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Rick Reinle didn’t set out to direct the stage production of Harvey, which this weekend begins a 2-week run at Shelby County Community Theatre. He initially tried out for the lead.
But a twist of plot – and fate and friendship – persuaded Reinle to change his plans, and he stepped into the role of director with Bob Zielinski (co-director) when Zielinski faced extensive surgery.
When the curtain rises tonight on this comedy, these two men will share the director’s chair in a unique partnership that has carried them both through some tough times this season.
Zielinski begins the story: “The theater board announces their annual production schedule in December. The play, Harvey, was announced in late 2011 for a February 2013 run. I was on board and ready to go.
“In May 2012, I was diagnosed with cancer. I offered to step down, but the board said, ‘No.’’’
Neither Zielinski nor the board knew what course his disease would take once he started treatment. They were confident that if he was well enough, he’d follow through with directing the show. They were confident in his directing ability, as well.
“In October 2012, my cancer went into remission,” Zielinski said. “My doctors, my wife, Betty, and I decided it would be a good time to have surgery to remove the cancerous tumor. But I wanted to do the initial work-up of the set design and set the blocking of the show before my surgery. I worked these out before the holidays.”
This is where Reinle steps in: “I auditioned for the lead. At the same time, Bob talked with me about his cancer. He asked if I would step in and direct when he went in for surgery.”
Reinle was directing SCCT’s holiday show, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, when Bob approached him to direct. “I told Bob, ‘I’ll do whatever you need. Paint sets, run the sound booth, anything.’ It’s what you do for theater friends,” he said.
Reinle and the Zielinskis have known one another for years. They have worked on various productions, both in Shelby County and in other local community theaters., “I knew that I would help him out if I could,” Reinle said.
So instead of playing the lead alongside the full cast, Reinle inherited a cast selected by Zielinski. “Different directors have different working styles,” Zielinski said. “I knew that it would be important to find a director who worked in a similar style as mine. Rick brings continuity to the production.
Said Reinle: “Bob put together a great cast. They understood that this production would be unique, with our shared directing. Many of the actors I’ve worked with before. But there are a few new faces whom I’ve enjoyed working with and getting to know.”
Said Betty Zielinski: “There’s a bond that develops among people who work on a production together. Because you dig deeply into yourself to develop your character, you open up so much. You develop an emotional bond with the other actors, and with the director. You even get close to new actors very quickly. You become a theater family.”
The theater family gathered around the Zielinskis during this past year, as they faced diagnosis, treatment and surgery.
And then the lot twisted, and that same family was encircling Reinle with support and diversion, too.
He was facing the illness and death of his sister.
“I moved in with my sister this [past] summer, when she became very ill with her own bout with cancer,” Reinle said. “The fall was a very emotional time for me, as I watched her health deteriorate. The theater has been a place where I could get away and take on a completely different focus. It’s therapeutic.”
His sister, Elaine Nation, died on the same day that Bob Zielinski had his cancer surgery, Jan. 3.
“My theater family has really helped me hold it together over these past few months. I don’t know what I’m going to do at the end of this production of Harvey. I won’t have this diversion any longer,” Reinle said.
Betty Zielinski offered some reassurance.
“Even when we don’t see one another for a few months, with theater friends, you pick right back up with the friendship and the closeness when you get together again,” she said.
A show to inspire
Almost six weeks have passed since Zielinski’s surgery and Nation’s death. Zielinski has been back at the theater working with Reinle and the cast for a little more than a week.
“I’m very pleased with what Rick has done with it,” Zielinski said. “He’s adjusted the blocking and rehearsed the show. I’ve learned things about directing from the way he has pulled it together.”
The two directors said they are looking forward to opening night and the energy the audience brings to the production. “In an intimate theater like this one, the audience is as much a part of the show as the actors on stage,” Reinle said. “I don’t want to know who, specifically, is sitting in the audience, but I enjoy having the audience present. They give us so much.”
Harvey, by Mary Chase, is a comedy in three acts about a man and his white rabbit. The play originally was produced in November 1944, when the United States had been involved in World War II for three years. People were in need of a little comic relief, a little whimsy. Harvey provided this: comedy, and inspiration for the imagination.
“If we do our job right,” Zielinski says, “the members of our audience will walk out of the theater absolutely sure they have seen a tall, white rabbit. Those who believe will see him. He who does not believe may be followed home by a 6-foot-6-inch-tall white rabbit!”
That sounds like the kind of whimsy and inspiration that Zielinski and Reinle – and all of us – could use in 2013, as well.