The play’s the thing

Bonnie Gondola, historian of the First Congregational Church in Milford, put together a display illustrating the history of Playhouse 101.

MILFORD – Bonnie Gondola was looking through some of the archives at the First Congregational Church last year and found items not usually associated with a church: two playbills.

Gondola is the parish historian, so she took them to the Milford Historical Society and was told to call Terry Lorden in New York. Lorden had been waiting a long time for a phone call like that.

The playbills were from Playhouse 101, the professional summer theater he co-founded here 46 years ago with Roi White, then head of the theater department at Plymouth State College, now University.

This month, Lorden was here for events commemorating the regional theater that began with a dream thousands of miles away.

Lorden was raised in Milford, and he developed the idea for a Milford summer theater while serving in the Army in Vietnam.

When he returned home, he broached the idea with Cabinet Publisher Bill Rotch and other area residents who might be in a position to help, including artist Phoebe Flory, whose parents were among those who founded the Cleveland Play House as an avant-garde theater in the early years of the 20th century.

In June 1971, the theater opened in the First Congregational Church parish house in Milford with the Neil Simon comedy “Barefoot in the Park,” followed by “The Fantastics” “Bus Stop” and other classic American plays. They were all hits, with 10,000 evening tickets sold that first season.

Over the next few years of its existence, Playhouse 101 productions attracted rave reviews from major newspapers, including the Boston Globe.

In a written remembrance of “Barefoot in the Park,” Peter Phillips, one of the early actors, said the audience was thrilled, and “squealed with surprise and delight to see an ensemble so polished give them a show so fun. ‘Barefoot’s’ run was soon sold out, and so was the entire summer season.

“Playhouse 101 enlivened a deserving town with new visitors, new summer residents and new energy.”

Soon, the playhouse outgrew its church quarters, and a new theater, the American Stage Festival, was built off Mont Vernon Street near the Souhegan River.

After seven seasons of summer theater, Lorden left for a directing position at the Circle Repertory Theater in New York, but part of his heart stayed in Milford.

He loved all of the shows – “They’re all my children,” he said. But when pressed, Lorden said he is especially fond of “The Portable Pioneer and Prairie Show,” inspired by, but not about, Milford’s Hutchinson Singers.

Known simply as “The Prairie Show,” it went on to a successful off-Broadway run.

Milford audiences had an“amazing reaction” to “The Prairie Show,” he said recently. “They were in tears. … It was a very lovable show.”

If Playhouse 101 was Lorden’s baby, the retrospective is Gondola’s, who said it was important to get it all down.

Phillips would agree. In his remembrance, he said Lorden should be honored “for having a vision, not just for a theater, but for a town, a region. And that success was all the more worthy of acknowledgment, because at a particular time in the life of a particular town, it was profoundly shared.”

Brad Craven remembers the way the American Stage Festival transformed the area during summers in the early 1980s.

“We had dozens of people hosting actors, directors and designers, and interns from all over,” the Milford High School principal said in an email. “Restaurants were very busy before and after the shows. The Unitarian Church was the rehearsal hall for shows in preparation while the current show was playing by the river.

“Late nights, crazy ‘changeovers,’ lots of tiny Pilgrim Airlines little prop planes shuttling folks to and from NYC. It was something else.”

Kathy Cleveland can be reached at 673-3100 or kcleveland@cabinet.com.

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