Confronting Chaos: a Review of A House in the Country & Other Plays by Peter Coy

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Peter Coy with Becca Bernard at a clown workshop led by longtime Cirque du Soleil Las Vegas clown, Shannon Calcutt, at the Celebration Barn in South Paris, Maine. Photo: Shannon Calcutt.

Peter Coy, founder of the Hamner Theater, is a man of many talents. As a Jefferson Scholar at U.Va., he was a three-time, all-American lacrosse player and a member of the 1974 USA World Champion lacrosse team. As a member of Friends of Nelson, he was a leader and unofficial spokesperson in the fight against the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. When not engaged in professional theater, Coy works with the advanced theater classes of Nelson County High School and attends clowning workshops all over the world. But first and foremost, Coy is an award-winning playwright, author of over 45 plays, and winner of the 2001 Charles MacArthur/Helen Hayes award for Outstanding New Play for A House in the Country. His piercing gaze and joyful laugh reveal a man who enjoys life.

This year, Coy has published his first collection, A House in the Country and Other Plays, with an introduction by Richard C. Washer of the Charter Theatre in Washington, D.C. This handsome book was published by the Hamner Theater Press, headquartered right here in Crozet. Beautifully designed by Room for Magic and Cody Cano and printed on high quality paper, it features thick, colored pages that divide the five plays that provide notes, synopsis, character profiles, production history, and commentary by Washer. The title play, about a young couple who finds their dream house but lose their way during its renovation, was developed at the Shenandoah International Playwrights Retreat in Verona, Virginia and first presented by the Charter Theatre in Washington, D.C. in October 2000, directed by Keith Bridges.

Coy’s collection A House in the Country and Other Plays was published this year by Hamner Theater Press, headquartered in Crozet.

“I chose, in collaboration with the publisher, five plays that use music and theatrical time in five different ways to create different kinds of theatrical experiences for an audience,” Coy explained in an interview with Broadway World. “A House in The Country is a lyrical, intimate drama that uses non-linear time and place structure to unravel character and plot. Poe & All That Jazz is a madcap psychological trip that uses jazz standards, fluid historical time, Poe’s actual words [from his letters, diaries, and literary works], and a three-foot-tall doll to explode the desperate love life of Edgar Allan Poe. A Shadow of Honor is an historical play combining interlocking, alternating stories about PTSD and murder from different time periods based on real events from 1907 and 2007, using period songs and music. The Gift of the Magi … focus[es] on the tough financial landscape of the early 1900s that is the reality surrounding O. Henry’s romantic fable. And Will’s Bach is a love story in real time—an hour and a half of personal crisis, … [with] J.S. Bach’s violin and cello sonatas … becoming another character in the play.” (www.broadwayworld.com 7/8/21). 

Born in Savannah, Georgia, Coy moved throughout his life but now resides mainly in Nelson County. After studying philosophy and drama at U.Va., he went on to study theater arts at the State University of New York (SUNY) in Purchase, New York. With a faculty comprised entirely of working professionals from New York City, Coy learned all aspects of theater production, with a focus on directing. His mentor, Joseph Anthony, taught the Stanislavsky method based in Russian realism. Coy started writing plays while working in New York at the nonprofit Phoenix Theater and others. “I wrote one play and it was pretty good, so I wrote another, and another…. and suddenly, I was a playwright,” joked Coy. 

Coy’s one-act play Poe & All That Jazz combines Poe’s original writings with songs by Cole Porter and Johnny Mercer to paint an impressionistic, madcap portrait of Edgar Allan Poe’s love life. Here Patricia Finn Rapiejko as Poe’s mother, Eliza, and Jon Cobb as Poe appear in the play at the Capitol Fringe Festival. Photo: J. Taylor.

