“Picnic” at Westminster Community Theater

While other famed playwrights (Williams, Miller, O’Neill, Faulkner) staked out various sections of America (South, New England, West) for their fictional settings, William Inge looked to his own roots in the Midwest, where most of his many dramas are located.

His most famous tale is “Picnic,” which won Inge the Pulitzer Prize in 1953 and introduced Kim Novak to movie audiences in 1955. It is this mid-century period that informs most of Inge’s writing and overshadows the failures and frustrations of his characters.

The Westminster Community Theatre currently is reviving Inge’s magnum opus, casting some actors against type and probing deeply into the characters’ disturbed psyches. Director Lenore Stjerne has elicited some indelible performances in her intimate staging of this classic drama.

The central character of Hal Carter, a rough-hewn but well-meaning drifter, usually is depicted as a powerfully built, macho type with a short fuse. At WCT, Chris McClary is more slight of physique than the well-off college chum he arrives in Kansas to visit, but he’s a coiled spring of restrained outrage, fighting his inner demons as he connects with his friend’s best girl in a life-changing moment.

Jennifer Whitney is more subdued and less glamorous than her character of Madge generally is portrayed. She projects an aura of enforced normalcy opposite Hal’s bravado, and the combination meshes surprisingly well as she experiences her first real taste of romance.

Her tomboyish little sister, Millie, played by Jennifer Bales, undergoes a startling transformation, from jeans and pigtails in the first act to a true raven-haired beauty in the second, her newfound glitter masking the fact that she’s still an unformed teenage girl experimenting recklessly with alcohol. Apart from a tendency to rush her dialogue, Bales delivers a memorable performance.

Joan Meissenburg renders the most honest and heartfelt character as Flo, the girls’ mother, who survived a bad marriage and strives to prevent her daughters from experiencing her fate. Her unfulfilled neighbor, played by Barb Turino, also projects a natural Midwestern flair, delighting in the young people’s antics.

The emotion-charged subplot between the spinster schoolteacher and her somewhat more worldly boyfriend also is well presented. Barbara Kerford delivers an aching account of the passion beneath her surface sheen, while Richard DeVicariis absolutely nails his good-old-boy storekeeper caught up in his lady friend’s maelstrom.

Kevin Casey succeeds in projecting the blandness of his moneyed suitor, and Tyler Hill has some frisky moments as the pesky newsboy. Kip Hogan does the work of two actresses as she excels in a smaller role written for a pair of chatty teachers.

The backyard setting, for which director Stjerne shares credit with Tom Mynar and Michael Crumley, nicely projects rustic Midwestern charm. Crumley and Stjerne also created the fine lighting effects.

“Picnic” remains one of the American theater’s classic dramas, harkening back to a more uncomplicated time and stirring the passions beneath Inge’s “normal” Midwesterners of the early 1950s. Its revival is solid and thought-provoking at the Westminster Community Theatre.

TOM TITUS reviews local theater for the Daily Pilot.

If You Go

What: “Picnic”

Where: Westminster Community Theatre, 7272 Maple St., Westminster

When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays through Nov. 23

Cost: $18 to $20

Information: (714) 893-8626 or http://www.wctstage.org

“Greater Tuna” at Costa Mesa Playhouse

(This review originally was published in the Daily Pilot)

Everything’s bigger in Texas — except, perhaps, for the tiny town of Tuna, the state’s third-smallest, where, as its motto states, the Lions Club is too liberal and Patsy Cline never dies.

More than three decades ago, three enterprising showmen — Jaston Williams, Ed Howard and Joe Sears — joined forces to create “Greater Tuna,” a hilarious satire of small-town life in the Lone Star State. It became so popular that it spawned three sequels.

The original concept is now being presented by the Costa Mesa Playhouse, where director Kyle Myers and his two-man cast bring some 20 twangy characters to life in what may be the funniest show you’ll witness this season. Thirty years hasn’t dimmed the humor. If anything, the show is funnier now, given the current political landscape of Texas.

