols, The Statue of Liberty. After a monumental lifetime lighting the way to America’s shore, Lady Liberty finds her voice, steps off her pedestal and ventures out to tell her story. When she accidentally walks into a theater full of people while looking for a bathroom, she decides to spend a few moments ruminating about her experiences, memories and hopes for our nation’s future.

“In an era filled with cynicism and distrust of our institutions, ‘Liberty Talks!’ feels revolutionary,” Ostrom said. “It offers a hopeful vision for our nation by reminding us of the ideals of our formation and the promise of a better future drawn from the playwright's lived experience as an immigrant to the US.”

When asked about the value and importance of producing works by local playwrights like Rojas, Ostrom said he has long been impressed with the breadth and diversity of the creative community on the Outer Cape.

“I love that playwrights are still drawn to these shores, following in the footsteps of O'Neil, Glaspell and Williams,” Ostrom said. “It feels especially fitting in this anniversary year to produce a new work by a local playwright, hearkening back to the creative vision of our founders, a diverse group of local theater-makers who wanted to do something different from what was happening on the Cape at the time, and indeed created something unique that has endured for 40 years.”

Subscriptions to the 2024 season are now on sale, with tickets to individual productions available starting May 1. For more information and to purchase tickets visit what.org.