It was a honeymoon journey through Wisconsin that inspired Evanston-based husband-and-wife team Rick Kinnebrew and Martha Meyer to write Ten Dollar House. Pride Films and Plays presents the Chicago-area debut of the new play this month, which is very appropriate because an earlier version of the work was previously submitted for one of the company's many LGBTQ writing competitions.
The Wisconsin town of Mineral Point ( located about 50 miles southwest of Madison ) sparked the imaginations of Kinnebrew and Meyer when they first learned of the late gay couple Robert Neal and Edgar Hellum. The two men had a passion for antiques and historical preservation, and ultimately helped to save the fortunes of the dying mining town during the difficult years of the Great Depression.
"We toured this house that was a 1830s mining cottage that was restored by Bob and Edgar in the 1930s," said Kinnebrew about the historic Cornish-modeled buildings now known as the Pendarvis historic site. "We were more interested in their story and how they had to be very discreet about their sexual orientation in the community."
Kinnebrew said Neal and Hellum initially planned to run a business selling antiques. Yet it was another of Neal and Hellum's creations and other circumstances which helped turn Mineral Point into an artsy tourist destination.
"We were drawn to it as a love story," said Kinnebrew, adding that he and Meyer also have friends and family members who are gay. "But it has a particular barrier. [Neal and Hellum] couldn't fully be out."
Meyer and Kinnebrew started doing more extensive research to dramatize the many decades that Neal and Hellum lived in Mineral Point for an initial screenplay called The Bachelors. Kinnebrew said that since Neal was such a pack rat, there were plenty of materials and documents to peruse.
Luckily, gay author and historian Will Fellows had already extensively written about Neal and Hellum for his 2004 book A Passion to Preserve: Gay Men as Keepers of Culture. Fellows made many of his materials available to Kinnebrew and Meyer, including an audio interview conducted with Hellum when he was in his 90s.
"We loved hearing his voice," Kinnebrew said. "He had all this wisdom and perspective. It was also poignant because it connected with the idea of all the rich culture had come from gay men throughout history."
Pride Films and Plays ensemble member Tom Chiola has been attached to Ten Dollar House through its many previous iterations and readings. Chiola plays the role of William Gundry, an older gentleman who takes Bob Neal under his wing and tries to impart his knowledge of living a coded life as a "confirmed bachelor" in a small town.
"Back then you needed to be much more circumspect about your private life," said Chiola, mentioning how Gundry suggests to Bob that he travel to big cities for gay assignations. "Bob Neal, however, was not willing to accept that as constricts that were being placed on him and Edgar. They were much more of 'hiding in plain sight.'"
Though Ten Dollar House made its official world premiere debut last year at Broom Street Theater in Madison, Kinnebrew said the script has been thoroughly revised for the Pride Films and Plays production. Kinnebrew credits director Michael D. Graham for helping to steer the play's many rewrites, and his wife for keeping him honest with the characterizations so he's not just writing jokes to make audiences laugh.
Another important aspect to Ten Dollar House for Chiola is the notion of sharing gay American history to audiences.
"My joy in doing this is that we are able to tell a story based upon real people's livesabout Midwestern gay folks who had an impact on where they lived and didn't have to move to a major metropolitan area to live their lives that they found fulfilling," Chiola said. "These are the kind of stories that define, tell and fill in the history of our people."
Pride Films and Plays' Chicago-area premiere of Ten Dollar House plays from Thursday, Jan. 7, through Sunday, Jan. 31, at Piccolo Theatre at the Evanston Arts Depot, 600 Main St., Evanston. Previews are 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday, Jan. 7 and 8, with an official press opening 8 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 9. Regular run performances are 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays with 3 p.m. matinees Sundays. Preview performances are $15. Regular run performances are $22-$27. Discounts available to seniors and students at select performances. Call 800-737-0984 or visit www.pridefilmsandplays.com .