‘Still Now’ continues at Orcas Center | Play review

by Toby Cooper

Special to the Sounder

Director Pepper Binkley knew bringing “Still Now” to Orcas would not be without risk. Mere minutes into the opening night at Orcas Center, she had her answer: the cast was on and the audience had already opened their hearts.

The storyline is impactful, elegant and transformational. Playwright Katie Bender invites us to accompany Annie (played by Chelsea Sherman) on a journey to define her essential humanity. Annie, a witness to the streetside horrors of New York’s 9/11, seeks solace and self-discovery in far-away Japan where she connects deeply with Butoh dance master Ishikawa Junko (Kaoru Okumura). But Butoh is a discipline rich with allegory, and it becomes a precursor to Annie’s ultimate confrontation with mortality.

Artists draw from life, and this tender production is no exception. With the “Still Now” storyline, Bender stitches together her own lived experiences, including a personal brush with 9/11, subsequent immersion in Butoh dance followed by the jolting loss of a true friend to cancer. Bender sought – and found – her own moment of healing through her art.

Adding to the personal flavor and ultimate authenticity of “Still Now,” Binkley is personal friends with Katie and herself played the part of Annie in workshops of the production.

As a director, Binkley loves to challenge her audiences. She demands participation with imagination, but it flows with ease. She dismisses traditional stagecraft along with people who normally design elaborate sets, assemble props, manipulate lights and rumble things around in the dark. We are left with a minimalist production — with lights and sound done by Jake Perrine — that throws us unmercifully into Annie’s spellbinding world of fear and denial, hope and despair, love and resignation.

In addition to Okumura’s Butoh, we are treated with delightful interpretations from choreographers Susan Newkumet and Tiffany Loney (who is also a cast member) and the Orcas Dance Collective. Their choreography produces the remarkable illusion in which young, athletic dancers portray suffering and debilitating immobility with convincing ease.

“Still Now” deserves high praise. Sherman was terrific. Supporting cast members Jamey Moriarty as Annie’s love interest, Liz Doane as Annie’s guilt-stricken friend, Tom Fiscus as the straight-talking oncologist, Margo Van Gelder as an upbeat kid facing the same disease, Loney as a nurse and a doctor and Sofia Poe and Colleen Smith as nurses — all of them left us moved by memorable performances.

Tickets can be purchased at www.orcascenter.org for the remaining performances, which include two livestreams.