Sandisfield — Val Coleman is a character; he writes perfunctory poems, he is prone to telling off-color jokes with deadpan delivery, and he has a propensity for donning t-shirts, sport coats, and suspenders. The Illinois native, who calls Berkshire County home, has also developed a knack for crafting characters. At the tender age of 86, Coleman is basking in the role of playwright and his most recent work, The Stamp Collection, will make its debut at the Sandisfield Arts Center this weekend.
Directed by Benjamin Luxon, the play consists of six scenes set in a small town in 1941 in the middle of America — the exact locale being Shirley and Olga Trimble’s living room, an antiques shop filled with all manner of treasures. In short, Coleman narrates a story about life between the world wars and how it affects a very small group of people — six, to be exact — living in the middle of America where he grew up. As the story unfolds, we meet Olga Trimble, a hemophiliac afflicted with Christmas Disease, a rare condition affecting only women and for which there is no cure; as a result, she is in need of constant care. Her husband Shirley Trimble, who fought in World War I, is romantic and poetic, loving and devoted. In short, he is happy despite his hard luck and wants nothing more than for his wife to be well.
The action of the play unfolds, of course, over the pages of a great American stamp collection — a coveted treasure promised to the young Beverly Reynolds, a 10-year-old boy, who agrees to keep Olga company all summer in Shirley’s absence. The pair becomes both friend and confidant to one another while poring over the pages of the amazing American stamp collection that Shirley and Olga amassed together. As their relationship grows, the stamps trigger conversations; Olga shares her memories of a trip to Niagara Falls, during a time when Buffalo stilled roamed the plains; there is another beautiful stamp that depicts a train and evokes a story of a trip to Chicago on the Illinois Central Railroad; and then there is the time Olga went all the way to the Pacific Ocean in California — the ocean of peace — where “it was so beautiful [Olga] had to squint [her] eyes just so [she] could take it all in a little at a time.” Over the course of the play, Olga’s ability to see the wonder of life abounds despite her debilitating disease.
There is more here than meets the eye — an underlying theme of both the characters’ joint and respective journeys — and of the stamp collection itself. The central tension of the play lies in the rift that comes from Shirley’s belief in doctors and its clashing with Olga’s discovering God; on one of their many travels, she stops in the New Mexican desert and comes upon, “an old woman of God who believed in Christ the Scientist,” she tells Olga, “the only way to heal the sick is to find the truth” which gives her great hope and fuels her patience with her husband who she loves very deeply, a reciprocal devotion to one another that is evident. Olga’s response to this advice is visceral; she finds it to be “The most honest thing I had heard so far, and I started getting better right away.”
Tina Sotis, who plays the role of Olga Trimble, is a former Sandisfield resident; she sat down with me to chronicle her involvement with the Sandisfield Players, a group of amateur actors who first came together in 2012 to celebrate the 250th birthday of Sandisfield. Sotis recalls answering a casting call for Thorton Wilder’s Our Town, noting that no memorization was required. She was cast as Mrs. Webb, and soon learned that — even on Wilder’s characteristic blank set — it was nearly impossible to pretend to be flipping flapjacks while concurrently holding a script — so they went off book — or, in layman’s terms, resorted to memorizing their lines. “I realized in a split second that the audience wanted us to do well [so] I fell into the audience’s embrace and played my heart out.” The rest, one could say, is history. It was a “memorable experience” for Sotis who surprised everyone — including herself — and went on to take roles in subsequent productions, including revisiting her role as Mrs. Webb in a week-long stint at the historic Minack Theatre in Cornwall, England last summer. And of her experience bringing Coleman’s work to life on the narrow little stage of the Baptist church turned synagogue that is the Sandisfield Arts Center? “While the play revolves around death and dying, it is as much about peace, trust and friendship.”
And Coleman on his own work? He offers this statement in the program: “When messing around in the theatre, starting in 1948, one of my secret wishes was put my own small town on the stage and let my neighbors take their bows. That included a marvelous assortment of farmers, firemen, barbers, undertakers, teachers, soda jerks, preachers and a couple of crooks. It was the pace that I wanted to capture — that soft, sweet slide of life in Coles County, Illinois where, believe it or not, Abe Lincoln grew up. When I left town to try to conquer the world, I looked back over my shoulder and told myself I’d be back … in Shirley Trimble’s antique shop and the hamburger joint run by Horse Caroll’s mother. And I did come back, thanks to Ben Luxon and the Sandisfield Players who, with all its calamities, put on The Stamp Collection.”
“Shirley introduces the poetry of life to Olga,” Sotis remarks wistfully. And so, perhaps, the same can be said of Val Coleman — the eccentric character cum poet turned playwright, who, through The Stamp Collection, brings the poetry of life and another era, to all who are lucky enough to witness his tale unfold on the stage this weekend.
The Sandisfield Arts Center is located at 5 Hammertown Road in Sandisfield; performances of Val Coleman’s The Stamp Collection will take place on Saturday, July 9 at 7:30 p.m. and on Sunday, July 10 at 3 p.m. Run time is 120 minutes with no intermission. Tickets are $20 for adults, $5 for children under 12. For tickets and more information, consult the Berkshire Edge Calendar, or visit www.sandisfieldartscenter.org.