Love, marriage and everything in between in "The First Fifty Years" at East Lynne Theater
“The First Fifty Years,” the play being presented now through Saturday, July 19 by Cape May’s East Lynne Theater Company, was written nearly one hundred years ago. Yet, as Director Gayle Stahlhuth said, the subject matter is timeless. It’s a simple, two-person story that chronicles five decades of the marriage of Anne and Martin Wells, who wed a few years after the end of the Civil War.
“The play covers the couple’s newlywed phase, in 1872, through their golden anniversary in 1922, and we wanted to respect the timeline,” Stahlhuth said. “But it turns out – regardless of what time period we’re talking about – the challenges of making a long-term relationship work are very much the same.”
Stahlhuth came across this play as part of an anthology, and it captured her attention. “It was a huge leap,” she said. “This play had not been done since 1922.”
Theater audiences are likely familiar with “The Fourposter,” Jan de Hartog’s 1952 Tony Award-winning play, and “I Do! I Do!,” the 1966 Broadway musical that was based on Hartog’s play and starred Mary Martin and Robert Preston. Both used the same uncomplicated approach – minimal set, two actors, classic story.
But Henry Myers’ “The First Fifty Years” preceded them both.
With just two characters to carry the play, choosing the right actors was crucial. “Several people assumed I would hire a married couple,” she said. But that was not her plan.
The actors selected for the roles of Anne and Martin – Beckley Andrews and Samuel Douglas Clark – came to an open equity call, which Stahlhuth said was “a large and interesting pool.”
“I’d never worked with either of them before and I didn’t even know anyone who had,” she said. But something about each of them made Stahlhuth believe they would right for this story. “I called Sam (Douglas) in for a role in the fall show. When he came to the callback, I realized I needed to readjust my thinking.”
And even before Stahlhuth saw the two actors work together, she had a strong hunch that they would be able to convey the intimacy in the story.
“I just thought they would click onstage,” she said. “And they do.”
“When I read the script, one thing really stood out for me,” she said. “There was no reference at all to Anne’s family, and only an off-handed mention of Martin having a sister.”
“It was very clear that it was really just the two of them – trying to figure out how to do this.”
This us-against-the-world scenario strikes a chord with almost anyone who’s been in a serious relationship, and that comes across clearly in the play.
As with a real-life marriage, the couple has their share of struggles. They are not always romantic. They don’t always get along. They are not always happy.
“Ugly things happen,” she said. “And during those scenes, you hear the titters – and occasional gasps – from the audience.”
“But Anne and Martin are a team,” she said. “They do survive.”
“It’s really interesting to see how the audience reacts,” Stahlhuth said. The production has gotten standing ovations and plenty of positive comments. And more than one couple has shared a story about being in Cape May to celebrate their own 50th anniversary.
This makes perfect sense. Cape May is a wonderful destination, and its charm and history make it an ideal place to commemorate special events and occasions.
“A couple that saw the show last week sent in their completed survey,” she said. “They said that on the drive home they talked about how much they enjoyed visiting Cape May and the things they’d done while there.”
“The #1 thing was seeing this show!”
Evening performances “The First Fifty Years” continue through Saturday, July 19. There will be NO show on July 4th.
The East Lynne Theater Company’s Cape May home is the First Presbyterian Church, located at 500 Hughes Street.