“Eden Prairie, 1971” explores a deep divide in the country

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Emilio Cuesta holding a rotary telephone and Oriana Lada is on the porch looking down
Eden Prairie, 1971: Emilio Cuesta and Oriana Lada. Photo by Andrea Phox Photography

Smart has managed to recreate the world of 1971

Oriana Lada, Andrea Gallo and Emilio Cuesta standing in a backyard
Eden Prairie, 1971: Oriana Lada, Andrea Gallo and Emilio Cuesta. Photo by Andrea Phox Photography

The New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch has done it again. They have mounted a new play, Eden Prairie, 1971, a deeply moving and thought-provoking drama by playwright Mat Smart. You must see it.

The play is set in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, on a summer night in 1971. The war in Vietnam is raging, Richard Nixon is President, and the country, watching the war on television nightly, is deeply divided between the war’s supporters and detractors. We meet Pete (Emilio Cuesta), who chose to flee to Canada with two other friends when they drew low draft numbers. He enters the backyard of a former classmate, Rachel (Oriana Lada), to deliver her a message.

In the course of the night, Pete seeks redemption and forgiveness while revealing his fears of capture by the police and rejection by his father. Rachel, on her part, surrounds herself in a shell of relentless rationalism, reluctant to allow herself to extend the human connection Pete fearfully craves.  

Mixed into this is Rachel’s mother, Mrs. Thompson (Andrea Gallo), whose husband is serving as a bomber pilot over Vietnam. Mrs. Thompson’s reaction to seeing Pete in clothes given him by Rachel belonging to her husband, unleashes her imagination. She encourages her daughter to be more spontaneous with Pete, abandoning the done-and-gone past and the uncertain future for the reality and possibilities of now. In this, Gallo’s portrayal recalls Ruth Gordon’s life-affirming performance in Harold and Maude.

The cast, skillfully and sensitively guided by director Evan Bergman, play out the events of this near-magical night supported by the amazing script of Mat Smart. Smart has managed to recreate the world of 1971 while avoiding the pitfall of endowing his characters with knowledge of events to follow. Actors, director, and playwright have distilled the essence of conflicts swirling in 1971 and presented it, honestly and openly, to the audience.

Oriana Lada standing next to the porch and Andrea Gallo is standing on the porch and laughing
Eden Prairie, 1971: Oriana Lada and Andrea Gallo. Photo by Andrea Phox Photography

Jessica Parks’ imaginative scenic design is an atmospheric rendering of a small-town backyard, complete with a chicken coop and working water spigot, sensitively lit by Jill Nagle to bring out both the realism and the magic in a summer’s night. Nick Simone’s sound design conveys everything from the soft barking of neighbor dogs to the gravelly crooning of Louis Armstrong to the insistent banging of doors and ringing of doorbells. Patricia Doherty’s costumes evoke the styles of the period for the women while creating a startlingly travel-stained, threadbare look for Pete.

The people of Eden Prairie, 1971, deal with the relationship between cowardice and courage. They convey their longings whether they try to hold onto romance or fight against creating it. They question the need for war and the morality of those who wage it — and those who oppose it. They are full of the flaws and flourishes of ordinary people who find themselves in extraordinary times.

Eden Prairie, 1971 is a play that will live in memory long after it is seen. And I cannot more strongly encourage you to see it at least once before its brief run finishes. It is well worth making the trip to Long Branch and the stage of the New Jersey Repertory Company, and it is well worth taking the trip back in time to Eden Prairie, 1971.

Eden Prairie, 1971 is presented by the New Jersey Repertory Company at the Lumia Theatre in Long Branch through November 20th. For more information or to purchase tickets, call 732-229-3166 or visit njrep.org. The theater strongly suggests but does not mandate, the wearing of masks while in the building. 

Allen Neuner is the theater reviewer at Out in Jersey magazine. Jersey born and raised, Allen went to his first live play in 1957 and has been deliriously in love with live theater ever since. He works in the box office at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick. He has been partnered to music reviewer Bill Realman Stella, with whom he is also deliriously in love, for over 20 years. They live in an over-cluttered house in Somerville.