Students rise to the challenge of producing “The Zoo Story”

"The Zoo Story" rehearsal
Cyrus Pynn, fight choreographer, watches as director Shieh’ron Freeman, explains the logistics of a scene from “The Zoo Story.” Actors Ian Gammarino (left) and Cameron Powell (right) listen to Freeman’s directions. Photo by Morgan Taylor.

Radford University theatre student actors, designers and a director take the Hawes Studio Theatre stage with their interpretation of Edward Albee’s “The Zoo Story” in early November.

“Two men, strangers to one another, meet on a beautiful and seemingly ordinary summer day,” said Wesley Young, professor of theatre and directing advisor, about the play, “One has a secret and the other simply wants to read his book.”

But the playwright has much more in mind for the characters in his landmark one-act drama.

Ian Gammarino as Jerry. Photo by Haley Alexander.

Senior Ian Gammarino, a Floyd County High School alumnus, portrays Jerry, a seemingly rootless young man with his share of troubles.

Gammarino describes Jerry as an “evil Sherlock Holmes” who has the analytical ability to know how to interact with others in ways that bring about certain outcomes that are not always positive. This is the case in Jerry’s encounter with Peter, the other character in “The Zoo Story,” played by Brandon Duncan a junior Theatre major and graduate of Auburn High School in Riner, Va. In contrast to Jerry, Peter is very settled in his life as a husband, father and successful publishing executive.

“When Jerry is finding all of Peter's soft spots, or subjects in which he knows Peter is sensitive – and loquaciously dropping bombs on those areas – I get to recall when I have hurt someone emotionally,” said Gammarino, on the subject of commonalities between him and his character.

Trying to identify with their characters is not the only challenge for those involved with the production. For first time director senior Shieh’Ron Freeman that challenge is directing a play involving only two actors.

“Since I only have two [characters] I have to keep the stakes high for the audience,” he said. “I have to make sure the audience is engaged and gets transported to this world we have created.”

And creating this world involves set, lighting, and costume designs by students, who, like Freeman, are making their debuts as lead designers. Designing scenery is Jesse Daughtrey (senior); Addie Pawlick (junior) provides the lighting design and Chelsea Wood (junior) is designing costumes.

According to Freeman, this opportunity to direct didn’t come easy as student directors must go through a rigorous process of proving themselves.

Potential directors are provided by the faculty with a play title. Then they must develop a concept for that play as if they were actually directing the play in the Radford University Theatre season. Sometimes, the directors are asked to make a presentation of their concept in person to the faculty. Such was the case with Freeman.

“It is all a test to see if we studied the show, truly understood the show,” said Freeman.

And in his case, he passed this test.

“Shieh' Ron brings tremendous enthusiasm and a strong desire to do well by the play,” Young said.

For Freeman this means finding the story’s and focusing on making that message clear for the audience.

“The main thing that resonates with me [about the play] is that we all want to belong,” he said. “We strive to find someone to be with. Not just in the way of intimacy, but to find a true friend, to truly be respected, and truly be loved.”

As to whether Gammarino’s Jerry finds this in his newfound friend Peter, or maybe at the zoo – that is best left for those seeing the show to discover.

“The Zoo Story” runs Nov. 4-7 at 7:30 p.m. and Nov. 8 at 2 p.m. at the Hawes Studio Theatre, Porterfield Hall.

Tickets are free, but reservations are strongly recommended. These are available online at or may be picked up at the Porterfield Box Office (540-831-5289) during the week of the show. The Box Office is open from noon to 6 p.m. and one hour before the start of each performance.

*Updated Oct. 27, 2015

Oct 21, 2015