Bear Paw play celebrates Eagle River's quirks
The play, “Strange Tales from the Yellow Rock: And Other Wondrous Stories in Eagle River,” which was performed Bear Paw weekend at the Alaska Fine Arts Academy, began as a Christmas present to the playwright’s mother, Susan Gorski.
It transformed into a gift for the entire Chugiak-Eagle River community as local actors, directors and stage crew presented the two-act show.
“It was written as a tribute to my mom, who has been the executive director of the chamber of commerce for 30 years, and as a tribute to the community I grew up in that no matter where I am will always be home for me,” Jamie Gorski said. “It really was the best place to grow up.”
Jamie Gorski, the son of Susan and James Gorski, is a 1998 graduate of Chugiak High School and now a high school drama instructor and theatre director at Green Hope High School in Apex, North Carolina. Also a playwright, Gorski’s plays have been performed in 26 states.
On Bear Paw weekend, Gorski’s interpretation of life in the Chugiak-Eagle River area had audiences chuckling as perhaps they recognized other locals in the characters onstage.
That was Gorski’s hope.
His play’s plot revolves around the stories imagined to be heard by the “yellow rock” located at the intersection of Eagle River Road and Wren Lane. The well-known landmark is often decorated by locals celebrating the birth of babies, weddings, anniversaries, sports championships and other notable events. Somehow, after a respectable time period passes, the rock is yellow again, repainted by a local man who upkeeps it.
Gorski recognized that much of his home town’s social life is reflected in the layers of paint on the rock. He decided to pen the fictional story of Chugi-Bear – a bruin allegedly of monstrous size that terrorized local residents – and allow the yellow rock to moderate as the story unfolds.
In the story, a middle school boy named Tristan tries to summon the bear to get the attention of a girl. Tristan is a young man searching for meaning in life, and hoping to do something impressive. He decides to camp out. Other locals end up joining him – each having a moment of frightened hesitancy as Tristan informs them of his plan to summon Chugi-Bear. Each then tells their own story of encounters with the legendary animal.
Sprinkled throughout the dialog is mention of events and places only locals recognize: Things such as the Tastee-Freez, a now defunct ice cream stand, and the Crow Pass and its trail between the Eagle River Nature Center and Girdwood, as well as people such as Walter Pippel, who once farmed where the Eagle River business district now exists.
Gorski patterned some of the play’s characters after notable locals: “Big John” honors John Barkley, the owner of the Paradise Restaurant and Bar that is now the nature center; “Merry Berry” is for Merry Braham, the special events director at the Chugiak-Eagle River Chamber of Commerce; George Wallis represents the Wallace brothers – Art and Til – who owned Fuji Gifts, started Klondike Concrete and had a ranch at the base of Mount Baldy; Chugi-Bear is named for the mascot of the Bear Paw Festival; and “Ranger Susie” points to his mom, Susie Gorski, the chamber’s current executive director.
Young Tristan, played by Ian Burdick of Eagle River, resembles someone close to Gorski: his younger brother, Tristan.
“Between the two of us, I had the mindset in my earlier years that I wanted to work in the theatre,” Gorski said. “Now he is a very successful ER nurse at Providence and a family man living with his wife and three children in Eagle River.”
As the plot progresses and Tristan ponders how to summon Chugi-Bear, the other characters fall asleep leaving him alone. This is when Chugi-Bear shows up having been summoned by the singing of a particular camp song this author is opting to leave unnamed for spoiler purposes should the play be performed again.
That is a real possibility, said Gorski, who was in attendance at Saturday night’s performance. He was approached by staff from Ravenwood Elementary School – the school closest to the yellow rock – regarding securing a copy of the script. Representatives of the Chugiak-Eagle River Senior Center told Gorski’s mom that there is interest in staging the play there.
Perhaps these next productions of “Strange Tales from the Yellow Rock” might consider tapping the first-time director for its Bear Paw premiere.
Addie Mae George, a Chugiak resident, had her directorial debut with last weekend’s show.
She usually is the stage manager and under study to Holly Zom-Lindsay, the AFAA’s executive director.
But Lindsay is due to deliver a baby anytime and asked George to take the director’s role.
“I was surprised, but I also had been asking to director for a while, so I was really excited to have the opportunity,” she said.
George, a 2014 CHS graduate, had about three weeks to put the production together. Gorski’s original script had far too many characters and he had to make revisions in late May once his teaching duties ended for summer break.
George said her biggest challenge was locating actors who could make the enormous time commitment on such short notice.
“Knowing that Jamie would see it,” she said. “I wanted to do it justice.”
From the hearty applause at the play’s conclusion and the laughter during its execution, Gorski said George was successful.
He admits being a bit nervous himself about the writing.
“The challenge was how to make it interesting and keep it a light-hearted comedy,” he said.
He suspects the “yellow rock” has other local legends or stories to be told.
“This does not necessarily have to be the only play about the stories the yellow rock can tell,” he said. “In doing my research, I found so many other stories about this local area. If this is something people really want, I am sure the yellow rock could tell more stories.”