New play at Oldcastle Theater Company strikes home for Pittsfield-born actress
BENNINGTON, Vt. — The great American author Mark Twain once noted that "truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; truth isn't."
Oldcastle Theatre Company's co-founder and producing artistic director Eric Peterson channeled Twain when writing and casting a play on the importance of small town journalism providing the public vital information in the face of local crisis — all while struggling for survival in the news industry.
The play, "Water, Water, Everywhere " is was inspired by the 2017 series of reporting by the Bennington Banner's Jim Therrien and VT Digger's Mike Polhamus on the perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) contamination from industrial plants in Bennington and surrounding areas.
"Day after day, I would sit here in my office and read these articles that Jim had written," Peterson said. "It struck me that [this] was as good as anything you can find in a Pulitzer-winning series from one of the nation's big-name newspapers."
Oldcastle's production opens Friday at the Bennington Performing Arts Center (BPAC), and will run through Oct. 20.
Peterson emphasized that the play is "not a documentary," of the Bennington PFOA crisis, and has "its own unique elements of fiction and mystery."
The setting is the newsroom of the failing Walloomsac Tribune in the fictitious small town of Walloomsac, Vermont. Reporters investigate a story about a factory discharging PFOA. The contamination builds up over years in the groundwater and soil, causing a variety of illnesses.
Two staff writers, Nick (Ed Rosini) and Nora (Halley Cianfarini), conduct the PFOA probe while mentored by a veteran editor, Katherine (Christine Decker).
Much of that challenge is further reflected as townspeople and others reflect on the effects the PFOA had on them, their children and their jobs. As such, Patrick Ellison Shea and Natalie Wilder play 22 different characters between them.
David Snider, executive and artistic director of Hubbard Hall in Cambridge, N.Y., is Chandler Tillsbury, the plant manager and part owner of the factory. Richard Howe, Oldcastle's associate artistic director, plays Ethan Corcoran, a business owner with financial ties throughout the town.
FROM PITTSFIELD TO PFOAs
After appearing in last season's hit production of "Proof," Pittsfield native and 2003 PHS graduate Halley Cianfarini returns to Oldcastle in the aforementioned role of Nora, a reporter looking to do good as well as make a name for herself in the news industry.
Cianfarini, a New York-based actor, dancer, singer and choreographer, brings with her a personal tale of corporate industrial contamination that her parents Barbara and Charlie Cianfarini have been involved in since 1997.
"My parents have been fighting GE's PCB pollution in Pittsfield and the Housatonic watershed for 22 years," Cianfarini said, "In 1997, they co-formed and continue to represent members of the Citizens for PCB Removal, which has continually advocated for cleanup of residential properties, and the Housatonic watershed."
Today, Barbara serves as executive director of Citizens for PCB Removal, and last year was elected to the board of the Housatonic River Initiative, a cooperating grassroots group
Peterson called Cianfarini's casting "coincidental, but not surprising at all."
"Halley is a local, having grown up just down the road in the Berkshires," Peterson said. "While her family's involvement in their activism In Pittsfield wasn't a criterion for her casting, this history itself lends tremendous depth to the overall message of the play."
It also demonstrates, Peterson added, that "truth can indeed be stranger than fiction."
Cianfarini admitted that acting in this play did "have a more personal meaning" for her.
"My father grew up in a house very close to the GE plant," Cianfarini said. "I grew up in the middle of their activism and constant attendance of city council and local grassroots meetings, and it had a profound effect on me. There's no question I bring this to Nora's role."
Nora is ambitious, Cianfarini continued, a young journalist who has moved to Walloomsac to work at the Tribune. She hopes to make a difference through her investigative journalism.
Cianfarini explained that Nora sees her future at big, prestigious papers like the New York Times, and as stated in the play, to "write books that have an impact, like Jane Mayer."
"She wrestles with some big questions in journalism around the effects that reporting bad news can have on a community, as well as the ethics of going undercover," Cianfarini said. "Nora ultimately finds meaning in reporting as a way to advocate for truth, and her wish to have an impact [on] the public is fulfilled."
Ultimately, Cianfarini concluded, Nora learns that even with her big dreams, she can still positively affect little Walloomsac. This is an ethos, the actor added, that she learned from her parents, who remain involved in cleanup efforts and local environmental activism to this day.
"My parents worked hard not only for themselves, but for the greater good of the wider community," Cianfarini said. "They continued their activism even after their homes were cleaned up. In the play, Nora learns the value of such commitment, something I want to bring to that role."
Reach Telly Halkias at firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter: @TellyHalkias
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