Many people know of the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
Many may even know about how she eloped with fellow poet Robert Browning.
But Centralia College Theatre Director Emmy Kreilkamp said even she was surprised by parts of their love story when she read Centralia College’s fall play, “Leaving 50 Wimpole Street.”
“When I first read it, it struck me as suspenseful,” Kreilkamp said. “It struck me as a story I hadn’t heard before.”
“Leaving 50 Wimpole Street,” written by Centralia College professor emeritus John Pratt, opens Nov. 11 in the Wickstrom Studio Theatre on the Centralia College campus. It is the first of three productions planned for the 2022-2023 theater schedule at Centralia College. It will be followed by Anton Chekov’s “The Sneeze” (Feb. 24-March 5) and “The Sound of Music” (May 12-21).
“Leaving 50 Wimpole Street” tells the story of the romance between poets Elizabeth Barrett (portrayed by Alyssa Graves) and Robert Browning (portrayed by Derek Kealoha). The two first begin meeting weekly in Elizabeth’s room on Wimpole Street to compare writings and work on Greek and Latin translations together. Elizabeth and her sisters are forbidden by their overbearing father, Edward Moulton Barrett (portrayed by Eric Ferrante), to marry or have any romantic relationships. As Elizabeth and Robert’s love blossoms, they face many obstacles to being together.
“I think the love story is what is most moving about it,” Kreilkamp said. “Even though it was almost 200 years ago, it feels contemporary. Their courage is timeless. The courage of people in love is timeless and the lengths people will go to be together is inspiring.”
The story in “Leaving 50 Wimpole Street” takes place over the course of two years and more than 500 letters between Barrett and Browning. Author Pratt said when he originally began writing the piece, he styled it after A.R. Gurney’s play “Love Letters,” which features a couple reading through 50 years of love letters and notes to one another. Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, when theaters were largely closed, Pratt and Kreilkamp had several readings over Zoom where they collaborated on the play and Kreilkamp urged Pratt to expand the characters and action on the stage.
“At first, I think he was trying to be true to the text,” Kreilkamp said. “I told him, this is the theater. This is not a history book. Give yourself permission to be a little creative with it.”
Pratt explained that “Leaving 50 Wimpole Street” was inspired by the 1957 movie “The Barretts of Wimpole Street,” which he watched as a teen. Later, he found a script for the story but was dismayed that it had 11 characters, nine of which are males in their 20s or 30s, which is very difficult in amateur theater to cast. The Centralia College production of “Leaving 50 Wimpole Street” features 10 cast members portraying 12 characters. Some of the other characters in the show include: two of Elizabeth’s sisters, Arabel (portrayed by Beck Geringer) and Henrietta (portrayed by Sophie Myers); Elizabeth’s cousin and confidant John Kenyon (portrayed by Joe Pettit) and her aunt Jane Hedley (portrayed by Jenny Weber); and eventually the couple’s son, Pen Browning (portrayed by Ezra Newman). One of the more unusual cast members is Ozzie the dog, who portrays Elizabeth’s dog, Flush.
There will be about 85 seats per show in the intimate Wickstrom Studio Theatre space, arranged on three sides of the small stage. Kealoha and Graves said that being so close to the audience members, sometimes sitting right next to them, gives the show a feeling of being invited into the private lives of these two people.
“It feels like you’re not watching a show as much as a story unfold right in front of you,” Kealoha said.
“Like a memory,” Graves added.
This is not the first play for Pratt, who was a professor at Centralia College for 20 years. He has been writing plays since about 2000 and published his first show “Roadside Chaucer” in 2003. He is currently working on a show called “Saving Beowulf” as well as a stage adaptation of Mark Twain’s “Innocence Abroad.”
“I don’t consider myself a playwright because I don’t have a lot of brilliant ideas,” Pratt said. “I just turn literary pieces that haven’t been staged into pieces for the stage. That’s where my expertise lies.”
Though Kreilkamp is directing “Leaving 50 Wimpole Street,” Pratt has made a point of being available to the cast throughout the rehearsal process to allow him to make changes to the scripts when necessary. Kreilkamp said she has been grateful to be able to work with Pratt on this piece and watch it come to life on the stage.
“To collaborate with him in this way was very gratifying,” Kreilkamp said.
Pratt said he has been grateful over the years for Centralia College Theatre, especially for directors Brian Tyrell and Kreilkamp for continuing to include him in productions. Pratt has been acting since 1993, most recently appearing in his 76th role in last year’s production of “The Living” at Centralia College. He praised Kreilkamp for showing an interest in this show and helping him bring it to a stage that has meant so much to him.
“I’ve just spent too many years of my life here to walk away from it,” Pratt said. “I feel lucky that she is interested in doing my work here. It’s a good feeling.”
If You Go …
What: Associated Students of Centralia College presents “Leaving 50 Wimpole Street”
When: 7 p.m. Nov. 11-12 and Nov. 17-19 and 2 p.m. Nov. 13 and Nov. 20
Where: Wickstrom Studio Theatre in Washington Hall on the Centralia College xampus
Tickets: $12 adults $10 students/seniors
Info: centralia.edu/theatre or 360- 623-8871