Published in KPBS On Air Magazine June 1996

The summer offerings say it all: from “Rough Crossing” to “A Perfect Ganesh”.

Actually, North Coast Repertory Theatre hasn’t really had it that rough. At the opening of its fifteenth season, it can boast operating in the black for all but one of those years. That’s a theatrical triumph.

The secret of its success, according to Rosina Reynolds, who’s about to direct North Coast’s 100th production, is that “Olive [Blakistone, artistic director] picks good seasons.   And she pays her actors. [Marketing director] John Guth is a goldmine.   There’s very good management, a Board that’s seriously involved, and a terrific stock of volunteers.”

But, despite these formidable achievements, the past two years have been trying for Blakistone and her company.

In 1994, they mounted a couple of unpopular plays:   “Apocalyptic Butterflies”, that just about no one liked, and “Aunt Dan and Lemon”, which thrilled critics but unnerved audiences. That led to the only red ink in an unblemished record.

Then there was last year. Blakistone’s husband Tom stepped down from years of tireless work as board member/ business manager, and the theatre brought in an L.A. business manager — who apparently tried to stage a coup. After much turmoil and torment, she’s been replaced by the highly efficient and well-respected Sue Schaffner, who is helping to get things back on track.

So Blakistone et al. are striding into a new season with a strong summer start — two San Diego premieres, with accomplished actors holding the directorial reins. First, Rosina Reynolds directs Tom Stoppard’s “Rough Crossing” (June 13-July 21), then Sean Murray directs Terrence McNally’s “A Perfect Ganesh” (August 1- September 8).

“It’s supremely ironic,” says Reynolds, executive/artistic director of the Actors Alliance of San Diego, about her fifth directorial foray at North Coast Rep. During her brief tenure as artistic director of the Gaslamp Quarter Theatre, which sadly, closed its doors last year, Reynolds was seriously interested in both these plays.  

She considers “Rough Crossing” to be “a wonderfully fun piece, a brilliant cover of Molnar” [Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnar, whose 1927 romantic comedy, “ Play at the Castle”, also inspired P.G. Wodehouse’s 1928 classic, “The Play’s the Thing”].

“The characters are delicious,” Reynolds continues.   “It’s a beautiful farce.   In my eyes, Stoppard can do no wrong.   His mental dexterity is amazing, his dialogue is wicked, biting and fast.”

Set aboard a luxury ocean liner crossing the Atlantic from London, “Rough Crossing” concerns two aging playwrights and a composer, desperately improvising to meet their Broadway deadline before they land in New York.   A series of ingeniously absurd situations, mistaken identities, running gags and puns galore make it, according to Mel Gussow of the New York Times, “a thoroughly amiable trifle.”

Considerably less trifling is “A Perfect Ganesh”.   The play was “very intriguing” to Olive Blakistone, who loves to present at least one theatrical ‘stretch’ per season.

She also likes to nurture new talent, and though she’d never seen Sean Murray direct (he did a spectacularly beautiful “Tempest” on the Beach in Coronado last summer), she’d “admired him as an actor for many years.”

Murray has wowed San Diego Repertory Theatre audiences with his portrayal of characters as diverse as “The Elephant Man” (at age 19), Frank N. Furter (in “ The Rocky Horror Show”), the Messenger (in “The Dybbuk”), and   Ariel (in the Globe’s “Tempest”).  

The actor-director (whose real name is Tom) grew up in San Diego, but after obtaining a B.F.A. in Acting from the North Carolina School of the Arts, he moved to New York, a city with which he had a love-hate relationship.

When he went to join the Actors Equity union in 1991, he found there already was a Tom Murray, so he became Sean.   He moved back to San Diego and decided to direct, partly because it’s very difficult for Equity actors to get work here, and partly because he’s “lost the need to act all the time. So,” he says, “I can be extremely selective about the acting I do.”

Meanwhile, he took a 9-to-5 job as a graphic designer, so he could have ” a steady income, and a real life.”   But he’s very excited about “A Perfect Ganesh”, which has been dubbed (by the New York Post’s Clive Barnes) “a love-laden play… about death, faith and redemption… a serious work conceived in a light fashion… turning tragedy into comedy and the way we die into the way we live.”   David Richards, of the New York Times, found the play “reminiscent of Tennessee Williams,” with its “juxtaposition of the horrible and the ethereal.”

The Hindu god Ganesha, Lord of Obstacles, plays guide and narrator for two Connecticut dowagers who journey to India because they “heard it could heal.” Each has lost a son; each has secrets to conceal; each is searching for deliverance.   Far removed from their safe American lives, they are exposed to all the evils of the world:   poverty, bigotry, cancer, AIDS, cruelty, suffering and interminably random tragedies.

“It’s redeeming,” says Murray.   “A very theatrical play, a great play.   It’s about seeing life as it really is.   Accepting and loving people in your life. Letting go of anger and regret and moving on. Face your mortality; live your life while you can. There’s a very healing quality in that.”

And healing is the word up at North Coast Rep.   “Happy days are here again,” says artistic director Blakistone, looking ahead to sweet sixteen.

©1996 Patté Productions Inc.