The actors, Robin L. Watkins and Karl Schott, each play 10 roles, about half of them in drag, with one of them ducking backstage to change costumes while the other entertains. Exaggeration is a virtue in this backhanded tribute to small-town life in the dusty depths of America.

Both start out as disc jockeys on radio station OKKK, establishing the down-home flavor of the show, with Watkins slipping out to assume the character of Bertha Bumiller, a frazzled housewife saddled with a no-good husband, three troublesome kids and a pack of dogs that the youngest boy brings home.

Schott shows up as all three kids — a mean-spirited youth, his soft-hearted dog-loving brother and their overweight sister, frustrated by her failure to land a spot on her school’s cheerleading squad.

Watkins also appears as Bertha’s sister, a fiendish old harridan given to poisoning dogs (the play’s only really uncomfortable segment). He’s also the radio station manager, a UFO spotter, a hard-nosed sheriff and Bertha’s recalcitrant husband.

Schott delivers the show’s funniest moments as Vera Carp, president of the “Smut Snatchers of the New Order,” dedicated to excising offensive books from the library, such as “Roots” and “Romeo and Juliet.” Vera also presents a short list of Spanish phrases, “the only ones any red-blooded American should be expected to know,” and a list of “offensive words” that should be removed from the dictionary.

Another moment of high comedic wattage arrives intermittently when local animal lover Petey Fisk (Schott) pleads for someone — anyone — to adopt a dog, Yippy, whose nonstop yipping is driving him batty. Then there’s the Rev. Spikes (Watkins), leaving no cliche unturned in his eloquent eulogy for a deceased judge, whose body was found dressed in a Dale Evans swimsuit (courtesy of that oldest Bumiller brat, who also caused his honor’s demise).

Both Watkins and Schott deliver the play’s outlandish humor with zestful relish, and their interaction with one another is splendid. The actors have captured their loopy characters with uncanny accuracy, and their overstated Texas accents are especially laughable.

If “Greater Tuna” proves to be a local hit, its sequels — “A Tuna Christmas,” “Red, White and Tuna” and “Tuna Does Vegas” — may not be far behind. In the meantime, “Greater Tuna” may be thoroughly enjoyed at the Costa Mesa Playhouse.

If You Go

What: “Greater Tuna”

Where: Costa Mesa Playhouse, 611 Hamilton St., Costa Mesa

When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays until Nov. 24

Cost: $16 to $20

Information: (949) 650-5269 or http://www.costamesaplayhouse.com

“The Elephant Man” at Orange Coast College

    For tackling such a demanding project as Bernard Pomerance’s historical drama “The Elephant Man,” Orange Coast College’s theater department deserves an “A” for ambition, but earns only a “C” for clarity.

    Strangely, much of the spoken dialogue of this otherwise powerful production is unclear – seemingly swallowed or garbled by overanxious actors. Nevertheless, some excellent performances emerge from director William Mittler’s emotionally shattering adventure.

    Paramount among these is Michael Canas’ deeply involving portrayal of young surgeon  Frederick Treves, who rescues the title character, John Merrick, from a traveling freak show and offers him safe living quarters at his London hospital. Canas pulls out all the stops in his emotionally draining interpretation.

    In the title role, Abel Diaz must project his hideous deformity without makeup or prosthetics, virtually twisting his body into a rubbery pretzel configuration and speaking in halting dialogue. It’s an admirable performance.

    David Cowan also impresses as the gruff hospital administrator. James Williams overplays the role of the greedy freak show operator, losing chunks of dialogue in the process.

    In a contrasting tender sequence, Madeline Kettlewell offers friendship and comfort as a well-meaning actress, even disrobing to give Merrick his first glimpse of a naked woman. Marcus Beebe adds a note of aggravation as the bishop striving to impose religion into Merrick’s psyche.

    In an absorbing fantasy sequence, the roles of Treves and Merrick are reversed, with Canas assuming the hulking, deformed figure and Diaz rendering a scholarly dissertation on his patient’s condition. It’s Pomerance’s wry observation on the randomness of life and fate.

