Every summer when Sarah Corey was a child, her family would go to Alger Farm in Massachusetts to pick blueberries. She, along with her two brothers, would create little pails out of empty two-liter soda bottles by cutting off their tops, punching holes and adding rope to make handles.
Wearing the pails around their necks, the three would fill them with blueberries and then take their hauls to their parents who had larger containers. “Mom always joked ‘We are so lucky that they don’t weigh the children on the way in and on the way out,'” she recalled.
Corey often thinks of her family’s annual trips as she takes on the role of Little Sal’s mother in Adventure Theatre MTC’s production of “Blueberries for Sal.” The story focuses on two mother-daughter pairs that are picking blueberries on opposite sides of Maine’s Blueberry Hill – the humans, Little Sal and her mom, to can for the coming winter and the bears, Little Bear and Mama Bear, as sustenance before their hibernation. After a mix-up, each child follows the wrong mother.
Based on the Robert McCloskey book that celebrates its 70th anniversary this year, the world-premiere musical was written by ATMTC’s Artistic Director Michael J. Bobbitt and Sandra Eskin, both Helen Hayes award-nominated playwrights, and features new music written by William Yanesh.
The production “feels very special and I feel confident that other theaters are going to be interested in this work — and that is, I think, the most exciting part,” said Director Jess Jung. “This play probably has a life beyond this production as well and how amazing is that that other companies might look at our production photos and reference it because we were the first.”
Karen Vincent has multiple roles: in addition to Mama Bear, she plays Mother Partridge, serves as the front half of a moose and works some puppets. She enjoys being able to create these characters for the first time. “When you are doing a show that has never been done before, it’s exciting because you get to completely decide what the character is going to be like as opposed to you heard someone else do it or you saw someone else do it, “ Vincent said. “That’s always going to inadvertently somehow do something to the way you present it, so it is fun to be able to use my imagination and decide.”
Corey, who also plays Mama Crow, Baby Partridge and the other half of the moose, notes that there is always a bit of pressure in presenting a world premiere. “You want to give the best possible production of a beloved children’s story that you can,” she said.
After she posted photos of the set, which is inspired by the book’s original artwork, to social media, multiple friends commented that the crew’s interpretation was exactly as they would picture if the book came to life. “That made me really happy because that is what we want to do,” Corey said. “We want to reignite that love and nostalgia for this book that is beloved, and I think we are definitely on the right track.”
The cast benefits from having Bobbitt on-site; they can ask him questions and get his thoughts about the play. “He is an amazing presence to have in any room in any capacity,” Corey said. “He has such an energy about him, such a positive, excited, passionate energy and he is very thoughtful. …I’ve worked with a lot of playwrights, which I love, but he’s not too attached to what he has written. He believes in what he has written, but if there are changes that need to be made, he makes them immediately. He has a great eye and ear.”
As actors began to develop their characters, Vincent also noted Bobbitt’s openness to hearing the actors’ thoughts. “That has been really cool because sometimes you get a show and you are really stuck with the script,” she said. “There is nothing you can do. (The playwrights) value our opinion tremendously. It’s a great collaboration.”
The production also showcases an all-female cast along with a majority of the crew being women as well. “It shouldn’t necessarily be a rare thing, but it feels super special,” Jung said.
Corey, too, observed that it is an exciting time to have so many women involved in the production. “There are so many plays that have all-male casts and there are so many more jobs for men, so as an actor, I am excited that we have created a piece that provides more jobs for women. I am really excited for children of all genders to come in and see this play with only females on stage.”
An aspect of the story Jung especially values is that the mothers and daughters learn and grow from their experience. “I think there is something to embracing the adventure and how that further deepens and connects us in our journeys together as a family,” she said.
Corey anticipates that audience members of all ages will walk away from the show with a renewed appreciation of everyone in their family — both their strengths and weaknesses — along with a renewed commitment to being present in our family units and appreciating every moment.
“I hope this also inspires a lot of people to go berry-picking with their families and do things outside with their families because I think it is something that is not done as much anymore,” she said. “It’s a really wonderful bonding experience to go out into nature as a family.”
Adventure Theatre MTC, 7300 MacArthur Blvd., Glen Echo Park, presents “Blueberries for Sal” through Oct. 21. For information and tickets, $20, call 301-634-2270 or visit www.adventuretheatre-mtc.org.