Sunday, January 29, 2023

"The Root Beer Lady" at History Theatre

My first visit to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness was in February of 2016, when I went on an eco-spirituality dogsledding trip with my alma mater, College of St. Benedict. We stayed at Wintergreen Lodge in Ely (owned by Arctic explorer and St. John's alum Paul Schurke, member of Will Steger's 1986 dogsledding expedition to the North Pole), visited the headquarters of the Save the Boundary Waters campaign (which just recently had a huge win with a 20-year mining ban in the BWCAW watershed), and of course, traveled by dogsled through the pristine wilderness of Northern Minnesota. I was so enamored of the beauty and stillness of the place that I convinced my friend that we needed to do a canoeing trip. We signed up for Ely Outfitting Company's annual "Women in the Wilderness" trip that fall, where we were joined by other adventure- and nature-seeking women, led by our friendly and knowledgeable guide Kate, for an incredible four days and three nights in the BWCAW. I've traveled and hiked all over the world, but this is the most fully immersed in Nature, far away from any signs of civilization, that I've ever been. Our little group had such a wonderful time and got along so well that we reunited last summer for another amazing trip. 

On all of those visits to Ely, we heard about Dorothy Molter, the last non-indigenous human living in the BWCAW. She was known as "the root beer lady" because her cabin became a stopping place for many visitors to the area, where she provided homemade root beer and other treats for donations, which she used to support herself. She first visited the Isle of Pines on Knife Lake in 1930, when she was a 23-year-old nursing student from Chicago, 30 some years before the Wilderness Act. She never left, even being granted special permission to continue living in her cabin after the area was designated as a national wilderness. I completely understand the love-at-first-sight experience of the BWCAW and the desire to never leave, although I'm not sure I have the physical or mental fortitude to survive there year-round, as Dorothy did for over 50 years. This very long preamble is an introduction to the world premiere new play The Root Beer Lady at History Theatre, in which playwright/performer Kim Schultz so beautifully captures the spirit of the BWCAW and the inspiring life and personality of Dorothy Molter. The Saturday Evening Post once called her "the loneliest woman in America," but throughout the play Dorothy shows us why, in fact, she was "the luckiest woman in America," because she lived an authentic life that was exactly what she wanted, despite society's and her family's expectations of what a proper young woman should do. Whether or not you have a personal connection to the BWCAW, like I obviously do, The Root Beer Lady will engage and entertain you for 80 minutes, make you laugh, and maybe even inspire you to go for a hike, look up at the trees, or jump in a lake (continuing through February 19).

Kim Schultz as Dorothy
(photo by Rick Spaulding)
Playwright Kim Schultz begins the story at the end of Dorothy's life, the totality of which is then told in a series of flashbacks to important moments throughout the years. Kim, as Dorothy, speaks directly to the audience, as if we're one of the thousands of visitors to her cabin, in a personable, unhurried, naturalistic way. Kim transforms from the older, weary Dorothy to the excited 23-year-old who lands on Isle of Pines for the first time, and we watch her come full circle back to the end. Not only that, Kim also plays Dorothy's dad "Cap," with whom she first visited the island; Bill, the owner of the island resort with whom she worked for many years until he died, leaving her the land (or intending to anyway); and various other visitors to and residents of the lakes. A change in voice or physical stance is enough to let us know exactly who's speaking. The play follows Dorothy through harrowing times in the wilderness, happy times at her busy resort, and challenges with staying on the land after Bill died and while the area transformed more and more back to the wilderness, removing traces of civilization like float planes, businesses, snowmobiles, and eventually non-indigenous residents. Dorothy tells her story in a forthright, humorous, endearing way that makes us feel like old friends by the end of the show. A simple life, well-lived, with friends and family (despite that Saturday Evening Post article), in one of the most peaceful and gorgeous places on the planet. Lucky, indeed

Dorothy's island (photo by Rick Spaulding)
This is one of the more beautiful and effective designs I've seen at the History Theatre, with all
elements working together to really create the feeling of the BWCAW. Framed by the trunks of tall trees, Dorothy's cabin on the right side of the stage is represented by a wall full of vintage photographs, kitschy signs, and tools. The open space on the left allows for the gorgeous backdrop to be seen, an optical illusion in which a fence of weathered boards is painted to look like the far side of a lake with reflections in the water. Behind the fence is projected a sunny sky, or the pink clouds of sunset, or the stars at night, corresponding to lighting changes, so that if you squint a little, you almost feel like you're on Knife Lake. Even the floor around the stage is painted blue, with the posts of a dock leading off of it on one side and a vintage canoe on the shore (much heavier than the modern ones I portaged), transforming the thrust stage into Dorothy's island. Completing the transformation is the sound design, with various and specific sounds of nature coming from all around the theater, adding to that feeling of being surrounded by wilderness. Director Addie Gorlin-Han utilizes the space well as Dorothy moves around to all areas of the stage, not simply sitting and telling her story, and the transitions between scenes and decades are smooth and clear, with scenes differentiated by a change in lighting, or a snippet of music played on the guitar. Dorothy is dressed in simple jeans and button down shirt, with that familiar red plaid flannel shirt and winter gear added in some scenes as we move through the seasons. (Costume design by Sarah Bahr, set design by Chelsea M. Warren, lighting design by Chris Johnson, props design by Abbee Warmboe, video design by Kathy Maxwell, sound design by Katharine Horowitz.)

The Root Beer Lady is a simple, straight-forward story, but so beautifully told from the script, to the performance, direction, and overall design of the piece. The Boundary Waters is the crown jewel of Minnesota, and Dorothy was one of its longest and most well-known residents and caretakers in the 20th century. This play is a beautiful homage to her and the place that she loved and was lucky enough to call home. See it at the History Theatre in downtown St. Paul now through February 19.

I'll leave you with a few photos from my adventures in the Boundary Waters, of which I hope there will be many more to come. I highly recommend Wintergreen Lodge for winter excursions and Ely Outfitting Company for canoeing trips. They have several guided group trips, including the "Women in the Wilderness" one I did, as well as one that visits Dorothy's island. You can also work with them to plan your own trip, with or without a guide, and they'll provide any supplies you might need and help secure permits to enter the wilderness. They make it really easy - all you have to do is show up and be ready to leave the world behind to work and play in Nature.

leading a team of wonderful dogs outside of Ely in 2016
(but let's be honest, they were leading me)

me (upper left) and my new friends after our 2016 BWCAW
adventure, toasting with Dorothy Molter's root beer

portaging a canoe just like Dorothy - easy peasy!
(actually it was probably the hardest thing I've ever done,
and modern canoes are much more lightweight and
 manageable that what Dorothy likely used)

in my happy place last summer


Join me and my fellow Twin Cities Theater Bloggers for a special event at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres! Get $20 off the ticket price for the March 4 matinee performance of the regional premiere of the super fun and heart-warming musical THE PROM, and stick around after the show for a talk-back with some of the cast. Find more info in the Facebook event here, and purchase discount tickets using code TCTB1 or by clicking on this link (discount valid for March 4 1pm performance only).