By Bruce A. Smith
“Giving,” Nancy Tribush Hillman’s first and only effort at writing a complete musical production, is in production this month at the Triad Theater in Yelm. It is a fitting tribute to Ms. Hillman, who has taught and directed three generations of Yelm residents to the highest levels of stage craft, with several of her students now in professional acting careers.
Nancy co-authored the script with Lucy Turchin, who ably composed the music and lyrics.
“Giving” is an epic attempt to portray how children grow into caring adults. First, as kids they need to find a safe and nurturing place in their town of “Proctor,” and do so in the forest that they name “The Academy of Imagination.” In the branches of the Giving Tree, an apple arbor lovingly played by Ms. Turchin, they find acceptance and shelter, especially from the pressures of pesky parents who want them to become “a perfect daughter” and “get into Yale.”
The Giving Tree tells the children that they can be anything they want to be as long as use their imagination. She tells them to climb in her branches, where they metaphorically romp and play. This opening ensemble piece is quintessential Nancy Hillman, as joyful exuberance blasts from the stage, with over twenty kids singing as one – voices strong and on pitch. The individualized sketches that are sprinkled artfully throughout the piece are sublime and funny. The audience laughed in plenty of places, especially when young toddlers are hosted up into the air by an older child so that the young actor can deliver their lines. This piece is so good and so Nancy, that I wept.
This energy and the themes presented in the opening number continue, as a connection is made between the Giving Tree and the kids as symbolic “flowers.” The second ensemble number: “If you water me, you will see what I become,” is delightful.
However, the cohesion of the show begins to falter as adults enter the stage. They challenge the kids with adult themes, such as Proctor’s need to build homes and condominiums in the forest. Nevertheless, the children rally under the tutelage of the Giving Tree and convince the grown-ups to back-off because they need the forest for their spiritual well-being, and the town needs the forest for its ecological benefits, such as recycling carbon dioxide.
Then the kids start growing up and the production gets mired down in multiple plot lines and character confusion. Some of the kids that we have gotten to know such as Max and Eli, or Paisley and Indigo, now have young adults and older adults playing their characters. Adding to the confusion, the production presents a bevy of generational issues.
First, we see the kids starting to date and experience the awkwardness of adolescence. Then, they begin to express their need to be loved and accepted by others. The Giving Tree doesn’t have much to offer them, it seems, and Ms. Turchin’s absence in the last half of Act One is sorely missed.
At this point the show becomes a mélange of uneven sketches, and it reveal that Nancy Hillman’s death three days before opening night left a huge hole in this production’s development. Cues are missed, voices are off-pitch, and lyrics are forgotten. Nevertheless, a partial ensemble piece at the end of Act One, “You will be loved one day, and you will find your way,” saves the show, and the audience went into the intermission with a smile on their face.
However, the production nearly goes off the rails in Act Two. Ms. Hillman and Turchin attempt an operatic-level of complexity in themes and characters, but they seek too much with too little time for rehearsals and re-writes.
Two major themes are addressed immediately: going off to college, which is competently presented in the “It’s September Again,” or making money. The character, “Max,” becomes the symbol of the non-collegiate pathway into adulthood, and at first he is depressed. Then he realizes he needs to make something of himself to impress his girlfriend from the forest days, Yasmine or Paisley – it’s not quite clear – and seeks counsel from the Giving Tree. From Ms. Turchin’s branches, Max begins to gather her apples and eventually becomes a fruit tycoon.
Over-laying the college-or-job scenario are the larger themes of personal ambition and wanting to make a difference in the world. These developments push the show into its murkiest moments. We see some of the young girls becoming divas, while Indigo – who went to Julliard – suddenly decides she really wants to find the biological father that she’s never known. At the same time, Max goes to West Point and sings: “What is a Hero?” Further muddling the waters, indistinguishable adult female characters sing to some of the youngest cast members about “helping the girls become mommas.” Touching and sweet, but ultimately confusing.
Stabilizing these dynamics, Max, as an adult reconnects with the Giving Tree, and tells her he needs wood to build a mansion to properly house his new family and project his wealth to the world. The Tree offers her branches, which Max readily accepts. Then moments later, he returns as an old man – in the form of a second, older, actor – and launches into a second song and reveals he is depressed. Money and a mansion did not give him the happiness he assumed he would receive. The Tree assures the elder Max that his happiness has always been her highest concern for him, and she offers her trunk so that he can build a boat and sail away from the misery of his life.
Then, the three Max’s – the young Max of the Academy of Imagination, the apple tycoon Max, and the Elder Max sing a piece together, asking: “Is it too late? Is there still time?” They wrestle with the question: what good have they done for the world, and search for an answer. Ms. Turchin’s lyrics are sublime, and her refrains echo hauntingly as the Max’s process their dilemma: “Who have I become?” and “Is the ink already dry in the story of my life?
This scene brings the show back to life, and the ensemble begins to slowly reform on stage as the Elder Max tells the Giving Tree he is ready to have his ashes buried around her roots to replenish her since he has taken all of her branches and the trunk for himself. A second character, Paisley (?) approaches the Tree, which is near death, and pours a magic love potion on the roots. It’s concocted of a philosophical realization: we all need to care about each other, and to give of what we have. Revived, the Giving Tree springs back into life.
Quickly the ensemble reforms, as the characters of all the separate sketches, such as Indigo carrying her new baby, now joined by her father and reunited with her mother, fill the stage and the full cast of thirty-four actors launch into the finale. They joyfully declare that they will never be alone, and that life is a cycle, composed of giving and receiving, taking and sharing, and that all generations eventually benefit.
It is a stirring tribute to the legacy of Nancy Hillman, as it exquisitely reflects her three decades of work – first at the Drew Harvey Theater and now the Triad – and her impact on the lives of so many here in Yelm.
In fact, “Giving” is the embodiment of Nancy’s values and work. The themes expressed in this show are exactly the ones practiced by this great lady. Her assistance director, Jeanette Abbott, calls Nancy, ” a genius,” a sentiment I echo, as she was my theatrical mentor for many years in the 1990s.
Note: A memorial service for Nancy Tribush Hillman will be held at the Triad Theater this Sunday, July 21, at 7 pm. Ms. Hillman died on July 11th of a stroke suffered during a rehearsal for this show.
Nancy Tribush Hillman, photo courtesy of her daughter, Rachel Hillman, as posted her on Facebook page.