    Scenic designer David Scaglione has dressed the stage with enormous white curtains, upon which are projected eerie images of the play’s characters, and also has devised some special makeup for Diaz’s interpretation. Cynthia Corley’s period costumes establish the tone of the play splendidly.

    Musically supporting the action on stage is a backstage band – drummer Scott Collins, bassist Dru George, vocalist Maureen Lefevre and guitarist Cameron Good – whose instrumental and vocal punctuation serves the onstage drama well.

    “The Elephant Man” is a tall order for any theater company, particularly that of a college, to attempt and OCC deserves high praise for its effort. Hopefully, the clarification lacking on opening weekend will be restored for this weekend’s final performances.

THE ESSENTIALS:

WHAT: “The Elephant Man”
WHERE: Orange Coast College Drama Lab Theater, 2701 Fairview Road, Costa Mesa
WHEN: Closing performances Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m., Sunday at 2:30
COST: $10 to $18
CALL: (714) 432-5880

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“4,000 Miles” at South Coast Repertory

By Tom Titus
(originally published in the Daily Pilot)

Amy Herzog’s captivating character study, “4,000 Miles,” now on stage at South Coast Repertory, engages its audience early on and maintains that emotional attachment – until the very end. It’s as if the playwright simply had nothing else to say and just stopped writing.

But until that less-than-satisfying conclusion, Herzog’s play is a rich and rewarding experience. Director David Emmes has elicited some indelible performances from his four actors, particularly the two central figures — a young man and his nonagenarian grandmother thrust together for a few weeks in the old lady’s spacious Greenwich Village apartment.

These characters, worlds apart in age and viewpoint, are beautifully written and superbly interpreted by Matt Caplan and Jenny O’Hara. Leo (Caplan) has just finished crossing the country on his bicycle and elects to crash temporarily in Vera’s (O’Hara) spare bedroom.

During this visit, Leo interacts with an old girlfriend on her way out (Rebecca Mozo) and a new one on her way in (Klarissa Mesee). But the crux of this dramatic comedy is the relationship between the young, athletic Leo and the aging, absent-minded Vera and how they impact each other’s lives.

O’Hara enriches her portrayal with age-defining mannerisms, all well chosen and highly believable. Age has dulled her 91-year-old character’s memory and she frequently employs the term “whaddayacallit” to describe something for which she’s mentally lost the word. Her performance is wonderfully nuanced, a convincing blend of warmth and scrappiness.

As the grandson, who has lost his best friend on the bike trip in a horrific accident and now must face life without his lady love, Caplan delivers a performance layered with degrees of emotional intensity. We view the play chiefly through his eyes and feel his several degrees of pain and loss as he attempts to forge a new path for his life.

Mozo’s brief appearance to sever the relationship and her late return to salve the wounds constitute a heartwarming depiction by this frequent SCR performer. Mesee, on the other hand, delves heavily into comic relief as a chirpy, kooky Chinese girl Leo has brought back to the apartment for an intended tryst.

That apartment, incidentally, is quite huge, judging by the extra-large living room and other, unseen quarters. Scenic designer Ralph Funicello has fashioned a richly detailed setting that appears to have been around as long as its owner.

Sara Ryung Clement’s finely detailed costumes (especially Mesee’s colorful garb) and the sharp lighting effects by Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz complete a splendid atmospheric picture.

The structural flaw materializes in the play’s last few minutes when the focus turns to an unseen, and only casually mentioned, character whose demise alters the course of the action. Herzog is a talented and perceptive playwright, and her character depiction is first rate, with the  exception of that fizzled finale, resulting in the lack of a resolution. With some detailed work on that aspect, this could be a superb effort.

Up to the closing moments,  “4,000 Miles” is a truly engrossing production, calculated to involve its audience in this otherwise impressive engagement at South Coast Repertory.

