By Pat Launer
New plays and old; a week for the gals:
Rivals or sisters; officers, pals.
“The Rainmaker” thinks he’s all the rage
But it’s Lizzie who takes center stage.
“The Women” and “Sky Girls” each feature a bimbo;
But the hippest chick is “Kim Akimbo.”
What do you get when you put 17 Leading Ladies together on one stage? The funny, classic, claw-each-other’s eyes-out Claire Boothe Luce play, “The Women.” It’s dated, in some ways, but when you’ve got powerful females up there in these catty roles, watch out! They’ll tear each other to pieces, in the name of friendship. And get divorced in droves, only to steal each other’s men. Lovely portrait — of women at their worst. But the 1939 flick is unforgettable, and Ole Kittelson had a great idea to make it local and personal. He gathered together some of San Diego’s best, for two nights of High Drama back-biting that raised the roof and raised money for 6th @ Penn Theatre. What a trip! The staged reading was generally unfussy (though there was more movement of the boxes and benches than was needed). The ensemble and interactions were delicious. The cast may have been variable, but all the heavy-hitters were a hoot! Sandra Ellis-Troy was hysterical as the Queen Bitch, beautifully offset by Rosina Reynolds’ quiet, rock-solid performance as Mary, the one (seemingly) sane voice amid the estrogen-fueled cacophony. Priscilla Allen was great as her mom, and Shannon Partrick was super as her little girl. Jennifer Austin was adorable as the naïve newlywed, Kathi Diamant delightful as the actress, Dana Hooley amusing as the perpetual preggo and Pat DiMeo funny as the clueless Countess. Candis Paule made an excellent cynic and Leigh Scarritt was glorious as the blonde bombshell. On the second night, when I was there, Jenni Prisk was the Narrator and she brought unexpected humor to a sometimes thankless role. What a night!
THE WILD BLUE YONDER…
A good story doesn’t necessarily make for good drama. Playwright Jenny Laird had a fine idea, to dramatize an obscure chapter of WWII history — the Women Airforce Service Pilots program, which trained about 1100 females to fly military aircraft. The WASPs were unfortunately treated like second class citizens, always as civilians, never accorded military status. And, if the play is to be believed, they were repeatedly sabotaged by their male counterparts (poorly maintained craft, sugar in the fuel tank, etc.). The force behind the program was Jacqueline Cochran, a real-life, record-breaking powerhouse pilot who initiated the training plan and went before Congress to get the gals militarized. Instead of succumbing to her articulate plea, Congress voted to shut down the whole program.
Laird’s play, “Sky Girls,” was commissioned by Chicago’s Northlight Theatre, where it premiered last year, in a different form. The piece is fictional, focusing on five cadets as they strive to earn their wings. And Cochran features prominently, as does her Congressional testimony.
In 1944, on an Army Air Force base in the dusty town of Sweetwater, Texas, the final class of WASP trainees is put through their paces. Much of their time is spent getting in and out of their harnesses. The rest is lying about on their cots, teasing and joking like sorority sisters. Each character is from a different part of the country — rural, urban, suburban. They are Types and they are cardboard. We don’t learn much about any of them — just one tidbit that characterizes each: one’s nose-to-the-grindstone. Another’s a silent poet, and there’s a man-crazy naïf and a loud-mouthed rabble-rouser who’s by far the most interesting of all, played with tremendous spunk by Sarah Rafferty (wonderful in “Collected Stories” at the Old Globe in 1999).
The actors are fine, and the direction by Brendon Fox (except for the repeated, superfluous rearrangement of the set’s Army cots) worked fine on the Cassius Carter arena stage; a little whimsy in the precision moves). But the play is flat, repetitive, overly long and didactic. And we really don’t care much about any of these women; we remain emotionally disengaged. As presented, the material seems better suited to an essay than a drama. In fact, at times, it feels like an essay. There’s very little dramatic arc, though we do follow the course of the Congressional hearing presentation by Cochran (nicely played by Judith Hawking), but those segments stop the action (what there is of it) dead in its tracks. The gals get their wings, but then those wings get clipped when Congress obliterates the program. That’s the whole plotline. There’s little dramatic conflict, and little reason to stay with all the little side-stories that generally go nowhere (the impending wedding, the Japanese boyfriend). The sound design (by Lindsay Jones), is excellent, and the lighting design (Jennifer Setlow) is equally evocative. But unlike its airborne characters, the play never really gets off the ground.
THE OLD MAN IS SNORING…
‘Spinster’ and ‘Old Maid’ are terms you don’t hear too much nowadays. But they figure prominently in the story of Lizzie Curry, a plain-Jane who lives on a farm in ‘a Western state’ with her father and two brothers — all of whom are desperate to get her married. They try sending her off to another town for the weekend, they invite the new assistant sheriff over to dinner. But nothing seems to work. Things are dry in LoveLand for Lizzie and outside the cattle are dying from the drought.
In N. Richard Nash’s “The Rainmaker,” everything changes when the title character enters the scene. Created in 1954, Starbuck (the Rainmaker) has every personality trait of Professor Harold Hill. Though that character officially emerged in “The Music Man” in 1957, the show was eight years in the making… so which scamming seller of hope and dreams really came first? Well, no matter. Conmen never go out of style. And the best of ’em bring enchantment and self-discovery (though they often leave a big mess behind). So everyone gets what s/he wants: the cattle get rain, and brother Jimmy gets his red-hatted (offstage) Snookie, and Lizzie gets someone to think she’s beautiful, which makes her believe it too, and that changes her life. It’s all sweet, old-fashioned, romantic — and capably done at North Coast Repertory Theatre.
