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UMD alumnae team for 'Hummingbirds'

"Hummingbirds" is the performing arts equivalent of a big homecoming game. Eight years after staging "The Vacant Lot," the University of Minnesota Duluth's theater department is once again utilizing alumna Jeannine Coulombe for fresh material. "I...

"Hummingbirds" is the performing arts equivalent of a big homecoming game.

Eight years after staging "The Vacant Lot," the University of Minnesota Duluth's theater department is once again utilizing alumna Jeannine Coulombe for fresh material.

"It's wonderful to be able to come back to a place that feels like home and see that you've grown," the playwright told the Budgeteer. "This is like a 20-year relationship with UMD, you know? That's pretty astounding."

Also adding to the production's legacy factor is director Kelly (Brainard) Grussendorf, another UMD graduate -- who just happened to start working at the school this year.

"It's been wonderful and terrible, because I know Jeannine," the former Playhouse staffer said. "And I am vaguely familiar with her family as well, so I'm reading this play and it's just been a really deep experience."

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Grussendorf likened their teaming to a "cool coincidence," as the two had worked on some productions during their college days, including "Sweet Charity."

The pair have a lot more experience under their collective belts now: Grussendorf has toured the nation, both as a working actress and Curb recording artist Charity (her album, "Tears Will End," is readily available online and even has its own Web site).

And Coulombe? Why, she's kept quite busy as well. In addition to stints in New York and Europe, she's penned eight full-length plays and "more short plays than I can even count" -- and that's just since the beginning of the millennium.

"I have grown so much as a writer since ['The Vacant Lot'] that it's always funny to go back and look at those earlier works," said Coulombe, who is also a theater artist, teacher and member of Minneapolis' Workhaus (Playwright) Collective. "I can see what I was trying to do, but my skills are much more refined now. And I hope that in 20 years they'll be far more refined than they are now."

Grussendorf, in no uncertain terms, hints that Coulombe is selling herself short.

"This is such an exciting play for Duluth to do that I can't even take it," she said excitedly about the play she is directing. "It's just like something you'd see in New York."

"Off-off-Broadway," Coulombe interrupted, laughing.

"As far as the quality of her writing," Grussendorf continued, "these are the kinds of things people are writing right now to be considered for new Broadway works.

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"It's really thrilling that we get to do this here."

'Tragic -- but funny'

"Hummingbirds," in a nutshell, is the story of two sisters. The episodic play follows Charlotte's struggles to keep her sister from slipping into insanity, from early childhood into the siblings' late 20s.

"I would say it's really a coming-of-age story, in a lot of ways," Coulombe said of her work, which made its debut five years back at the University of Iowa's New Play Festival. "I think most of my work is about letting go, so there's also an element of that and growing up."

She says it's not autobiographical. Well ... sort of.

"I absolutely hate that question," Coulombe said with a laugh. "No, but yes. Novelist Amy Tan, I heard her speak many years ago, and she said the big overall arcs of her stories are completely made up but all the details are true. And I would say that's true of this story also -- and probably all of my work.

"I don't think you can find the details unless you've lived them in some way or another."

Grussendorf, who described "Hummingbirds" as "tragic -- but funny," said the play is both challenging for her as a director and for her student-actors.

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"It's probably been one of the biggest challenges I've ever had," said the former nationally touring actress, "because it is so beautiful and it is very delicate. ... These actors, there's a lot asked of them. They can't just go up there and act; they have to live this."

She also said Coulombe's play is a "journey."

"And it's a rather frightening journey in a way, because it's dealing with making a choice to grow up, and, in that frightening choice, you have to live with the consequences," she continued. "... It's very difficult to describe. I think sitting in this play you'd experience a number of emotions. You'd be asking yourself constantly what you're thinking, the whole way through. That's what I think is so brilliant about Jeannine's writing: you're just not going to figure out how you feel about what's going on in front of you until the end."

NEWS TO USE
Jeannine Coulombe's "Hummingbirds" will be staged at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 4-6 and 9-13 at the University of Minnesota Duluth's Dudley Experimental Theatre (in the Marshall Performing Arts Center). A 2 p.m. matinee will be held Dec. 7. Tickets range from $6 to $17. Call 726-8561 or visit www.tickets.umn.edu for details.

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