There is an old railroad grade, unused by rail cars since 1930--the rail itself fallen into choppy disrepair--that rises from the town of Mill Valley and then climbs crookedly up to the near summit of the appealingly compact 2,571-foot-high recreational paradise known as Mt. Tamalpais. At one point, not far from the Pan Toll Ranger Station at 1,900 feet, the trail opens up onto the rustic Cushing Memorial Amphitheater, home of the legendary 93-year-old Mountain Play, a Bay Area tradition since a bunch of people hiked up Mt. Tam in 1913 and staged a Biblical pageant titled Abraham and Isaac.
When those first Mountain Plays began, patrons either made the six- to eight-mile hike from Mill Valley or took the train. Since the trains haven't run in seven decades, shuttle buses now carry the nonwalking types from numerous locations around Mill Valley. On a recent afternoon, two and a half weeks before the opening of the 93rd consecutive Mountain Play--a massively scaled mounting of the ever-popular Fiddler on the Roof--a group has gathered together for a lesser-known annual tradition: the press lunch.
Held at the home of longtime Mountain Play patrons Mimi and Peter Buckley, the press lunch is an opportunity for Bay Area theater writers to mingle with various hard-working supporters of the Mountain Play (read: board members), 24-year veteran musical director Paul Smith, a motley assortment of cast members from the soon-to-open show and the show's legendary director of the last 24 years, James Dunn.
This year, as Dunn and a dozen or so of the high-spirited actors from Fiddler sit down with the press (there's always someone who actually refers to him- or herself as an "ink-stained wretch"), executive director Kathleen King makes a special effort to point out that the famous Old Railroad Grade Trail, the same one used by folks hiking to or from the play, runs just behind the Buckley's house, a few short miles from the Cushing Amphitheater.
It is entirely fitting, in a metaphorical sense, that extra emphasis be placed on hiking and trailblazing this year, since the journey to this moment has been an especially long road for the cast and crew--and especially for director Dunn, who was diagnosed with a brain tumor shortly before rehearsals for Fiddler on the Roof began. Dunn underwent immediate surgery, and while his prognosis for full recovery seems extremely good, there is no doubt that it has been roughgoing for Dunn, who today, seven weeks after his surgery, still appears frail and weak compared to the rough-and-ready man we've known in the past.
When word of Dunn's illness spread through the theater community, he received scores of well-wishes from the actors and crew who've worked past Mountain Plays. He also heard from former students from his long tenure at College of Marin and his numerous productions at the Marin Shakespeare Festival in San Rafael, many offering, as a show of solidarity, to be a part of the upcoming production of Fiddler.
"The show of support that the theater people of Marin and the Bay Area have shown for Jim has been just amazing," affirms King. "He has touched so many lives, and been involved in the beginnings of so many performing-arts careers, it's really quite amazing."
This will be the third time Dunn has directed Fiddler on the Roof, the perfect show given the Cushing Amphitheater's expansive, dirt-level stage and open-air spaciousness. With Dunn's established tradition of tossing large-scale surprises into his mountaintop productions--real horses and stage coaches in Oklahoma!, a spectacular flyover of WW II fighter planes in South Pacific--one of the questions asked this day is what amazement Dunn has dreamed up for this year's show. There will be a troupe of real Russian dancers to participate in the famous "Lechaim" number, and a dream sequence involving a ghost who divides herself in two.
Beyond those small hints, Dunn is tightlipped, eager as always to maintain a sense of mystery. That said, he does finally reveal, over lunch, that when Tevye, the reluctantly humanist milkman (played by Bruce Vierra), appears at the beginning of the show to sing the famous opening number "Tradition," he will be leading a real cow. No doubt some elaborate clean-up contingencies have been put in place for the cow scenes.
"Beyond the cow," Dunn says, laughing, "you just have to wait and see."
Per tradition, guests are treated to an after-luncheon preview, featuring a trio of numbers from the show, with Smith backing up the singers on a standup piano. This advance preview starts off with a well-harmonized rendition of "Matchmaker" performed by Lindsay Drummer, Nina Josephs and Clarissa Gatti, who will be playing Tevye's daughters. Josephs then delivers a lovely rendition of the heartbreaking lament "Far from the Home I Love," before Vierra steps up to launch a powerhouse interpretation of the crowd-pleasing "If I Were a Rich Man."
"Fiddler is one of my favorite shows of all time," says Dunn, sipping coffee after the performances. "It's such a beautiful show. Fiddler is all about heart, it's all about people who've suffered catastrophe after catastrophe, and still go on. They go on with open eyes and open hearts. It's funny and it's sad, and it makes audiences laugh and cry--that's a theater cliché, bit in this case, it's true--and at the end, people walk away from the theater humming a tune, which is also a cliché that in this case happens to be true. It's such a great show."
Though Dunn elected to do Fiddler this year long before his diagnosis and treatment, he now says that it's been a very interesting and fitting show to work on as he recovers from a major surgery and a life-threatening illness.
"After I got sick, and after I had the operation--which I didn't realize would be so serious or affect me so severely--I got to thinking, getting ready to do this show, that life is very, very, very important," Dunn says. "I knew that, of course, but I didn't really know that. You never know when life is going to end, and it never ends at a good time for you, so you'd better take a good look at the things that are important to you. That's what Fiddler is about, in part. It's about people who learn, and learn the hard way, to appreciate the ones they love, and to see the difference between the things in life that are important and those things that are not really so important."
As the show gets ready to open, Dunn is already planning for next year, when the Mountain Play, for the very first time, will present the 1960s musical Hair.
"I can't wait to get started on that one," he laughs. "I have so many ideas." And no doubt a few big surprises?
"Of course," he says. "I think you can count on seeing a VW bus drive onto the stage. That's what's so great about the mountain play, and what's so great about life--if you have energy and enthusiasm, the possibilities are endless."
The Mountain Play's production of 'Fiddler on the Roof' opens Sunday, May 21, and runs for six consecutive Sundays. Show time is at 1pm and activities and musical performances are scheduled before and after the show. For information and to reserve tickets, call 415.383.1100 or visit www.mountainplay.org.
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