STONINGTON — Anyone who has not been to Stonington lately, now is a good time to go.
The drive is lovely, especially when you cross the handsome bridge spanning Eggemoggin Reach, and pass through Deer Isle village, with its tidy cottages, art galleries and filigreed coastline and come to Stonington itself.
Overlooking the town like a fond old nanny is a rambling, green-and-white building with 5-foot-high letters spelling OPERA HOUSE.
This is your destination. Several flights of stairs, guarded by an enormous steam-punk dragon sculpture, lead around to the side of the rectangular building to an impressive glassed-in lobby with café seating and a full bar.
A playbill announces that a world premiere is being performed here tonight in the Opera House’s impressive little theater — an unexpected combination of rustic charm, old-fashioned elegance and state-of-the-art technology.
The play you have come to see — and you must come to see it — is “I Have Seen Horizons: Ruth Moore’s Stories from Maine.” The collection of vignettes is based on seven of iconic Bass Harbor author Ruth Moore’s short stories and poems.
The stories have been adapted for the stage by Meg Taintor, who has managed to preserve not only the complex themes of Moore’s stories, but the beautiful language she used to tell them. Apparently, every word of dialogue in these vignettes, and a rousing song about Blue Hill Bay, were written by the author, who started her life in 1903 on Gotts Island, became a bestselling writer in New York City, then returned to Bass Harbor in 1947 to complete her long writing career, and life, with her partner Eleanor Mayo.
In the opening story, “Farmer Takes a Newspaper,” a hilariously accurate portrait of what happens when someone new — an outsider — takes over the local paper, and starts to publish along with the usual news stories about town meetings and such, little humorous personal tidbits such as “The Harrison Fosters say it was so miserable Sunday they didn’t go out and nobody came in.” Or “Everybody who had any, picked peas and strawberries after the rain and bragged.”
While all of Moore’s stories are true in some fashion, this one is literally true, recounting the hubbub John Gould created when he started publishing the Lisbon Enterprise.
“The Lonely Heart” is about a summer person, Miss Peterson, who builds her home on the outskirts of a small island — that sounds a lot like Great Gotts off Mount Desert Island — and then decides, to the consternation of the locals, to stay on year-round. I have it on good authority, from Moore’s niece, Muriel Davisson, that this story also is based on fact.
As uneasy as Miss Peterson’s presence makes them, the island folk do grow somewhat fond of her and without overtly interfering with her life; the men, who have little regard for the capabilities of women in general, watch out for her, making the trek out to her isolated cottage after winter storms to check on her well-being.
Miss Peterson in turn starts to throw Christmas parties that became the highlight of the island’s winter for decades. But she’s a queer bird, who never really blends into the local population — an ostrich amongst a flock of gulls and when she builds an Episcopal chapel to rival the island’s Methodist church, well, it almost sparks a civil war.
These stories are related largely by narration rather than dialogue, as the author wrote them, with five different actors representing and speaking for the main characters. But it all feels like conversation so thoroughly do the actors inhabit their characters.
As Miss Peterson, Dee Pelletier, not only manages to convey all this woman’s oddness, which the islanders find off-putting, but also her fragility, which make them feel protective of her. Katie Zaffrann takes on the role of a young Ruth Moore in this vignette, eloquently embodying the islanders’ ambivalent feelings.
Paul Farwell mostly plays grizzled old-timers in these stories, and, like the rest of the cast, does a fine understated job with the Maine accent, without ever succumbing to the lure of “Bert & I” stereotyping. He and Caleb Mayo, representing Ruth’s lobsterman grandfather and his archrival Foley Craddock, respectively, in “When Foley Craddock Tore Off My Grandfather’s Thumb,” are both hilarious and so frustratingly real in their intractableness you just want to leap on stage and shake some sense in to them before one of them gets killed.
In a very different role, Mayo is heart-meltingly sweet as a young soldier returning from war and running into his old neighbor Ruth, with whom he has an unfortunate history regarding some stolen apples. The story is about war, valor, old grudges, forgiveness and Northern Spy apples that always taste better after a touch of frost and crackle when you bite into them.
Cate Damon, is deliciously quirky as the title character in “Creepy,” an odd little story about the island’s new schoolteacher and the ruckus she raises when she starts rouging her cheeks to please a pair of suitors.
“The Ladies from Philadelphia” also explores the ambivalent feelings islanders have toward the onslaught of rusticators who arrive every summer.
“In some ways we enjoyed being thought of as ‘picturesque’ and ‘native,’ in other ways we didn’t,” Ruth observes. While on the whole the summer folk were mostly just tolerated, in this piece, a compassionate local fisherman goes out of his way to bring some kind of closure to a “Philadelphia lady” whose son has drowned in a boating accident.
In the final story of the evening, “The Bottle-Green Bottle,” Summit Coleman, a young local actress who, along with Veronica Barron, has been lending her strong voice to some lovely musical interludes, convincingly takes on the role of a rebellious tween, Margaret. Margaret goes off on a boating adventure with a rather unsavory old fisherman, Snithers Eddy, instead of minding her little sisters. This is perhaps the most unexpected subject matter for a story written in the 1940s. At the end of their innocent day together, Snithers gives her a pretty toggle bottle and convinces Margaret to tell a terrible lie to her parents so she won’t get in trouble, which she reluctantly agrees to.
“The lie was around her. It was a black umbrella over her bed. But on the windowsill stood the bottle, and a faint gleam of green light came through it from the dark outside, clean and clear as a bell. And presently she fell asleep.”
The direction throughout by Natalya Baldyga is fast-paced and seamless, Chelsea Kerl’s costumes are simply perfect, as is Ted Simpson’s set, and Natalie Robin’s lighting is spot-on.
One has to believe that Ruth Moore, who disliked the movie that was made from her novel “Spoonhandle,” would have been thrilled with this wonderful play.
“I Have Seen Horizons” will be performed at 7 p.m. Thursday-Saturday Aug. 23-25; and at 4 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 26, at the Stonington Opera House. For info, call 367-2788 and visit www.operahousearts.org.