In the Suburbs / Drama clubs scores another success

A couple of weeks ago, when one of the seniors at our charter school needed to interview an expert in the theater field for her senior project, I knew exactly who to call—Ms. Fran Kondziela.

Kondziela, who teaches English and theater at Ludlowe High School and directs the drama club, was my older daughter Stacey’s director in “The King and I” at Fairfield Warde some 32 years ago. We had reconnected 10 years ago when Ludlowe performed “42nd Street” and I eagerly covered the performance for this column.

Not only did Ms. K, as her students still affectionately call her, agree to be interviewed by my student, she invited me to Ludlowe’s latest production, “A Wilder Time,” the weekend of Nov. 30-Dec. 1. Of course, I was was thrilled to accept and managed, despite my crazy schedule, to make the matinee.

“A Wilder Time” was two, one-act plays by Thornton Wilder called “A Long Christmas Dinner” and “Pullman Car Hiawatha.” Both were written about seven years before “Our Town,” which the Drama Club performed in 2010. My wife and I attended that performance and loved it.

With these two productions, like all of her students’ work, Ms. K’s “A Wilder Time” didn’t disappoint. In Ms. K’s own words from her Director’s Note, “Thornton Wilder was brilliant! The 2 one-acts reflect the superb development of his masterpiece.”

“Experimenting with a minimalist theatrical style, “The Long Christmas Dinner” covers 90 years of dinners in one home in less than an hour,” she wrote. The use of a brief piano cue signaled the passage of time and “People pass so quickly through 2 portals of life and death that time does fly, and often simultaneously appears to move very slowly.”

According to Ms.K’s commentary about “In Pullman Car Hiawatha, Wilder “grapples with the questions of how people are able to survive tragedy in their lives.”

This play came with a stage manager and the settings of chairs were designed to give the impression of different cars on the train. Individual characters faced emotional challenges and physical challenges and there was even a death on the train. Enter the archangels to sweep the death victim off to her final rest as she comments that she isn’t quite ready to leave. That line was so close to “Our Town,” I almost felt like I was seeing the play all over again.

I can’t say enough about the fine performances of this entire talented ensemble of actors. With Ms. K’s strong, guiding hand, those who want to pursue theater are sure to have bright futures and perhaps a shot at Broadway. I was particularly impressed with the versatility of Frances Ohe, who played the son in “The Long Christmas Dinner” and the stage manager in “Pullman Car Hiawatha.” He was strong in both plays and anchored the ensembles.

A few days after the performance, I caught up with Ms. K and asked her what drove her choice of Thornton Wilder.

“Why Wilder?” she said. “Well, first, Wilder was brilliant because he was able to be so profound and managed to get to the essence in a simple, minimalist manner, which is perhaps the clearest sign of his intelligence. His works have both heart and mind.

“And as we approach the ending of another year, these two short plays focus on time and its passing through generations in ‘The Long Christmas Dinner’ and in the universe, as we travel on our journey through life, as seen in ‘Pullman Car Hiawatha.’ This is why I chose to title them, ‘A Wilder Time,’ (they were written by Wilder and they were about time). I also selected them because I felt they were ensemble pieces that offer many interesting and challenging roles for actors (and director),” she said.

She added that the student actors had the opportunity to skype with Tappan Wilder, the playwright’s nephew and literary manager for the Wilder estate in California. She said Tappan Wilder’s generosity really helped the students to understand the plays they were presenting.

Ms. K dedicated “A Wilder Time” to her mother Rose Diane Kondziela, “who first introduced me to the meaning, depth, beauty and wonder of Thornton Wilder’s words. Mom was a serious, intelligent, insightful reader of dramatic plays,” she said. “I felt her spirit gently guiding me while working on these two plays.”

I really appreciated Ms. K’s invitation to see another of her excellent theatrical accomplishments and definitely plan to mark my calendar for the spring show, which will probably be a musical. More importantly, it was great to reconnect with her after too many years and to enjoy a great theater performance right in Fairfield.

Steven Gaynes is a Fairfield writer, and his “In the Suburbs” appears each Friday. He can be reached at