URBANA — Danville resident Nancy Keener just got back to doing theater a year or so ago, spending most of her stage time in Danville Light Opera choruses or ensembles.
Figuring she needed experience auditioning, she traveled to Urbana to try out for a role in "Independence," a four-character family drama by Lee Blessing that opens Thursday at the Station Theatre.
After the auditions, director Deb Richardson called Keener, offering her the lead role of Evelyn.
Keener thought Richardson was joking. Richardson wasn't. In fact, as soon as she heard Keener read, the director thought she was right for the role.
Keener took it on, realizing the responsibility it carries. She admits to being nervous, which might serve her well as she assays the mentally imbalanced Evelyn.
Keener describes her character, who is cared for by her middle daughter Jo, played by Martha Mills, as childlike in her own way.
"I think she's been hurt a lot. That's one reason she tries to keep the daughter near, to kind of compensate for that. She doesn't understand how to be good in a relationship. She clearly doesn't know how to be a good mother."
While Evelyn might be a tragic character, Keener admits she's enjoyable to play.
"It's kind of fun to let your cheese slide off your cracker in front of people," she said before rehearsal Monday night.
In the two-act "Independence," set in contemporary times in the small town of Independence, Iowa, Blessing tells the story of a mother and her three daughters, with the oldest returning to Independence out of concern for her mother's mental health.
"As the women — the fearful mother, the prodigal child, the self-sacrificing daughter and the rebellious youngest — search for their own versions of independence, they raise questions about growing up, family and love and come to realize that they must each find their own heaven — or hell — in their own way," reads a news release from the Station.
"Independence" marks the first directing job for Richardson, who has been involved as an actress or designer in 50 plays. Loving Blessing's work, Richardson wanted to direct one of his plays.
"The thing about Lee Blessing is his writing is true. It's natural, about real things, so it's naturally dark," she said.
And Richardson believes "Independence" is not a women's play despite it having only four characters, all female, but rather one that both men and women can relate to.
No matter their gender, theater-goers will see themselves in at least one of the characters, Richardson said.
The director believes the major theme of the Tony and Pulitzer Prize nominee's play is codependency.
"Evelyn tries to hold everybody to her by guilt and manipulation. Jo, the middle daughter, feels she can't leave her mother, that she has to stay."
Kess, the oldest daughter, played by Malia Andrus, is a successful professor and a lesbian who returns home to try to help out. Andrus views Kess as the most serious and responsible of the daughters and as a woman who takes the weight of the world upon herself.
"She's effective in terms of the way that she shows her affection to people," Andrus said. "She largely comes across as being able to achieve things for them."
Sherry, the youngest daughter, played by Jessa Thomas, is 19, sarcastic and a pain to others. She's both tragic and fun, Thomas said.
"She comes from a home where she never felt loved or wanted, and she's looking desperately for that in other places, " said Thomas, who worked professionally as an actress in Miami before moving to Champaign.
Mills said she has a hard time talking about her character, calling it and the play emotional and deep.
"I'm the one staying home to be the caretaker. I realize I can't do that anymore because I'll turn into Mom. How can I can help her if I am her? I realize I have to get away."
If you go
What: Celebration Company presents "Independence," a play by Lee Blessing, directed by Deb Richardson and starring Nancy Keener, Martha Mills, Malia Andrus and Jessa Thomas
When: 8 p.m. Thursday through Dec. 15
Where: Station Theatre, 223 N. Broadway, U
Admission: $10 Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays; $15 Fridays and Saturdays (senior citizens older than 62 and students with ID receive a $1 discount)
Reservations: http://www.stationtheatre.com ; 384-4000
Note: Free parking is available across the street, compliments of Sav-A-Lot