They finished each other’s sentences. Even off stage and without a script, the two leads laughed with ease.
Still dressed in their costumes — she in a claret dress and he in an outlaw’s finest attire — Erica Durham and Johnny Link had just walked out of a dusty Western town and back into reality. But without a cue, their repartee had moseyed out with them, too.
“We have a tense relationship — not us, but our characters do,” Link said, smiling. “But on the side we’ll just be goofing around.”
The pair star in Penn State Centre Stage’s “110 in the Shade,” the musical that opened on Broadway in 1963. Based on N. Richard Nash’s original screenplay for the 1956 film “The Rainmaker,” the story centers on Lizzie Curry (Durham), a spinster whose dry wit and grit are only matched by the drought hanging over the town. But as the town’s residents thirst for rain, Lizzie yearns for something more.
Director Richard Roland, whose father, Steve, played Lizzie’s brother, Noah, in the original Broadway production, has helped bring the Tony-nominated show to Penn State’s Playhouse Theatre, which opens on Feb. 16.
For the two leads, preparing for the final curtain has been a whirlwind. Each credited Roland, along with choreographer Austin Eyer and musical director Lily Ling, for getting them ready for opening night.
“It’s been very fast, but we have been in perfect hands for it,” Link said. “The creative team have pushed us, but in the best way possible.”
Link plays the con man Starbuck, who rolls into town aboard a wagon, promising rain. Whip smart, Lizzie quickly deciphers the smooth talker is more of a tumbleweed than a nimbus.
Durham and Link have both worked with Roland before, and with each other. Both are seniors in Penn State’s musical theater program.
“I have always felt that we have good chemistry,” Durham said. “It’s nice getting to explore that in this show.”
Once the duo started rehearsing, in early January when the cast returned from winter break, the real work began. Durham said rehearsals usually ran for four hours during the week and about six on Saturdays. She estimated she spent an additional four hours a day “getting lost” in the script and the music. Durham credited the actress Audra McDonald, who played Lizzie in the 2007 revival, as an inspiration for her own rendition.
“This has always been one of my dream roles,” Durham said.
Link shared a similar sentiment. He said playing the roguish Starbuck was a departure for him, which made it enjoyable. Roland helped him understand the character by breaking down small details in-person, while also sending videos and emails with additional material.
Durham said Roland’s ability to connect with his actors was one of her favorite qualities about him.
“What I love is he has little sidebars with us in the middle of a scene,” Durham said. “He has this really intimate conversation with you about using certain words and what he wants from you in that scene.
“This is such a personal piece for him,” she added. “And just the insight he has about the original inception of ‘110 in the Shade,’ it’s really incredible to hear that stuff.”
As Durham got to know Lizzie better, the more she liked her, she said. The transformation that takes place isn’t so much physical as it is emotional, Durham said. The Aliquippa native said she believes audiences will connect with Lizzie as much as she did during production.
“She’s in that place in her life where she views herself as an ugly duckling and she’s not,” Durham said. “I think that’s something that everyone goes through.”
Ballads such as “Simple Little Things” and “Is it Really Me?” illustrate the growth of Lizzie and her relationship with Starbuck, and were two of the pair’s favorite scenes. While Durham said Gab Pena and Connor Jones — who play her brothers Noah and Jimmy — made her laugh the most during rehearsal, Link nodded to Durham.
“We just kind of let loose,” Link said of performing “Is it Really Me?” with Durham. “It could be a heavy, dramatic love song, but we kind of make it a fun, cute, romantic moment.”
IF YOU GO
- What: Penn State Centre Stage’s “110 in the Shade”
- When: Feb. 16-Feb. 27
- Where: Playhouse Theatre, University Park
- Info: www.theatre.psu.edu