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It’s got to be something in the water…

Opinion / Letters by: Guest writer Doug Roberts, September 11, 2022

Photo of the cast of Our Town via the Engeman Theater Facebook page.

This was the sentiment amongst the group of Northport High School grads and other local patrons of the arts gathered in the lobby of the Engeman Theater Sunday evening after the Our Town fundraiser honoring the memory of Philip and Phyllis Messina. For those who were not able to attend this event, please forgive us for being a little emotional about the experience. I went there expecting to hear a read-through of a play I hadn’t read since Mrs. O’Donnell’s English class in the H-wing. Instead, we went on a profound journey to Grover's Corners at the turn of the last century and we saw rich and complex characters develop before our eyes.

The actors did not need costumes, makeup, or lights to bring this classic story to life. They sat and read from scripts on music stands, sipping water or maybe even a little bit of wine. But the energy in the room was electric, fueled by a collective gratitude for this community and a feeling of awe at the pure level of artistic talent that this place has produced and sent out into the world.

Like all great art, Thornton Wilder’s script is timeless and finds a way to evoke emotion and reflection in audience members at all stages of life. But in this particular context, at the renovated former movie theater in the heart of Northport Village, perhaps the most profound character in the piece never spoke a line of script, but was instead the setting itself.

Throughout the performance, chuckles were heard from the audience and some members of the cast as the stage manager (played by Edie Falco, NHS ’81) would describe some quirk about Grover’s Corners that seemed to reflect something about Northport. And here we were, watching George Gibbs (played by Chris Messina, NHS ’92) preparing to marry Emily Webb (played by Marin Ireland) right after graduating high school and settling down in Grover’s Corners, just like most everybody else there does. Northport has a similar pull, with so many choosing to stay here or come back and settle here after going to see the world. And on this spectacular early September evening, Edie and Chris came home to lead a star-studded cast featuring Joe Roseto (NHS ’90) and Natalie Seus (St. Anthony’s), among other talented stars of the stage and screen.

So there we were, in the lobby of Engeman, enjoying an adult beverage, wiping tears from our eyes and hugging old friends, some of whom hadn’t seen each other since our last Living Theater class or Powdered Wigs cast party. The conversation continued to circle around our real-life setting: Northport. How has this community produced so many talented musicians, actors, and artists? “It’s got to be something in the water here” was the go-to cocktail party response, and we all chuckled and continued to catch up about high school theater hijinx.

But the next day, I was overwhelmed with the notion that it is most certainly not just “the water” that makes Northport and East Northport such a hive of creativity. It’s the people. It’s the schools. It’s the mindset here that prioritizes performing and creative arts. We’re used to this kind of thing, but try telling your friends who grew up somewhere else that the marching band has about as many fans as the football team, partially due to its 50-plus-year reign as the best band at the Newsday Marching Band Festival. A stroll down Main Street or Woodbine Avenue on a warm evening is full of music pouring out of the cafes and restaurants, and we surely have among the highest density of art galleries of any town in the nation. When the Community Band plays in the band shell, director Don Sherman asks the kids to stop playing on the playground and come listen…and they actually do it! This is a place where creative kids are encouraged at every stage of their lives to pursue their passion and develop their talents. The Northport High School course catalog offers more options for electives in all subjects, but especially the arts, than some colleges. The Posey School produces some of the finest ballet performances by kids you’ll see anywhere. And on and on and on.

Edie, Chris, Joe, and Natalie were just the ones who could make it back for this special event. But there are Northport grads out there creating art of all kinds at high levels. If I tried to name all of them, this piece would be way too long, and I’d only be naming the ones from my own era of the 1990s. This place has produced talented creative artists at such a high rate for a long time, and this is directly a result of the community’s commitment to support art of all kinds and at all levels. But we can not take this for granted. If we want the next generation of Chris Messinas and Edie Falcos to come back down the road and share their art with us, we need to continue to patronize the local art galleries, buy t-shirts from the band booster club at the Farmers’ Market, and keep live music alive downtown. It’s not the water that breeds so much artistic talent here. It’s the wonderful people that make up the Northport and East Northport community.

Thank you to Chris, Natalie, and your families for sharing this gift of an evening to contemplate Our Town and honor the memory of your loved ones. Thank you to the Engeman Theater for recognizing the power of this event and making it possible. If you missed the event but want to support the fundraiser, please consider making a donation to honor Philip Messina in support of Northwell’s Neurosurgery Department here.

Doug Roberts is a 1993 Northport High School Class graduate and dad to an elementary school student (Class of 2032).