Keizerite Heather Dunkin takes on the role of Joanne Jefferson in Pentacle Theatre’s production of Rent. (Submitted photo)

By ERIC A. HOWALD
Of the Keizertimes

Rent is one of those plays that tends to divide audiences sharply.

Some get turned off by the spectacle, others are less than thrilled offended even by some of the content. But with a number of performances under her belt as Joanne Jefferson, one half of a lesbian couple in the Pentacle Theatre’s production, Keizerite Heather Dunkin finds herself focused on one message that seems more timely than ever.

“I am constantly getting caught up in the confusion of, ‘am I doing what I should be, should I be more successful by now, should I give up?’ And, as much as I hate it, I am constantly fighting a sense of regret for choices I have made or where things have ended up that are outside of my control. This show encompasses living for today, forgetting about the past, not regretting, and just ‘being,’” Dunkin said.

The play focuses on a group of friends living the bohemian lifestyle in New York and the trials and tribulations of love, friendship and disease, AIDS specifically. As expected, responses to the show, which ends its run Saturday, April 2, have run the gamut, but its been largely positive Dunkin said.

“We have also received a great deal of support from folks who have never been out to Pentacle before. I really feel like I am part of something really special and though I have been part of many productions, it’s rare to feel this kind of magic,” Dunkin said.

Given the magnitude of the Tony-winning play’s history (it ran for 12 years and 5,124 performances on Broadway), fulfilling audience expectations was definitely on the mind of it’s cast and crew.

“Rent is difficult in the sense that it is done very similarly by every group that does it. People have pre-conceived notions about what it should look like and sound like,” Dunkin said. “At first I was concerned about the fact that this role is traditionally played by an African American. I was worried that conceptually that is what the audience would want. Fortunately, throughout the rehearsal, I was able to erase my own preconceived notions about who Joanne was and find the character in myself.”

Given her choice of the Joanne Jefferson’s showpiece numbers, Tango Maureen and Take Me or Leave Me, Dunkin said that she loves both, but her heart ultimately rests with the latter. She performs the song with Wimberly Marshall as Maureen Johnson.

“Joanne’s relationship with Maureen is one of the important stories that is interwoven with the others. Take Me or Leave Me emphasizes that desire that each one has to be who they are yet they somehow figure out a way to make it work,” Dunkin said.

If audiences are willing to take a chance on some of the more in-your-face aspects of the show, the payoff is more than worth it, Dunkin said.

“It’s very fast paced, brazen, and atКtimes it multi-tasks quite a bit. But this show is full of so much heart, and so much love. Especially the second half,” she said.

Keizerite Christie Jungling is leading Pentacle’s orchestra and playing keyboard.Her daughter Sarahjane Fischel, a McNary High School grad, is part of the Seasons of Love ensemble.

“I love the music even though it’s just constant throughout the play, but the message also hits close to home,” said Jungling, who lost a close friend to AIDS in the early 1980s “before we really knew what it was. It’s a wonderfully moving story about appreciating the people we love while we can.”

Tickets for the show are $23 for Friday and Saturday performances. Tickets are available at the Pentacle Theater Ticket office located at 145 Liberty St. NE in downtown Salem.