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June 8, 1995

Pitt staffer takes classroom assignment to extreme — all the way to local stage

It began as something of a lark. Maureen Jenkins, an administrative assistant in the Katz Graduate School of Business, always loved the theatre. She also enjoyed a theatre class she had taken that was taught by Kathleen George of the Department of Theatre Arts.

So, when the time arrived for Jenkins to choose elective courses as part of her recent, successful pursuit of a bachelor's degree in communication, she decided it might be fun to take George's Playwriting I class.

As part of that class, Jenkins was required to write an original one-act play. For material, she turned to her family and her Irish roots, two subjects she had always wanted to write about in one form or another. Following the playwriting path laid out by George, Jenkins set up a conflict centered around her Irish immigrant mother, Mary Ann Cassidy, leaving the family's Hazelwood home in 1948 to enter the workforce, something that actually happened.

Then Jenkins imagined her father, Edward Cassidy, an Irish immigrant steelworker, becoming upset at his wife working outside the home. She pictured her father's old country friends razzing him about his wife working and him being unable to take care of his family. She saw a man worried that he was losing control of his family and wondering if he ever should have moved to America.

"It started there and just kept coming," Jenkins say of the origins of her play "Oak Trees." Although Jenkins's parents were the inspiration for the main characters, Nora and Martin Kelly, after about a half dozen revisions of the play, the biographical elements faded far into the background as Nora and Martin became more universal symbols of the immigrant experience.

In Jenkins's playwriting class, people began to take notice. Carl Flannigan, a local actor, approached Jenkins after the class critiqued "Oak Trees" and told her the play was wonderful. Likewise, George said she liked the play a lot. That was in the fall 1992 term. "I knew it was good," says Jenkins. "But then I thought maybe it was just me until I started to get feedback from the class." The following term, George arranged a stage reading of "Oak Trees," along with some other plays from her class, at The Pit on Bouquet Street. That was followed by two other readings at The Beehive, one of which was halted by the March 1993 blizzard. After those readings, nothing happened for months. Then one day Jenkins's former classmate Flannigan told her that he had been talking to the owners of Mullaney's Harp and Fiddle restaurant in the Strip District and that they were interested in having the play performed on their stage. The news thrilled Jenkins, but then Flannigan moved to California, leaving her with no idea whatsoever about how to pursue the offer or find actors to perform "Oak Trees." Stumped, Jenkins decided to fall back on something she knew. She signed up for another of George's theatre courses.

In that class, Jenkins met Chuck Penick, a graduate student in the theatre arts who had been with the Robert Morris Colonial Theatre for eight years and directed a number of plays. Like Flannigan, Penick told Jenkins he loved "Oak Trees," which prompted her to ask if he might be interested in directing it.

"So we went down to Mullaney's," Jenkins recalls. "They said they were very interested." To produce the play, Jenkins and Penick, along with Pitt theatre arts students, or former students, Christopher Scott, Melanie Stefanic, Robert McLovich, Nancy Mimliss and a collection of other theatre people from the Pittsburgh area, formed Acorn Productions. The name of the production company, of course, is an allusion to the title of the play, which grew out of the efforts of Martin, the main male protagonist, to earn extra money working overtime in the mill he hates so he can buy oak trees for his yard in Hazelwood.

"I thought it was very symbolic," says Jenkins. "He wants to plant his roots in America. Does he plant the trees or doesn't he? He is alienated because he is working in the mill and hates it. It is a big change from the old country where he worked on his farm." While "Oak Trees" involves an Irish immigrant family, Jenkins feels the problems the Kellys faced in the New World apply to many other immigrant groups, which is something she also has been told by people who have seen the play. Jenkins recalls: "One woman said to me, 'You know, Maureen, I am Italian. But I don't care if it's Irish, Italian, Slovak, whatever immigrant class you came from, you can identify with it because it has a universal theme. You wanted to be an American.' "Nora, the main female character, wants to be an American," Jenkins points outs. "That's her dream. But her husband is threatened by it all and eventually decides to return to Ireland." Playwriting instructor George says it is "definitely an honor" that "Oak Trees" was actually performed on stage, but that Jenkins certainly earned it.

"She really learned the meaning of revision," George says. "She must have put the play through thousands of pages of revision. But that is what playwrights have to do and she was very excited by the material because it was so important to her." George feels the real magic of the play lies in how it shows the way individual immigrants viewed being in America and what it meant to them. "It resonates for the Irish community and other ethnic groups," she says.

"Oak Trees" was performed on four weekends, April 30-May 21 at Mullaney's Harp and Fiddle.

Now, Jenkins says, "I am hoping it will go somewhere from here. I would like to have it done in a bigger theatre because Mullaney's has a very small stage, although they were great to us and even enlarged the stage." But Jenkins also knows it is difficult to stage original plays. Most people want to see the old standards and former Broadway musicals and are not very interested in anything new.

Still, if the enthusiasm that the audiences at Mullaney's is any indication, "Oak Trees" has a good chance of being performed again in the future. And that's no lark.

–Mike Sajna

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