‘A Wilder Night’ Showcases Three Thornton Wilder One-Act Plays

The student cast hopes to encourage audiences to recognize beautiful and meaningful moments in their own lives

The Department of Theatre and Media Arts will present three one-act plays from Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Thornton Wilder in “A Wilder Night.”

The plays — “The Long Christmas Dinner,” “The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden” and “Pullman Car Hiawatha” — were published together in 1931 and laid much of the groundwork for Wilder’s beloved “Our Town.” The one-acts also share a common thread in their complementary explorations of the universal human experience. 

“I believe these plays are works of art that reveal truth about our lives,” said director Adam Houghton. “There are notable moments of humanity, and the plays also have profound and potentially enlightening moments of spiritual dimensions.”

Despite the heightened language and period setting of the plays, there is a timelessness to the characters and themes that Houghton and the student cast hope will resonate across generations. 

“The show presents humanity as a never-ending loop,” said Melanie Berriman, who plays Leonora Banning in “Christmas Dinner,” among other characters. “Throughout time, humans haven’t really changed — trends and manners and culture have changed, but we still do the same things, we still say many of the same things and we still want the same things. Like all humans, the characters focus on silly things a lot of the time, but there are also moments of stillness where something real and profound happens.”

This search for the beautiful and unifying elements of the human experience began well before the cast started blocking the show as Houghton encouraged them to identify how the themes of the plays manifest in their own lives.

“The plays’ themes include aspects of the human condition like our effort to find meaning in our lives and how we struggle to be present when we have many tasks that we think need to be done,” said Houghton. “The students at BYU strive for excellence in many aspects of their lives, and I see that same effort to find truth in art; a significant aspect of our rehearsal process has been learning about ourselves and how we relate to the world and to these texts.” 

This was done in part through a series of improvisational and reflective exercises to help the cast connect their own life experiences and emotional responses to those of their characters.

“The preparation for this show has been a great exercise in really studying a character and being completely present on stage,” said Olivia Ockey, who primarily plays Ma in “The Happy Journey.” “Ma has been one of the most intimidating characters I’ve ever played because she’s so real. She seems so simple on the outside, but trying to get into her head and feel what she’s feeling has been so much more complicated — and rewarding — than I ever thought it would be. Ma has taught me a lot about Christlike love and thinking outside of myself.”

Ockey hopes that audiences come away from the show with a strengthened sense of purpose and significance in their own experiences, no matter how unremarkable day-to-day life may feel at times.

“One of the themes we explore is the idea of finding meaning in the seemingly mundane parts of life,” she said. “I think audiences will find a lot of joy in seeing everyday activities elevated into this beautiful theatrical experience. ‘The Happy Journey,’ for example, is just a car ride, but it somehow gets turned into a really lovely time where you get to sit and enjoy people being people and all the nuances that come with that.” 

Tickets and Show Details

Performance Dates and Times: Nov. 8-9, 13-16, 20-23 | 7:30 p.m. and Nov. 9, 16, 23 | 2 p.m.

Location: Margetts Theatre

Price: $12-16

Tickets: Available in person at the BYU HFAC or Marriott Center Ticket Office, by phone at (801) 422-2981 or online at byuarts.com