As one of the lead actresses in this weekend’s production of “Cindy and Ella,” Maryville’s Raine Palmer has learned to embrace darkness.
In the original work by Knoxville Theatre Club founders J.P. Schuffman and Sara Gaddis, Palmer — a 2012 graduate of Maryville High School, where she studied drama under retired teacher Sherry Petrowski — plays Ella, the “wicked stepsister” to her onstage counterpart in the Dust Bowl “Cinderella” story. She’s suffered at the hands of her own mother and passes that abuse along to Cindy, played by 14-year-old Maria Kauffman, and it’s been a test of her acting abilities, Palmer told The Daily Times this week, to channel the brutality her character endures and inflicts.
“Clearly she’s from an abusive household, and that’s impacted who she is as a person, but that’s not something I’ve ever experienced,” Palmer said. “I don’t have the inherent desire to yell at someone, and I’ve never been big on physical violence. The way I started playing it, any time something bad would happen in the play to Cindy, I would get timid and a little sad, and J.P. and Sara would say, ‘No, Raine, at this point, that’s not how you’re feeling! You have to get sterner and ignore it!’
“There’s one scene where I have to get physically violent with her, and they told me, ‘Don’t be afraid to be mean to her! We know you like her as a person!’ I’ve played some dark characters, I think, in my time as an actress, and this is the first time I’ve played an abuse victim that’s passing it on and doing it at the command of her own abuser. It makes complete sense, but it makes you sad that it actually happens in real life.”
Tapping into those real-world scenarios that are foreign to her is what attracted Palmer, the daughter of Maryville’s Jackie and Randy Palmer, to acting in the first place. As a child, she took ballet at Van Metre School of Dance and even participated in Appalachian Ballet Company’s annual “Nutcracker” production.
“I learned basically I wasn’t very good at it, but I kept at it because I loved being on stage,” she said with a laugh.
At MHS, she took drama as her arts elective, and the first time she stepped on stage to act out a skit she and some classmates had written, she knew she had found her calling. Roles in “The Wizard of Oz,” “Grease,” “Our Town” and “Robin Hood: The Next Generation” led to a theater scholarship at Maryville College, where she spent most of time behind the scenes, taking occasional roles in “Medea,” “MacBeth Is the New Black” and “Seussical the Musical.” She also got her start in the Knoxville theater scene at the time.
“I did a show called ‘Antigone’ with Tiger Lily Theatre and had a great time; after that, I started working with Tennessee Stage Company, doing ‘Shakespeare on the Square,’ where I met a lot of people in the community,” she said. “Recently, I did ‘Hamlet’ with Sara and J.P. for Tiger Lily Theatre, and we had a really good time working together; they approached me a couple of months ago about doing a stage reading for one of the shows they’d written, and when I did, they wanted to keep me on for the full production.”
That show is “Cindy and Ella,” a twist on the classic “Cinderella” story in that it’s set in Depression-era Oklahoma. Both title characters are at the mercy of Aunt Eudora, played by Bonny Pendleton, and Palmer compares it to a John Steinbeck version of the classic fairy tale. The characters are imbued with a complexity that’s far deeper than the animated “Cinderella” with which most people are familiar, and it’s a journey that Palmer undertook with interest, she said.
“When they first gave me the script, they told me not to worry about reading past the first scene, but I kept reading, because I really liked what I saw, and that escalated to me really being passionate about it before I was even cast,” she said. “It’s a very interesting sort of mix of humanity; there’s a lot of humor in it, but also a lot of darkness. I think the thing about Ella, that she gets from me, is a desire to keep moving. She’s stuck in this place and really wants to find her place in the world — not what her mother wants or what society wants.
“She wants to go on her own adventures, and I think a lot of people can relate to that; I certainly can. My character has this really interesting growth, in that she’s kind of the wicked stepsister, but she becomes something so much more throughout the show. As an actress, you can’t ask for more than that.”