'A Hidden Life' at PURE Theatre | Photo by David Mandel

Elder statesman of PURE Theatre’s core ensemble Randy Neale spends a lot of time delving into his personal history and mining it for compelling theater these days. PURE’s 17th season kicked off in 2019 with Last Rites, a play exploring his recollections of the 1967 Detroit riots. Neale will now open PURE’s 20th season with another memory play, A Hidden Life.

Matriarch Adrienne Laframbois Filion Lavoi serves as the basis for the family drama A Hidden Life at PURE Theatre | Courtesy PURE Theatre

Based on the life of Neale’s grandmother Adrienne Laframbois Filion Lavoi who lived through the Depression in Detroit as a young widow and mother, A Hidden Life, follows the modern-day story of a grandmother, her daughter and her granddaughters over one summer. In the play, the daughter and granddaughters realize they know little about her life, and together reconstruct her history from memories and photographs.

“This play is about how we pieced this story together over a period of years,” Neale said. His own grandmother never told the family about her past or the why and how of her arrival in Detroit. “I’m still finding things out this year that I didn’t know.”

A Hidden Life began as a dance poem. Neale, a former professional dancer, staged the early version of his grandmother’s story at DanceSpace in New York City in 1991. Neale and three women of different ages representing his grandmother danced to “Träumerei (Dreaming),” part of composer Robert Schumann’s Opus 15 [movement No. 7].

Neale developed a narrative version in 2020, as a one-woman show that never came to fruition. He felt it wanted to stage the story with a cast of four women, and A Hidden Life started to take shape. Neale, who is also directing this production, was working on the script up until a few months ago as more information trickled in from family members.

The play stars LeeAnne Hutchison as Adrienne. PURE core ensemble members Emily Wilhoit and Camille Lowman play her daughter and oldest granddaughter. Alexa Kennedy Smith plays the youngest granddaughter.

Developing a new play can be difficult on a cast, and A Hidden Life is no exception. Other than Hutchison, who plays one character throughout, the others play different people as the story weaves in and out of memories. Wilhoit, Lowman and Smith also play younger versions of Adrienne.

“It’s challenging,” Wilhoit said, “because we are playing so many characters and they’re real people, especially to Randy. I am playing his mother.”

Lowman added, “I feel like our memories are constructed of flashes of very intense moments a lot of times — whether that’s intense joy or intense pain or intense laughter. And it’s been challenging as an actor to go from a place of comfort in this world of this grandmother … and then go directly into what is possibly one of the hardest memories of someone’s life.”

Hutchison, an established professional actor living in New York City, also connects personally with the work. She’s married to Neale’s brother Grant, who performed in Neale’s play The Fool’s Lear in 2011. She’s been well aware of A Hidden Life’s development and is excited to tell this story in Charleston.

“I knew Randy was writing this for the past couple of years,” Hutchison said. “And I was very interested in it. Somehow the stars just kinda aligned.”

Hutchison takes great joy in portraying this story, and examining that strength of character that makes Adrienne so fascinating. “The really hard things that people go through and when people can love,” Hutchison said, “that’s, to me, this incredible miracle, in this story and whenever it happens.”

Smith, a theater student at Fordham University in New York City, is the daughter of PURE core ensemble member R.W. Smith and makes her professional acting debut in A Hidden Life.

“It’s been really cool,” Smith said. “Everything that I’ve been taught for years, I’m finally realizing: ‘I have to do it on my own now.’ At the end of the day no one’s gonna hold my hand. I gotta hold my own hand. And it’s kinda awesome.”

Neale’s director’s statement reads: “All of us are looking to the future with some trepidation and we are fearful of the challenge our children and grandchildren may face. My hope is that we can take comfort and courage from the stories of the people we came from and realize that those who follow us can overcome much more than we can even imagine.”

A Hidden Life runs Aug. 18-Sept. 10 at the Cannon Street Arts Center. Tickets start at $30, and live streamed performances take place  Sept. 9-10. Visit puretheatre.org for more info.

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