At rehearsals for the Stoneham Theatre production of Lanford Wilson’s , Olivia and Isabelle Miller, 17 and 13 respectively, move about the set with the carriage and comfort of kids at home—lounging on the steps, braiding their hair, stretching their legs—except when it’s time to perform.
Seamlessly they snap into character, transforming themselves from Melrose teens who love block parties and Lady Gaga into young prisoners of Eldritch, a once-robust Missouri mining town turned podunk, its population a mere 70 by the 1960s, the era in which the play is set.
“Rimers” is a mystery. Nelly Windrod is on trial for murder, accused of shooting a vagrant thought to have raped a disabled girl, Eva Jackson (Isabelle Miller). But was he raping her, or trying to protect her?
Olivia Miller, a student at in Hamilton, plays Lena Truit, daughter of the town gossip and close-mouthed best friend of Patsy (Annabel Steven). Patsy, the prettiest girl in school, just happens to be (shh) pregnant. The town is rife with hypocrisy, church-going people unmasking themselves as gossips and liars, spouting Scripture one minute and casting out judgments the next.
It’s intense stuff, for young and old actors alike. Hypocrisy, cruelty, betrayal, and desperation run through the script like iron in this eerie town trapped in time (echoing the title: “eldritch” means “sinister” or “ghostly”; “rime,” “frost”).
And it’s a tricky play to perform. An ensemble piece, the play requires all actors to remain onstage for the entire performance, even if they don’t appear in scenes. The tale is told in fragments and flashbacks.
“Rimers” first appeared in 1966, an example of the thematically complex and experimental shows that marked Wilson, a pioneer of Off-Off Broadway theater, for such successes as “Burn This,” “Balm in Gilead,” “Hot L Baltimore,” and the Pulitzer Prize winning “Talley’s Folly.”
"Musicals were always a part of our lives. I found out that I loved to sing when Olivia and I sang Les Miserables' “Castle on a Cloud” to each other from our bunk beds."—Isabelle Miller
Daughters of professional ballet dancers, Olivia and Isabelle have been involved in the arts from day one. Their experience embraces a range of genres, from drama to musical theater. A part of Stoneham Theatre’s group for children, ‘The Young Company,’ they also have appeared onstage with such groups as the Metro Stage Company in Cambridge, Reagle Players in Waltham, and the North Shore Music Theatre in Beverly. They consistently impress their adult colleagues with energy, skill, and aplomb in handling tough topics.
They’re also just fun to be around. They show the giddiness of teenagers, but there's also a ladylike polish. They're unpretentious and chatty and will break into song in a heartbeat.
Each of the sisters has professional aspirations. But before they hit college they have to finish school. Isabelle attends the Melrose Veterans Memorial Middle School and Olivia the Pingree School in South Hamilton. Olivia is mulling Juillard, Northwestern, Boston Conservatory, and the Manhattan School of Music. Isabelle knows she has plenty of time to choose and hasn't settled on anything yet, but “definitely” wants to go for musical theater.
“Rimers” director Weylin Symes kindly let us steal them away from rehearsal for an interview in the Stoneham Theatre Gallery to learn more.
Hamilton-Wenham Patch: So when did the theater bug bite you?
Isabelle: I started when Olivia had an audition for The Sound of Music at the Wakefield Repertory Theater and I decided to tag along. I went back and forth about it, and finally I decided to audition. And I got a part! It’s been a passion ever since. I was seven. I got cast as Marta.
Olivia: A friend who was interested in it decided to try out, and so that gave me the confidence to go with her and go for Brigitta. I loved the [1965 film] The Sound of Music. It was one of those movies I watched over and over again. I was eleven. I didn’t get it but I knew theater was something I wanted to do.
Isabelle: [Before then] acting wasn’t something we planned to do. We never thought of performing ourselves.
Olivia: It was a childhood full of American Girl dolls.
Isabelle: We did know that we loved to sing. Musicals were always a part of our lives. I found out that I loved to sing when Olivia and I sang Les Miserables' “Castle on a Cloud” to each other from our bunk beds.
Olivia: I was first cast in the [Stoneham Theatre] young company’s production of Children of Eden. From that moment on, the sense of community [attracted me]. It was like there was a whole family here. The more I acted here, the more I felt comfortable on stage and wanted to perform. It has escalated in leaps and bounds since then.
Hamilton-Wenham Patch: Do you still sing at home?
Isabelle and Olivia, together: Oh, yeah, totally!
Isabelle: We have a [15-year-old] brother. No interest in theater whatsoever. We drive him nuts. He's always yelling at us to stop singing. Because we won't stop.
Olivia: True, but he’s really supportive--
Isabelle: He is. He’s always our cheerleader in the audience. If he likes the show, he’ll show up more than once.
Olivia: I think he secretly likes it when we sing.
Hamilton-Wenham Patch: What about the future?
Olivia: It’s very daunting, when I think about the professional options open to me. I would like to go to college for vocal performance. I'm interested in several genres, even though at some point I will have to choose something specific. I would love to study all I can about opera, operettas, musical theater with a classical vibe. Broadway is very pop and hip-hop but it’s not where I see myself. I am looking at where I can make a living, musically, in a way that suits me.
I am passionate about New York. I'd love to go to school in the City.
Hamilton-Wenham Patch: Do you ever go to New York to see shows?
Isabelle: We see everything we can. Most recently we saw [the rock musical] “Next to Normal” and I saw “In the Heights” [a musical rich in Latin music] before it left.
Hamilton-Wenham Patch: What composers and lyricists do you like?
Olivia: Everything! I love Rodgers and Hammerstein, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Gilbert and Sullivan, Rodgers and Hart, everything.
Hamilton-Wenham Patch: Sondheim?
Olivia: I LOVE SONDHEIM!
Isabelle: She’s a total Sondheim freak! I like it, too. I did “A Little Night Music” at Metro Stage. But we’re different musically.
Hamilton-Wenham Patch: How so?
Isabelle: Her style is more operatic, whereas I have more of the belting mezzo.
Hamilton-Wenham Patch: Any advice for aspiring young actors and singers?
Olivia: There are so many opportunities around you, you just have to look for them. The Stage Source [a non-profit organization linking actors and companies] is a great place to start.
Isabelle: Community school productions are another great place. There are so many, and you can do so many different roles.
Hamilton-Wenham Patch: Thank you, ladies.
The show runs through April 10. Performance times are Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets are $38 to $44 with discounts for seniors and students. The box office can be reached at 781-279-2200.