‘Harper Regan’: Simple yet familiar

Startinhen The Next Stage begins performing its take on Simon Stephens’ award-winning 2008 play “Harper Regan” in The Attic at the State Theatre, it’ll possess a sense of both the conventional and the unknown. Described by the New York Times as “a simple and familiar story,” “Harper Regan” is a two-act play that focuses on an introspective journey taken by the title character after she impulsively leaves her job to visit her dying father.

Premiering at London’s National Theatre in 2008, “Harper Regan” takes the well-worn subject matter of self-discovery, exploration of morality and familial anti-bliss to polarizing extremes to offer an uncompromising peek into what makes us tick and our increasingly difficult adaptability to these daunting contemporary times.

“One of the main themes in this play is this idea of a humanity that’s disconnected from one another,” “Harper Regan” director Robert Schneider said. “We have all of these barriers between us, whether it’s cell phones, iPhones, iPads, computers, the Internet, and there really is no more face-to-face communication anymore. I think that this theme is really going to tap into the audiences, especially middle-aged audiences like Harper, who are on the cusp and are interested in technology but are also afraid of it at the same time.”

“The whole play is about how people just don’t connect. Someone could be standing right in front of you and you just don’t connect to them anymore, they’re distracted,” said actress Susan Riddiford Shedd who will be portraying the play’s title character. “It’s not really a new story, it really isn’t, but it’s modernized.”

“Harper Regan” also successfully breaks the concept of the “male gaze,” pushing a woman to the forefront of various crises and trauma that seemed to only plague men in literature and the theater.

“She’s going through a mid-life crisis, and what’s really interesting is that a lot of times when you see a mid-life crisis in film it almost always comes from a man’s point of view,” Schneider said, “If you look at something like ‘American Beauty’ or if you even want to go back further to ‘Save the Tiger’ with Jack Lemmon, all of it is a man’s view on a mid-life crisis and you rarely see women in throes of a mid-life crisis. That’s really what this whole play is about.”

“She’s a lot different than me,” Riddiford Shedd said of her character. “She’s very passive and submissive and her whole life she’s allowed people to walk all over her.”

Although “Harper Regan” isn’t exactly an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical in terms of its visual scope, it does boast one of the largest cast ensembles that The Next Stage has ever assembled, albeit still a relatively tame number of actors on stage.

“The Next Stage usually does more intimate shows, casts with two or three people, but this one has 11 cast members in it,” said Schneider, also an assistant professor of musical theater at Penn State. “I think that The Attic is one of the coolest performing spaces that Centre County has to offer.

“This spaces forces the audience to be locked in with these storytellers for two and a half hours,” he added. “You have nowhere to go, you can’t escape through your phone, you can’t escape to the bathroom and everything you do is going to be noticed by the actors and everything that the actors do the audience will notice. There is no more intimate place to tell a story and I love that.”