Great Barrington — Jolyn Unruh is no stranger to the stage. Prior to the decade she has spent at Monument Mountain Regional High School — where she teaches drama, acting and directing, and has had a hand in more than 30 productions — she was a professional actress. Unruh, who holds her union card for Actors’ Equity, had what she calls “a little fledgling acting career” before she started a family. Having performed at American Repertory Theatre in Virginia, she moved to the Berkshires to work for Berkshire Theatre Festival (now Berkshire Theatre Group) where her last show was a Joan Ackermann comedy. When Mixed Company planned to extend the run, Unruh found herself in a bit of a jam: “I was pregnant and starting to show, and it was a character for whom there would be no explanation for her pregnancy,” Unruh explains of her decision to leave the theater to pursue her most important role to date: mom to Asa (18) and Abby (14). On Thursday evening (June 14), following a 19-year hiatus, Unruh will mark her return to the stage in the role of Prospero, wronged Duke of Milan, in GhostLit Repertory Theatre’s world premiere musical adaptation of William Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” at Saint James Place.
“This is my very first time even craving to get back on stage,” says Unruh of her return to the other side of the curtain. Another delightful twist? The sibling pair of Caitlin Teeley and Jackson Teeley, both Monument graduates and former students of Unruh, are directing the show. “I tease them — here’s my comeuppance!” Unruh giggles. “All the torment I caused [them], [they] now get to return,” she jokes. Shifting to a more serious tone, Unruh describes working with the pair and their classmate Harrison Lang, founding member of GhostLit Repertory Theatre: “It’s incredibly inspiring. They are quite genuinely really remarkable people — so creative, exuberant, enthusiastic. They love the theater, and I’m so proud to have been there for them when they were developing that love,” she concludes. In short, she is having a great time soaking in their creativity and generally being kind of awed by them. As to how this collaboration came about? Well, that’s another story.
Last spring, after having been diagnosed with cancer, Unruh happened upon Harrison and Jackson, who were in attendance at the MMRHS spring musical. “I was bald and going through chemo,” Unruh recalls when, out of the blue, Jackson posed a question: We are staging your favorite play; would you be interested in being involved? Unruh, who imagined this might involve sitting in on rehearsals and providing input, quickly agreed. As to playing Prospero? Unruh remembers her inner thoughts: “I’m just recovering from cancer treatment, and I’m exhausted and I’m kind of overwhelmed — I’m finishing my master’s degree — but I would never say no to that!” Unruh recalls feeling deeply touched, as well as mindful that the opportunity might never come around again, so she cleared her life and made room for the experience. What ensued has been both a profoundly personal journey and a satisfying professional experience, both of which were mostly unexpected. And then there is simply the idea of playing Prospero; again, Unruh remembers thinking, “Forget the story, how fun to play a dude who knows that the world is his oyster!” Unruh speaks at length as to the timely nature of this production, springing forth from a political and social climate where entitled white men have repeatedly mistreated and marginalized minority groups. Ultimately, it was Unruh’s insatiable curiosity — and the question “What would it feel like to play one of these men?” —that got her hooked and reeled her into the character she so adeptly portrays.
For those unfamiliar with the play’s premise, Unruh provides a synopsis: Prospero leads this really upper-crusty life of privilege [he is the Duke of Milan], and one day his brother takes over the dukedom and casts him out to sea to die. He learns what it is to be marginalized and cast off; because he has his life robbed — his position, his title and ultimately, they think, his life — he becomes very vengeful and can’t wait to take revenge on those who wronged him. He comes to this island and completely takes over. He essentially comes to this island and thinks, “It doesn’t matter what was going on before, I am now the king of this world.” He enslaves Ariel, he enslaves Caliban, and he harnesses their power for his own gain and eventually uses that power to gain vengeance on the people who wronged him. Which, for Unruh, is part of the fun: playing a role where that way of life is but a dream.
Unruh is quick to clarify: “That world is actually so far from what I believe I live day to day, so it’s been a very fun leap — and I’ve used a lot of the men around me — to imagine my way into what it would feel like to be Prospero.” Unruh describes Prospero as incredibly philosophical; in spite of being an entitled white male, he is really rich. “It seems as if everything Shakespeare wanted to say about what it means to be a human being — how we suffer, how we live knowing that we’ll only be here for a while, that life is ephemeral — it’s as if all the philosophy he built up about life, he used Prospero to say it. The language is gorgeous, the layers of meaning inside what Prospero says are gorgeous, and so I just love him.” And Unruh is quite certain she could not have done justice to the role prior to her own cancer diagnosis — and the comment is not borne of modesty. “Prospero is older and he’s been broken in a kind of way. When his brother casts him off, usurps his title and leaves him to die, he goes from being bitter and angry and vengeful to being forgiving, loving and merciful. And it’s a really beautiful arc,” she concludes. There is tremendous growth in Prospero, a character who begins his journey seeking to torture his tormentors before realizing “the finer part of human nature is in virtue.”
Unruh remembers being angry and bitter that her life was going to be short, that she was going to lose her hair and quite possibly leave her kids motherless. Miraculously, her breast cancer did not spread to the lymph nodes. The journey, nonetheless, has taken its toll. “I had to find my way into loving life in spite of the fact that part of being alive is really suffering. And that if you let go … there is enormous beauty. Just being alive is a miracle, and I feel this enormous gift to just be here,” she says. Unruh points to the incredible gratitude she feels that she is here doing theater and making art with her former students; and her honesty is refreshing: “I would never have been able to say a line like, ‘I’ll retire me to Milan where every third thought shall be my grave,’” she says, had it not been for her own tempestuous journey.
Finally, inherent irony abounds: “The Tempest,” Shakespeare’s last play, is considered both his love letter to the theater as well as his farewell to it. “I think there is an enormous amount of symbolism going on,” says Unruh, citing a particularly poignant line from the play’s conclusion where Prospero has a little tip of the hat to “the great Globe (Theater) itself” in his farewell speech. And, Unruh continues, while it seems that Prospero is talking about the Earth, he’s saying goodbye to the stage and the theater — and the theater, of course, is this little magical island where anything can happen. Unruh speaks with a clarity and wisdom that surpasses her years; at every turn, she is finding her way through the question and into the answer. As to the convergence of her first time on stage in nearly two decades while taking the lead in Shakespeare’s last work? Unruh’s outlook is unwavering: “Death feels really close now… [but] every day feels like an unexpected gift.”
“The Tempest” will be performed in the former sanctuary at Saint James Place Thursday, June 14, at 8 p.m.; Friday, June 15, at 8 p.m.; Saturday, June 16, at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.; and Sunday, June 17, at 1 p.m. and 7 p.m.. The production is directed by Jackson Teeley and Caitlin Teeley; originally adapted by Corey G. Potter, Amanda Rose Wallace and Jackson Teeley; and features original music by Jackson Teeley. For tickets and information, consult The Berkshire Edge Calendar. For more information, visit www.ghostlitrep.com.