San Diego newcomer Jeffrey Ingman has cast well and directed with a sure hand (he has multi-state and multi-style credits). Marty Burnett’s set has a nice, dusty Western feel, as do Jannifer Mah’s costumes and Chris Rynne’s lighting. Jonathan Dunn-Rankin is a warmly paternalistic Dad, but his accent sounds more New England than Big Sky. Craig Huisenga is formidable as negative/cynical brother Noah. Wayne Jordan and Robert MacAulay are quite credible as the Sheriff and his assistant. Brennan Taylor is a sheer delight as Jimmy, the energetic but supposedly not-too-bright younger brother of the delicious Julie Jacobs, who wraps herself into this role and makes it sing (even though this isn’t the musical version of the story, the 1963 “110 in the Shade”). It’s kind of hard for the great-looking Jacobs to appear plain, but she does her best — and she’s charming when she tries to act like those ‘other girls’ who flirt and lie shamelessly to snag a man. The charismatic center of the piece should be Bill Starbuck. Joe Powers does a solid job, but he isn’t sufficiently magnetic and irresistible. He talks a good game, though, and you can see how Lizzie might get Star-struck. There’s an interesting underlying message here; it’s important to have dreams and fantasies, but you can’t live on those alone. Moderation in all things: a very ’50s notion all around.
PUTTING THE ‘FUN’ BACK IN DYSFUNCTIONAL
There are eccentrics, there are Diseases of the Month, there are families from hell. There are geeks and misfits, alcoholics and hypochondriacs, ex-cons and inadvertent murderers. And they’re all present, in glorious array, in David Lindsay-Abaire’s “Kimberly Akimbo.” The playwright went a little too far into LaLaLand in his “Fuddy Meers” (which ran at North Coast Rep in 2001) but this dark comedy, though wild and wacko as well, manages to contain both humor and heart. Director Delicia Turner Sonnenberg gets to showcase her impressive expertise — in casting, timing and mining emotional depths. And her company, without exception, rises magnificently to the occasion.
This is a spectacular production. The pace is perfect. Turner Sonnenberg maintains a glorious balance between sharp, edgy humor and poignant depth of character. We really get to know and care about these nutty folks.
Kimberly has a form of progeria, a congenital condition that makes her body age 4 1/2 times faster than average. The life expectancy for sufferers is 16, and we meet Kim on her post-menopausal 16th birthday, which her family has conveniently forgotten. They’re in heavy denial; they’ve even tried starting the family over, in somewhat disingenuous ways.
This household is quite a menagerie. The father is a drink-addled breaker of promises. The mom’s a self-pitying, pill-popping hypochondriac who’s pregnant and totally dependent, both hands covered in bandages from carpal tunnel surgery. The intriguingly certifiable aunt is on the lam and planning another scam. And then there’s Kim’s schoolmate Jeff, a nerdy word-freak and player of fantasy games who spontaneously, instantaneously creates an anagram out of the name of everyone he meets. ‘Kimberly Levaco’ is immediately rearranged as ‘Cleverly Akimbo.’ And indeed she is. She faces her crumbling world with wit, intelligence and a sort of determined belligerence. Ironically, her abnormally accelerated physical growth is paralleled by the declining maturity of those around her. And Jeff comes to represent the scariest prospect of all — first love. What a delicious series of scenes and interactions, ingeniously spun out and played out in front of us, thanks to Jerry Sonnenberg’s marvelous, malleable turntable set.
And the performances! Matt Scott is an amiably spacey, pathetic dreamer as the Dad, and Jo Anne Glover is a delectably self-serving whiner as the Mom. Liv Kellgren brings fast-talk and ultra-high energy to the hyperactive aunt, and Jason Connors is uproarious as the smart but dorky Jeff. In both her character and her performance, Linda Castro anchors the piece, with her quippy introspection, parental wisecracks and intelligent exploration of life and love.
Everything about this show is irresistible. And quirky. And fun. You’ll laugh till you cry. And unexpectedly, you’ll grow to feel deeply for this wild bunch of blue collar New Jerseyites just trying, like all of us, to scratch out some semblance of a life worth living. The characters may be crazy, but you’d be even more nuts to miss this show!
PATTÉ SPREAD ON TV
If you missed it this week, you can still check out the 7th Annual Patté Awards for Theater Excellence — on KPBS-TV, channel 15/cable 11:
Saturday, January 24 at 11:30pm (a perfect post-theater time)
THIS WEEK’S ‘DON’T MISS’ LIST
“Kimberly Akimbo” — spectacular production; hilarious, poignant, incredibly well acted and directed; at 6th @ Penn Theatre, through Feb. 22
“Mothers” — Beautiful, heartbreaking and wildly imaginative. Eveoke Dance Theatre’s latest provocation to sit up and think — about parenthood and about loss. In repertory with Ricardo Peralta Danza Performa’s “Camila’s Story,” through February 1.
Drama, comedy and dance — what a way to kick off a new year! Come and get it!
©2004 Patté Productions Inc.