To mark its 50th anniversary, the Montana Repertory Theatre is looking back to a classic from the decade of its birth.
The company is presenting Neil Simon's comedy, "Barefoot in the Park," which debuted on Broadway in 1963.
The Rep is a professional touring company in residence at the University of Montana. After functioning as a regional troupe for several decades, in 1997 and 1998 it branched out into full national tours with stops in anywhere from 30 to 50 cities, along the way making its name as a company that specializes in the great American canon.
While last year saw a well-received production of Arthur Miller's family tragedy, "All My Sons," this year marks the anniversary with effervescent Simon humor. "It's a classic love story," said artistic director Greg Johnson. He said Simon, like any good playwright, is able to tap into universal human stories. In this case, it's a newlywed couple, Corie and Paul, who have just moved into a fifth-story walk-up in New York City.
In classic Simon fashion, he pairs odd couples. "He puts up two contrasting characters, throws in the room together and sees how they will interact," Johnson said.
"She's vivacious and sparkly and emotional, and he's button-down and business-like," he said.
There's another pairing of opposites: Velasco, their neighbor who's a "European man about town," and Corie's mother, Ethel Banks, a reserved character who blossoms through the course of the play, he said.
The time, set before the 1960s turned to unrest and cultural tumult, mark it as a period piece, he said, but one with universal themes: a young couple trying to resolve their differences and two older characters who must learn to change.
The setting is the couple's spare new apartment, with barely a kitchen, and a closet for a bedroom. In a challenge to the crew, it must be transformed in to Corie's fully decorated dream place during a 10-minute intermission between the first two acts.
The Rep's scenic designer, Joey Sarno, who holds MFAs from UM and Carnegie Mellon University, recreated the mid-century modern look, all in the distinctive 1960s color palette.
"We spent weeks trying to find the perfect Princess phone," Johnson said.
As part of its model, the Rep casts both upper-level student actors from the UM theater program and equity professionals they seek out in cities like New York and Seattle.
For students, it can mean up to 18 credits for the semester and the invaluable experience of touring with professionals for several months.
It doesn't happen every year, but for 2017 the newlywed lead roles were won by two students, both of whom are juniors: Whitney Miller (Corie) and Hunter Hash (Paul).
For Miller, it's the second high-profile lead in a comedy in a single school year. She was cast as fashionista-turned-student attorney Elle Woods in UM's fall production of "Legally Blonde: The Musical." Hash, meanwhile, played Dr. Seward in UM's "Dracula" last semester and took the lead in the Rep's short-run 2015 local production of "Leveling Up," as a drone pilot struggling with the implications of his missions.
Johnson said he had both in mind as potential leads before he went to New York for auditions, and they won their parts out of more than 100 people vying for the five roles.
"Some students are more ready at a certain point in time, and I said both Whitney and Hunter have the maturity to take the responsibility of performing these roles on a national tour with a professional company," Johnson said.
It's a different sort of risk than casting young actors in a home production. As director, Johnson doesn't tour with the play and won't be on hand to give notes and ensure the cast follows through.
"They have to have the discipline and the maturity to maintain a performance," he said.
Maturity, too, is a necessity when they travel, live and work together.
"The other thing is if you're on the road with, in this case, 14 people, sort of this island unto yourself, and you're traveling all across the country in two trucks and two vans, you better know how to get along with people. You better not be a prima donna, cause it's hard work, especially if you're a student," he said.
The students have to help with sets, wardrobe and other work that equity actors are prevented from doing per union rules during the day while staying ready to perform at night, he said.
"That has to be a very special type of person, and both this young man and woman have that," he said.
The equity cast members are Mark Kuntz as Velasco, Laurie Dawn as Corie's mother, Ethel Banks, and Colton Swibold as a telephone company worker.
Kuntz will be familiar to Rep fans. In the 2015 tour, he took the lead role in "The Great Gatsby."
He's a "protean actor who has so much fun with the role," Johnson said.
Dawn, who's based in New York, starred as the mother in "All My Sons," which couldn't be further away from the comedic work in "Barefoot."
Swibold, meanwhile, points to the educational aspect of the Rep's mission that's not as obvious to theater-goers.
He's a recent UM graduate who's had small and large roles in Rep productions and for this tour earned his equity card, "which is what we dream of for all of our students," Johnson said.