THE ESSENTIALS:

WHAT: “4,000 Miles”
WHERE: South Coast Repertory, Segerstrom Stage, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
WHEN: Sundays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7 :30 p.m., Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., weekend matinees at 2:30 pm. until Nov. 17
COST: Start at $22
CALL: (714) 708-5555

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“Fiddler on the Roof” at the Huntington Beach Playhouse

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The popularity of “Fiddler on the Roof” is undeniable. When the Larry Bock-Sheldon Harnick show first lit up the Broadway stage in 1964, it became the first musical to run over 3,000 performances.

Nearly 50 years later, it’s still packing them in, as evidenced by the huge opening-night crowd at the Huntington Beach Playhouse where Larry Watts has directed, choreographed and designed the sets and costumes. His multitasking is reaping huge dividends.

The show revolves around Tevye, a dairyman and father of five daughters whose life has been ruled by Jewish tradition – and is about to undergo some shattering changes – in the tiny Russian village of Anatevka, circa 1905.

In the Huntington Beach production, Michael Castro enacts this central role with a profound sincerity and a twinkle in his eye as he pulls his horseless wagon and conducts his daily one-on-one chat with the Almighty. He’s a bit uneven in the early going, and again toward the end, but his overall interpretation is splendid as he pulls scriptural proverbs out of the air and attempts, vainly, to maintain his parental authority.

Megan Cherry is quite solid as his long-suffering wife, Golde, and the couple’s second-act duet, “Do You Love Me,” which examines their quarter-century-old arranged marriage, is charming. Cherry leaves little doubt as to who really wields the scepter of command in the household.

The eldest daughter, Tzietel, is particularly well portrayed by Carole Louise Duffis, who risks her father’s wrath as she opposes an arranged marriage to the much-older butcher and pleads the case of her true love, an impoverished tailor.  This part is well filled by Chase Evans, a tall, lanky actor who uses his physical stature to underscore his character’s required geekiness.

The strongest performer in the cast is Austin James Duffis (yes, Tzietel’s offstage husband), the revolutionary thinker who conducts a spirited intellectual pursuit of Tevye’s second-oldest daughter, Hodel (Melissa Smith). Smith’s poignant duet with Tevye, “Far From the Home I Love,” is among the show’s musical highlights (and particularly poignant to a father attending the show with his daughter).

While the first two daughters bent their father’s heart, the third, Chava (Tess Del Rio) finally breaks it when she falls for a non-Jewish Russian soldier (Fernando Becerra). Both render convincing portrayals in roles that have been written with the proverbial lick and a promise.

Another exceptionally strong performance comes from Jason Robert Hoskins as the imposing butcher, Lasar Wolf, whose loss of his promised bride unhinges him frighteningly and nearly wrecks Tzietel’s wedding (before the czar’s forces do). Dee Shanders mines some comic gold from the part of the nosy matchmaker Yente, here re-envisioned as something of a kleptomaniac.

The nightmarish dream sequence – in which Lazar’s late wife returns with a vengeance to oppose the arranged marriage – is appropriately wild and crazy with Margie Ikerd-Gyorgy raising havoc as the outraged (and elevated) Fruma-Sarah. Katie Roberts impresses as the spirit of Tzietel’s grandmother, while Wyman Gentry reflects restrained menace as the town constable.

Musical director Mike Walker has come up with a splendid recorded score which challenges the actors to keep in sync. The sets are, of necessity, quite fragmentary, as they must be wheeled on and off stage with dispatch. The backstage crew (and the actors) are quite efficient in this regard.

“Fiddler on the Roof” is nearing its 50th birthday with its popularity among local theater groups intact. The show receives a warm and spirited production at the Huntington Beach Playhouse.

THE ESSENTIALS:

WHAT: “Fiddler on the Roof”
WHO: Huntington Beach Playhouse
WHERE: Library Theater, 7171 Talbert Ave., Huntington Beach
WHEN: Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 3 p.m. through Dec. 1
COST: $18 – $20
CALL: (714) 375-0696

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