Ten years ago, Jeff Querin and Stephen W. Baldwin embarked on a winding road trip. The friends, who met after college while working at the same Texas theater, stopped in Washington State, traveled down to New Mexico, and trekked over to New York before running out of money in Mahoning Valley, Ohio. "In order to make ends meet, we thought, 'Why don't we put on a play?'" says Querin.
A local church was willing to house their production, so they called upon some old theater friends. The play was a success, and it led to the production of another, and then another. An unofficial residency was established at the church, and 34West theater company was formed. Querin says that the company "blossomed out of our friendship and mutual desire to produce works that encouraged and inspired people."
34West celebrates its 10th anniversary this year and will perform My Name is Ruth, an original work written by Baldwin, at Piccolo. Based on the Old Testament's Book of Ruth, the play represents 34West's latest in a series of modern retellings of Biblical stories.
"Almost every play that we do is an exploration of the idea that if a story endures, it should be able to tell us something today as it did a thousand years ago. By exploring biblical stories and by staying true to the themes — not deviating away from the ideas being presented or being creative in a way that alters the message — we are discovering new things in the stories," Querin says. Playing the role of Boaz in My Name is Ruth, Querin sees the production as an opportunity to look at life through the lens of the characters. "What would I be like in this situation if I was Boaz? How would I respond if this situation came into my life?" he asks.
When Baldwin initially said he wanted to produce a romantic comedy based on the Book of Ruth, Querin admits he had doubts. He struggled to see any comedy in the famous tale of Naomi and her daughter-in-law Ruth. In the story, the two widowed women return to Naomi's homeland of Bethlehem, where the fiercely loyal Ruth works to support them. Despite the demoralizing circumstances, Naomi facilitates a marriage between Ruth and Boaz, a wealthy, older kinsman, which, in accordance with Levirate law, restores the family prosperity and makes Ruth an ancestor to King David.
Baldwin got to work digging through the epic story, relying heavily on Querin, who acts as his creative sounding board. He settled on a 1950s setting because he likes the nostalgia of the era, coming fresh off the heels of two world wars and close enough to the Depression that the hardships were still fresh in people's minds. He explains, "The '50s were an era of hope and change in which women were finding new voices and breaking out of the traditional June Cleaver role. In the story of Ruth, you find these two women who are on their own, having to struggle through life, finding a job and supporting each other. This era seems to be a great tie into the themes of the story."
The story of Ruth is particularly resonant today amidst the current economic downturn. "Everyone can relate to the hardship of losing a job, falling on hard times, and feeling insignificant and forgotten. This story celebrates the idea of human worth. Your situation might be discouraging, but in the discouragement is often where you find the most rewarding moments — when you're expecting it the least."
People tend to come to 34West shows unsure of what to expect. "Our greatest hope is that they leave a little more encouraged, a little more inspired than when they arrived, so that they may be able to live their lives fuller."