The Town Players of New Canaan are taking on an ambitious project in their production of Aaron Sorkin’s The Farnsworth Invention opening this weekend, but director Julie Bell Petrak says she has the cast in “Sorkin shape” — ready for the quick scene changes and fast conversations. The show, at the Powerhouse Theatre in Waveny Park, will run three weekends through May 21.
The play, from an unproduced screenplay by the creator of The West Wing and The Newsroom and screenwriter for A Few Good Men and most recently the film Steve Jobs, had a Broadway run in 2008. It is based on the real-life legal battles between the brilliant independent inventor Philo Farnsworth and the corporate titan David Sarnoff, who led the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) in various capacities for more than 50 years.
“I am excited for audiences to see this show,” said Bell Petrak, who lives in South Salem, N.Y. “The story behind one of the 20th Century’s greatest inventions — television — is not well known; the play also addresses how it affected the world. When TVs first came out, people were so excited about it that they would just watch the test pattern. The play’s events span several decades and end with the liftoff of Apollo 11.”
The play depicts the elation of discovery along with bitter rivalry, corporate espionage and family tragedy. “The play leaves questions,” said Bell Petrak, adding, “It is also important to note that while all the people and events are real, what Sorkin wrote is fiction, it’s theater exploring a great history lesson. Hopefully it will spark conversations and inspire young people to be fearless with their ideas — Philo was a farm boy who had his first ideas for television when he was 14.”
The Farnsworth Invention is an admittedly ambitious play: there are 30 speaking roles for a cast of 20, which mean several play multiple parts.
“The scenes change very fast, there are quick cuts, more like a television show than a play,” said Bell Petrak. She and the cast had to get into “Sorkin shape” in prepping for the play. “There are more than 30 scenes in 30 locations; so much happens in a page of dialog. Sorkin is also the king of the ‘walk-and-talk,’ which is uncommon on stage.”
Playing Sarnoff and Farnsworth are Eric Dino of Norwalk and Eric Regan of Fairfield. They are supported by Richard Stewart and Ryan Giggi of New Canaan; Patrick Duffy of Cos Cob; Peter Haynes of Wilton; April Lichtman of Easton; Jackson Dino, Kristin Gagliardi, David Jackins, Tom Petrone, Frank Speranzo, Arthur “Kitt” Watson, and Mat Young of Norwalk; Erica Evelti, Katie Priscott, and Nick Priscott of Stamford; Rick Haylon of Newtown; Nick Kaye of Bethel; and Kellen Schult of Ansonia.
The Farnworth Invention is Bell Petrak’s fourth show for the New Canaan Town Players; she previously directed Of Mice and Men, A Time To Kill and Our Town, and she is making her mark in local community theater with what some consider daring productions and casting, in particular her all-female production of Lord of the Flies in Bridgeport last year.
“The idea was met with a lot of resistance, but the cast of 11 was astounding, mesmerizing to watch; it was the most rewarding experience,” she said.
This fall, at the Curtain Call in Stamford, she will be directing an all-female cast of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross. “And while we got permission to change the characters’ gender, we can’t change a word of it, even the pronouns. Talk about resistance! I keep hearing ‘It’s not right!’ I ask the critics to give me one good reason we shouldn’t do this; but no one has yet given me an answer.
“I am attracted to plays with strong women, or that women can play. The women in this area are exceptional.” Her first example of such casting was Julie Thaxter-Gourlay as the judge in Rupert Holmes’ theater adaptation of John Grisham’s A Time To Kill. “She was simply the right person for the role.”
A native of North Carolina and graduate of East Carolina’s professional acting program, Bell Petrak came to New York in 1994, two month after graduating, and did a number of Off-Broadway and television roles while working the usual “starving actor” jobs, “but after one too many 4 a.m.’s behind the bar, I decided I wanted a healthier lifestyle. I had always been an athlete and avid runner, so I decided to get certified as a personal trainer and went to work for Equinox.” She continues to work as a personal trainer, but now goes to people’s homes.
She left city in 2003 and got involved with community theater. “There are about a half-dozen community theaters in this area, and so much talent; and we become a family of people, like our own village. Many people in this business are very generous, and without volunteers, theater in this area would not exist.” She became affiliated with Town Players of New Canaan and, “As I was watching local productions, I found myself thinking ‘I would have done that differently’ then, ‘I think I would be good at this’ and put myself out there to direct a play at TPNC.” She chose Of Mice and Men for her directorial debut. She still acts “now and then to keep in shape for it, but directing fuels me.”
What she has learned that she would pass along to others interested in the theater? “Don’t take ‘no’ for an answer and develop relationships with playwrights. Don’t be afraid to ask. My relationship with Rupert Holmes is a great example. After getting the runaround trying to go through proper channels to get the rights to A Time To Kill, I finally reached out to him directly. I told him I wanted to do the play, and be the first one to get the rights after it closed. Not only did he say yes, he came to see the show and did a talkback with the audience.”
The Powerhouse Performing Arts Center is at 677 South Avenue in New Canaan’s Waveny Park. The Farnsworth Invention will be presented weekends at 8 p.m., with matinees on Sundays, May 8 and 15, at 2:30 pm. Tickets ($25, $20 for students and seniors) are available online at www.tpnc.org, or by calling 203-966-7371.