Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas have been parts of Claudia Wilkens and Barbara Kingsley's lives for going on 23 years.
In 1992, the pair was featured in the Jungle Theater's production of Gertrude Stein and Companion. Since then, there have been six additional runs of the show. The eighth production opens Friday as part of the Jungle's 25th anniversary season.
"This was perhaps the most loved production for our audiences. That's why we did it so often, because the people kept asking for it to come back," says Bain Boehlke, who returns to the director's chair.
As it turns out, the show was something of an accident. Boehlke had scheduled a one-woman show, Gertrude Stein, Gertrude Stein, Gertrude Stein for the season, with an eye of having Wilkens play the role.
"We had done Happy Days together, so I told him I would love to do Gertrude Stein," Wilkens says.
The rights weren't available, and Boehlke needed a quick replacement.
"A friend had seen this version on TV. I said we are going to do it whether or not it is any good," Boehlke says. "I got Claudia and Barbara in to read it, and we loved it."
That didn't mean it was smooth sailing. "On opening night, the power went out during the final scene. Someone brought up a candelabra onstage. We finished the scene literally in candlelight," Kingsley says.
The play tracks the lives of the two women, who lived as a couple in Paris for decades, up until Stein's death in 1946. Even after that, Toklas felt like Stein's spirit was still a part of the household, Kingsley says.
The play also looks at the connection the pair had to some of the great artists of the first half of the 20th century who lived in Paris, from writers like Hemingway and Fitzgerald to painters like Matisse and Picasso.
Coming back time and time again to a piece over two decades gives the performers fresh insight into the roles. "When I originated the character I was 40 years old and very nervous about the age thing. Now I am much closer to [Toklas's] age when Gertrude died," Kingsley says.
"What this play offers is that you don't have to fear death. Dead is dead, but it is not done. You live in the memory of someone who knows you," Wilkens says.
Wilkens notes that there have been physical changes since that time, as well as vocal ones. "I feel like my voice has much more range. The lower range is much more accessible, and I think it is stronger," she says.
"Their voices have matured. It's like opera singers, as they age their voices often get richer," Boehlke says.
Throughout its history, the Jungle has gone back and remounted older productions. "I like revisiting a play. The first time, you are getting to know the play. The next time, you don't have to go through that learning curve. You really get to bring it alive in a more complete way. It's all about bringing it alive," Boehlke says.
IF YOU GO:
Gertrude Stein and Companion Friday through March 23 The Jungle Theater 2951 Lyndale Ave. S., Minneapolis $25-$43 For tickets and more information, call 612-822-7063 or visit online.