As a female actor, Deb Randall found her options for roles were limited.
“ ... I was getting roles but I wasn’t feeling like I was getting challenged,” says Randall.
Randall is the founder of Venus Theatre Play Shack located on C Street in Laurel, and she’s made it her mission to stage plays that feature strong roles for women and ones that are often written by female playwrights.
Venus’ latest show, “Claudie Hukill,” opening Thursday and running to Dec. 23, is the fourth and final play in the theater’s Bold Hope series. Each season at Venus is given a theme.
Randall, who is directing the show, settled on Bold Hope almost a year ago after the loss of two C Street neighbors. Daniel DeNike, 46, and Tyler Cordrey, 25, and his dog were killed in a boating accident in December.
“We were pretty devastated,” says Randall.
Shortly after the accident, another business neighbor stopped coming to see Venus Theatre productions. When Randall asked why, the woman responded “the world is so sad,” and she couldn’t sit through another difficult show. It was then, Randall says, that she decided to look for uplifting scripts.
After reviewing 200 submissions, Randall chose four including “Claudie” as the series finale.
“I think its the most spiritual play,” says Randall.
Set in 1972 and written by Sean O’Leary, “Claudie Hukill” is the story of two brothers, Rob, a Boston journalist, who returns to his coal-mining hometown in West Virginia to confront his brother and small-town hero, Claudie.
Though the play is about the relationship between the brothers, it was the play’s female characters that attracted Randall to the script.
“There are four generations of women and I love seeing the strength of [them],” says Randall. “I really love the dynamic of the women.”
The piece examines the lives and relationships of Claudie and Rob’s mother, Clara Hukill, his wife Pearl, Rob’s wife, Tierney Chase, and Claudie and Pearl’s daughter, Kit.
“There’s a really strong engagement among these four women,” says Harlie Sponaugle, who plays Grandma. Like Randall, Sponaugle says her role in “Claudie”, her first play at Venus, presents a more challenging part than those she’s accustomed to playing.
“I’m usually cast in very maternal roles,” says Sponaugle. ”And this role is less maternal and more matriarchal ... So I’m not really warm and fuzzy.”
One relationship Randall says she was especially interested in exploring was the one between Grandma Hukill and her granddaughter, Kit, played by 12-year-old Rebecca Korn.
Korn, a seventh grader at Cabin John Middle School in Potomac, says she accidentally became an actress when her father mistakenly signed her up for acting camp instead of ballet camp a few summers back. Korn soon fell in love with theater and says Kit is her most difficult role to date.
“Her part is different from everything I’ve ever done,” says Korn. “This is the first time I’ve ever been something my own age.”
In the play, Kit is the go-between for her family and her father, whom despite being the play’s namesake, is never seen on stage. Kit, like the rest of the women in “Claudie,” is carrying a tremendous burden.
“She’s keeping all of these secrets that are bearing down,” says Korn.
“I think all of these women have to keep everything going but appear to be submissive on some level,” adds Randall.
But it’s these realistic portrayals of females that Randall is aiming for.
“I love to tell stories where women are human,” she says.
Randall’s cast appreciates her efforts.
“[Randal] is making sure that women’s voices are heard and often that doesn’t happen in theater,” says Sponaugle.
“The women are completely taking over the show and showing how powerful they can really be,” says Korn. “I think it’s awesome.”