MIDDLEBURY — It was 38 years ago that contractor Dutton Smith Sr., unable to secure a permit from the town of Middlebury for a development proposal, wrote a farcical play summing up his frustrations.
He aptly titled it “The Permit,” and it played to 21 enthusiastic crowds before the script was shelved.
Now, more than a generation later, the script is being dusted off by the Middlebury Community Players for a series of new performances in mid-October to help mark a coincidental occurrence that Smith probably never imagined back in 1972. You see, an integral part of “The Permit” is a new bridge that must be built in this fictional town of River Creek (unmistakably Middlebury). And until that bridge is built, a ferry must be run from one side of the downtown creek to the other.
It just so happens that Middlebury is currently putting the finishing touches on the $16 million Cross Street Bridge project. And, a short distance to the west, a ferry service is working overtime to get people back and forth across Lake Champlain while a new span is being built linking West Addison to Crown Point, N.Y.
It is that coincidental confluence of events that prompted Town Hall Theater Executive Director Douglas Anderson around eight months ago to suggest a revival of “The Permit.”
“Doug said, ‘See if you can make it happen,’” Dutton Smith Jr., son of the play’s author, recalled.
“My father was all for it.”
Regrettably, Dutton Smith Sr., now 87, is coping with a memory loss illness and is unable to take full charge of show’s revival. But he is serving as a consultant for Dutton Jr., who at the age of 15 played the role of a selectman in the 1972 production. He’s now content in the role of producer, and has — with much help from the Middlebury Community Players — been readying the play for its 2010 incarnation.
Truth be told, the play should hold up pretty well in spite of the passage of time, according to Smith.
It began with a collaboration between the senior Smith and the late Ernie Stires, a very accomplished composer and musician who lived in Cornwall. Smith, a contractor, had tried unsuccessfully to secure a development permit from the planning office and decided to write about it.
“Being frustrated about that, I imagine my dad saying, ‘You have to get a permit for everything; the next thing you know, we’ll be needing a permit to have sex,’” Smith said.
The senior Smith used that outlandish, comedic concept in “The Permit,” in which town officials decide to require permits for sex, with the revenues used to fund a new bridge.
In real-life Middlebury, of course, local options taxes and a Middlebury College gift are being used to bankroll the Cross Street Bridge.
“It’s a strange idea, but pretty funny,” Smith said of the play’s premise, adding the subject matter is written in a clever, and not graphic, way.
“The show is a farce, almost like a cartoon,” Smith said. “When my father and Ernie Stires first started putting this together, I imagine they had some fun dreaming this up.”
Stires wrote all the music and Smith senior wrote some of the lyrics to the 10 original songs.
“There are some really great songs in this that could probably make it on their own if someone in the Stires family tried to market them,” Smith said. Song titles include, “What’s a Small Town All About?”, “If You Want to be a Hermit” and “Blue, Blue Plans Tonight.”
Complete with intermission, the play lasts around 90 minutes.
The cast includes Tom Noble as the “efficient, but harried” town manager; Tom McElhaney as Claude Hammer, a resident bent on saving the town from permit slavery; Jyotie Daniere as Laurie, an alluring nightclub singer; Barney Hodges as Burns, a wise old man; Tanya Lehman as Thelma, the town manager’s “dreamy” assistant; Rich Walkden as Steve, Laurie’s distrustful boyfriend; and Glenn Andres as Frank, the selectboard chairman.
Selectboard members Bill and Josie are played by Ken Winter and Rini Lovshin-Smith.
Also included in the cast are some town gossips (played by Barbara Andres, Jennifer Wagner and Algy Layden), a chorus (Eleanor Fagan, Sophia Fenn and D.J. Piper) and some selectboard members whose roles will be filled by local celebrities in non-speaking cameos. Smith is keeping the identities of those local celebrities under wraps, for now.
Joyce Huff is directing with choreography by Kathleen Smith and Kate Tilton acting as stage manager.
Hodges is the only original, 1972 cast member who will be reprising his role when the play hits the Town Hall Theater stage for performances on Oct. 14, 15, 16 and 17.
“In 1972, (Hodges) had to play the role of Burns with old stage makeup,” Smith recalled, chuckling, “now he doesn’t need the makeup.”
Musical Director Chuck Miller has been able to faithfully recreate the songs through Stires’ notes and an old recording of the 1972 show, performed then at Mister Up’s Restaurant — which ironically is located right next door to Middlebury’s new bridge.
Middlebury’s new bridge will be officially unveiled on Oct. 30, around two weeks after “The Permit” cast takes its final bows.
“It will be one of the early celebrations of the bridge opening,” Smith said.
Among the audience members will be Dutton Smith Sr. and other members of the Smith family, as well as members of the Stires family.
Smith is pleased to see the play come back to life after all these years.
“It’s great,” he said.
He added there’s no heavy, underlying message to “The Permit.” Just humor.
“It’s just poking fun at the whole idea of small town government and all the things they take so seriously — and makes it fun,” Smith said. “No one will be offended by this.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].