In 1992, Coy and his wife moved from New York City to Faber in Nelson County to raise their children. He founded the Hamner Theater at the Rockfish Valley Community Center in 2004, in collaboration with Boomie Pedersen. They were successful at fundraising and improved the community center—renovating the bathrooms, hanging a grid, and buying lights to make a black box theater that seated 45-60 people. Their first production, presented at Christmas 2004 and directed by Pedersen, was The Homecoming—Coy’s adaptation of Earl Hamner, Jr.’s TV pilot for The Waltons—which Coy expanded based on Hamner’s original 1961 novel, Spencer’s Mountain. After working and becoming friends with Earl Hamner, they decided to name their fledgling theater after him. “Just before opening night, we were painting polka dots together on the floor, and the song What the F*** Were We Thinking? came on the radio. So that became our theme song,” he laughed. 

The Hamner Theater specialized in new plays and playwrights, which they solicited internationally. After the Shenandoah International Playwrights Retreat in Staunton closed, they held the Hamner Playwrights Retreat at RVCC for several years. Playwrights came from as far as Spain and California, and were housed with local supporters. The Hamner Theater ended their residency at RVCC in 2012 and moved to Crozet Arts, where they continue to produce plays and community conversations—even through the pandemic, when they moved to Zoom (www.hamnertheater.com). 

“Writing plays, directing plays, producing plays, clowning, and being part of creating theater are all actions I use to confront chaos. Live theater is always dancing on the verge of chaos. It is a web of interdependencies, everyone relying on everyone else,” declares Coy in his Preface—adding in our interview, “I always look for redemption in my plays, no matter how dark they may seem halfway through.” 

Peter Coy is an award-winning playwright and founder of the Hamner Theater housed at Crozet Arts. Photo: J. Taylor.

“Clowning is a life force for me,” Coy explained. When I worked with Jane Nichols, who taught physical theater at Yale in 1998, my whole sense of theater and acting was blown out of the water. I have also worked with Pierre Byland in Italy and Christopher Bayes at Yale. “The essential thing about clowns is they are stupid, clueless. I wrote Poe & All That Jazz as a theatrical event, with Poe as a clown.” This play combines Poe’s original writings with songs by Cole Porter and Johnny Mercer to paint an impressionistic portrait of Edgar Allan Poe’s love life. When performed at the Capitol Fringe Festival in D.C., the Washington Post Going Out Gurus described it as “90 minutes of clowning, theatrics, psychological drama, dry humor, jazz standards, and raw sexuality… it’s fantastic!”

The plays in this collection are highly contemporary, minimalist, and spare—some are experimental. They feature small casts and simple stage sets consisting of only a bench plus table and chairs, or a desk, trunk, and piano. The most ambitious play in the collection is A Shadow of Honor, developed at the Earl Hamner Playwrights Conference, commissioned by the Wintergreen Performing Arts Festival for a work about central Virginia history, and first presented there in 2007, directed by Boomie Pedersen. An expanded version was presented at the Keegan Theatre in D.C. in 2011, directed by Matthew Keenan. Set in parallel time periods, it juxtaposes the riveting story of an actual notorious murder that took place near Lovingston in 1907 with the story of a young couple just starting a family in the same historic house exactly 100 years later. The play deals with issues of violence, PTSD, and the Lost Cause morality of the old South (especially as it pertains to women) issues still relevant today. Both male protagonists are haunted by the war experiences of their fathers—one in the Civil, the other in the Vietnam War. 

Working with the advanced theater classes at Nelson County High School for the past 14 years, Coy and drama teacher Diana Driver have taken them to five state championships and three runners-up at the Virginia High School League State One-Act Play Festival. “Working with these students is truly life-affirming,” he attested.

Coy was also active in Nelson County’s successful fight against the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. As a member of Friends of Nelson, he went to D.C. to demonstrate at the FERC offices and spoke as the unofficial representative of Nelson County to a gathering of Virginia and North Carolina farming communities that were being affected by the pipeline.

Coy’s current projects include Fire in the Wind, based on a true crime story that occurred in Baltimore in 1976, as well as one based on the love story of Johnny Mercer and Judy Garland. With his unbounded creativity and joie de vivre, I doubt we have heard the last of Peter Coy. 

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