Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Also see Arty's recent review of Locomotion
Dorothy Molter was enrolled in nursing school in Chicago when her father asked her to fill in for a buddy who had pulled out from their annual fishing trip to the Minnesota boundary waters. It was 1930 and Dorothy was 23 years old. She had never seen any place like the boundary waters–pristine and peaceful, brimming with every element of nature–and she loved it at first sight. No shrinking violet and unafraid of hard work, Dorothy pitched in to help the fishing resort's owner, Bill, in any way she could. Bill was so impressed, he invited her back to help out the next few summers, which she happily did. Then he made her an offer: move up to Isle of Pines permanently, run the resort with him year-round, and he would leave the resort to her when he passed away.
Dorothy did just that, working with Bill until his death in 1948, and remaining there for the rest of her life, living alone until her death in 1986 at the age of 79. Her cabin on Knife Lake, mere yards from the U.S.-Canadian border, had no electricity, no telephone, and no access by road. It was a wood-chopping, ice-sawing to fill the icebox through summer, hunting and fishing for dinner, and canoe paddling and portaging existence. In the mid 1940s, the U.S. Department of Interior began to organize the region into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and life changed at Isle of Pines. While the rest of the world was becoming more interconnected, Dorothy became even more isolated.
In 1949, float planes were banned in the BWCA. That meant going back to portaging everything in to Isle of Pines but, tough as Dorothy was, she couldn't portage the heavy cases of soda pop she sold to her customers. Her solution was to make her own root beer, and thus was born "the Root Beer Lady." In 1952, a story about her appeared in the Saturday Evening Post bearing the headline "The Loneliest Woman in America," drawing an influx of news hounds. Dorothy's reaction: "If I had been the loneliest woman in America, by the time all those writers and TV people came up here, I sure as heck wouldn't have been." But with thousands of visitors signing her guest book each summer, and surrounded by beloved birds and woodland creatures, Dorothy claimed she was never lonely.
Running about eighty minutes without intermission, Schultz has fashioned a script that reveals Dorothy's story from start to finish with rich detail about the environs and wildlife, the hard work she faced every single day, her relationships with local folks and her Chicago family, and her indomitable will. Her account of dragging Bill, in a medical crisis, by sled through a monster blizzard, traversing eight lakes and taking two days to reach help, is absolutely harrowing, but Schultz has written it–and performs it–with such utter authenticity, we never doubt this woman was able to accomplish just that.
With a silver-toned wig, Schultz begins her play at the end of Dorothy's life. She shares that life with us as she looks back at it herself, considering choices Dorothy made along the way, the troubles she endured and the joy she harvested over six decades at Isle of Pines. Schultz imbues Dorothy with the humor, spunk, generous spirit, and common sense we would expect of anyone who lived such a singular life. Her costume, designed by Sarah Bahr, adds well to the effect: modest north woods attire with a plaid flannel shirt and a parka to pull on or off as the seasons change.
Director Addie Gorlin-Han deftly pulls together the work of her creative team–not coincidentally, all female–and guides Schultz' performance through the onstage environment they have created. In no small way, the scenic design by Chelsea M. Warren, lighting by Chris Johnson, sound and music compositions by Katherine Horowitz, and projections by Kathy Maxwell are as essential to the success of The Root Beer Lady as Schultz' winning performance.
Warren created the interior of Dorothy's cabin, brimming with all the essential stuff (and a nod to properties designer Abbe Warmboe) that must be crammed into a small space if one is to make their life there, with wooden floor boards and rafters, and windows looking out upon the heaven on earth that is Dorothy's world. Around the cabin is the packed-dirt lake shore, stately trees that rise up into the rafters, and a horizontal line of rough boards running across the back of the stage, positioned to look like a row of trees across the lake and their refection in the clear water, this trick enabled by the lighting, which also produces storms, turns days to nights, and moves us through the seasons. Busy Kathy Maxwell, whose projections for Locomotion at Children's Theater Company I had marveled at just the evening before, contributes changed images that further make The Root Beer Lady a visually arresting show. Add to this the sounds of wind, of loons and geese, of lapping water, and we are convinced that we are seeing Dorothy Molter's living world upon the History Theatre stage.
A one-woman play about a person dubbed "the loneliest woman in America" would seem to call for a small show, and in a sense it is, but it is so full of heart, so inspiring and uplifting, that it expands to completely fill the theater space. Dorothy's story is of a rare person who, against the odds, stumbles upon the life that is perfect for her, and manages to live that life. She found sustenance in the beauty of nature, rhythms of the seasons, and the interconnectedness of all flourished around her.
Among many obstacles, she had to overcome disbelief from those–including her father–who were certain that a woman could not endure the rugged life and hard work that was necessary. She also had to contend with the expectation to marry and have a family, recalling she first embarked on this journey in the 1930s. Dorothy had a snappy retort for those scoffers, which you'll hear for yourself if you see The Root Beer Lady–which I heartily recommend you do.
The Root Beer Lady runs through February 19, 2023, at at History Theatre, 30 East 10th Street, Saint Paul MN. Tickets: Tiers 1-3: $48.00 - $65.00; seniors (age 60+) $5.00 discount; under 30 $40.00; Golden Circle tickets: $70.00, no discounts. For tickets and information, please call 651-292-4323 or visit historytheatre.com.
Playwright: Kim Schultz; Director: Addie Gorlin-Han; Scenic Design: Chelsea M. Warren; Costume Design: Sarah Bahr; Lighting Design: Chris Johnson; Composer/Sound Design: Katherine Horowitz; Video Design: Kathy Maxwell; Properties Design: Abbee Warmboe; Dorothy Molter Consultant: Jess Edberg; Stage Manager: Lyndsey R. Harter; Assistant Director: Jess Yates; Assistant Stage Manager: Gianna Haseman; Assistant Video: Leslie Ritenour
Cast: Kim Schultz (Dorothy Molter), Jen Maren (Dorothy Molter understudy).