The remote northern areas are where people go to get away – to vacation, fish, and relax. But for a variety of reasons the region’s north woods are being developed and settled. In the process, the wild, the quiet, and the slow pace of life that attracted people in the first place is disappearing. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Tamar Charney tells us about a playwright who is trying to get people thinking about the changes development brings:
The remote northern areas are where people go to get away – to vacation, fish, and relax. But for
a variety of reasons the region’s North Woods are being developed and settled. In the process the
wild, the quiet, and the slow pace of life that attracted people in the first place is disappearing.
The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Tamar Charney tells us about a playwright who is trying to
get people thinking about the changes development brings:
Jay Steilstra writes songs and plays that celebrate the natural beauty and slower pace of life in
rural northern Michigan.
(sound of music)
(“You see the white birches and pines, you know you’ve crossed over the line…”)
“I’ve always liked the North land a lot, the beautiful running water and the lakes are beautiful too
blue sparkling, and the white birches and the evergreens.”
Twenty years ago, Jay Steilstra wrote a musical play called the ‘North Country Opera.’ It told the
story of a man from the big city who falls in love with a woman and the way of life in the
fictional Northwoods town of Grand Marais. By the end of the play he’s left city life behind,
moved north, and married Sari, the owner of a small working class bar, and the two live happily
ever after. But a couple years ago, Jay Steilstra realized the up north life he writes about is being
“There is a real Grand Marais, and I’ve been there many times, and it’s a little lovely town, and I’d
hate to see that turned over to condos and completely defiled, if I can use such a strong word.”
So, he’s written a sequel ‘In North Country Opera Continued.’ His characters grapple with the
pros and cons of development, after two big city land developers show up at Sari’s bar.
“You’re not going to believe what just happened. The offer I just got for this place. And you
know that eighty acres old Ereos got for sale, who knows for how long. McKinley, she’s talking
to the real estate agent right now, and she’s good. You should see her work. And chip says,
maybe shops or some galleries and you know the snowmobilers are short of motels in winter and
well, a lodge, upscale, good taste, and all elegant even, maybe even a boutique, and my god, the
money they’re talking its unreal.”
Tracy Lee Komarmy plays the bar owner named Sari in North Country Opera Continued. She
says the musical play has an anti-development message, but she says it also explores why
development has an appeal and allure.
“I think everybody might kind of feel the thrill…’What if they put in a lodge, a fancy
lodge…What if they did that?…’You know, going up north, I could see that.”
And Jay Stielstra’s musical shows how people in rural communities often yearn for the jobs and
money development brings, and for the stores, products, and lifestyle they see in books,
magazines, and on TV.
(sound of play)
“Nowadays are different. People change. You have to admit that.”
“Well, what do you want? Forty acres of malls and boutiques?”
“Well, it would be nice to have some things nice around here, like on TV.”
Steilstra: “If you’re living in a small town in extreme northern Michigan, it is difficult. A very
good friend of mine, after he retired from teaching school, lived in Seney. He loved the north and
loved the air. He loved the cold rivers. But it was 85 miles to the bookstore. So yeah, wouldn’t it
be nice to have a Borders? So, you’re right, people do miss things and they do have temptations
and willingness to make those kind of compromises, so it’s understandable.”
(sound of play…singing)
“When the dollar comes to town she wears a fancy gown. She flirts and she teases gets anything
But in the end the character Sari says no and turns down the developers offer to turn her bar into a
fancy lodge complete with chic boutiques. She realizes that the beauty of the land and the
rewards of a simple life surrounded by friends are more important to her than money and fancy
things. It’s a message that’s hit home for Tracy Lee Kormarmy who plays Sari.
“Working on this piece, I’ve continually come back to my roots and come back to nature and am
reminded over and over of what really matters. And Jay just captures it beautifully. I hope
everybody leaves reminded of what really matters.”
(music…”It’s a wonder the stars how they twinkle at night…” fade under)
Jay Stielstra’s ‘North Country Opera Continued’ premiers in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He hopes it
might be performed elsewhere in the region.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Tamar Charney.
(“It’s a wonder the sun shines so warm and bright. It’s a wonder I will never understand…”)