Award-winning playwright and former Kansan Dean Corrin likes to think that the purpose of art is "to make the strange familiar and the familiar strange."
"I think if we look closely enough at things that are unique, we can find the things that are universal," says Wichita State University grad Corrin, whose 1984 play, "Butler County," is being showcased this week by the Irene Vickers Baker Theater at Wichita Center for the Arts. It's the third of four plays this season by, for and about Kansans.
"My experience has been that if I can create a specific reality for the characters, audiences will enter in whether or not it is a world they've experienced," says Corrin, now associate dean and head of the play-writing program at DePaul University in Chicago. "Of course, there is a special excitement for me in experiencing my plays with an audience in Wichita who, I hope, recognize the world as familiar and enjoy getting to see that world lifted up and examined. There are wonderful moments of recognition from audiences who see things they know from their own experiences."
Corrin, who won a regional Tony Award in 2001 as part of the Playwrights Ensemble at Chicago's Victory Gardens Theatre, will be a special guest on opening night and will be available to talk with audience members afterward.
Directed by Mike Roark, the play centers on a college-bound high school senior named Corrine "Reen" Brewer (played by Emma Craig), who loves her rural Kansas family and friends but feels the pull to leave home and experience the possibilities of the world outside Butler County.
Rob Summers plays her supportive but hesitant father, Danny, who is fearful of too much change and would prefer she go to the local junior college instead of a big-city university. Shane Konicki plays her complacent and somewhat lazy boyfriend, Davis, who is comfortable with their relationship and assumes she doesn't need or want anything more.
Meg Osborne is Jessica, a new neighbor who sacrificed her own dreams to support her husband's career. Perhaps trying to live vicariously through Reen, she pushes her to do what she wants, not what anyone else wants. J.R. Hurst plays the girl's curmudgeonly, plainspoken uncle who pipes up with what everybody else is thinking but is afraid to say.
"It is a drama with serious issues, but it is my favorite type of drama because it also has light, quirky human elements built into it — not enough to be comedy but enough to raise a smile of recognition," says Roark, who played the role of Reen's selfish boyfriend in a 1985 production of "Butler County" at Wichita State University.
"What Dean does is beautifully capture a time and place," Roark says. "It is the 1980s and it's not just Kansas but specifically Butler County. He captures the way rural people here talk, sometimes dropping words for efficiency. For people who are from here, it will all sound very familiar."
Behind the scenes, Sean Roberson is in charge of lighting and sound, Shawn Sturdevant did costumes and Beth Wise did props. Dan Williams is technical director and Jackie Donahue is stage manager.
Corrin credits his father and older brother with sparking his interest in theater by being involved in local shows themselves. He credits WSU's Dick Welsbacher and Joyce Cavarozzi, both now retired, as instrumental in indulging his creativity before he headed off to Ohio University for his MFA.
"I've come to embrace theater as a local art form," he says. "The experience of an event that happens only when the artists and audience gather in the same room is what keeps theater unique and vital. In our increasingly wired world, the theatrical event can't be duplicated. You'll never get a sense of community from watching a movie on an iPod."
If you go
What: Coming-of-age drama written by former Kansan Dean Corrin
Where: Wichita Center for the Arts, 9112 E. Central
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Feb. 21
How much: Tickets: $20 adults, $18 members and seniors, $10 students; available at Center box office at 316-315-0151 or www.wcfta.com.