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Dignity and Nostalgia: Fine Cast at Whittier Community Theatre celebrate “The Dining Room”

The cast of "The Dining Room" at Whittier Community Theatre illustrates one use for that iconic part of the house. [Photo: Avis Photography]

The cast of “The Dining Room” at Whittier Community Theatre illustrates one use for that iconic part of the house. [Photo: Avis Photography]

Playwright A.R. Gurney’s best work has revolved around the upper-middle class New England of the early to mid-20th Century, either by placing his plays in that space, or among people reminiscent for that time and space. As such, his works become a window on an entire society, with its structures, standards, and mores, which has essentially evaporated in the intervening societal upheavals. Never is this more true than in “The Dining Room,” a set if interlaced vignettes revolving around that once-formal space in a more formal era.

Now finishing a short run at Whittier Community Theatre, “The Dining Room” offers a small group of 8 performers a chance to become a wide array of people, current and historical, inhabiting, reminiscing about, or even rediscovering the value of a home’s formal dining room. If this sounds rather silly, it isn’t. Instead, it is a window on a particular kind of intimacy, observed even in the breach.

Director Candy Beck has brought together a particularly skilled cast, and her near-choreography of their comings and goings makes the transitions from scene to scene and character to character both seamless and easy to follow. It’s a neat piece of direction, as well as a nod to the quality of the versatile performers.

The characters shift quickly, and Keith Bush, Michael Durack, Allison Hicks, Jay Miramontes, Jonah Snyder, Nancy Tyler, Randi Tahara and Veronique Merrill Warner produce a wild collection of family members, visiting professionals, servants and observers. Their interactions, which range from an aged father giving funeral instructions to his son to a little boy sad to hear that his favorite maid is going to stop working for the family, from a college student whose surprise visit home uncovers a family scandal to a couple of teenagers stealing from the liquor cabinet, create a communal portrait of a room and its purpose. The standout among this crowd of fine performers has to be Tahara, most particularly as the aged woman with dementia who doesn’t recognize her own house or her own sons, and as a woman watching her marriage fall apart.

The stories are often poignant, sometimes very funny, and always contain the kind of conversations which tend to happen in this specific room’s formal surroundings. Director Beck has also designed the set, which allows the flow of persons on and off stage, including a number of quick changes, and gives the feel of a large house’s formal dining room.

If you’ve never had the opportunity to see “The Dining Room,” do so. It provides a unique kind of window on a disappearing formality of finger bowls and live-in cooks, table manners and fine china, which is a part of Americana, even if out of reach for most of us. And it will give anyone a greater appreciation for that formal dining table which has been passed down the family. WCT have done themselves proud, making this particular production worth seeing.

What: “The Dining Room” When: through November 19, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday Where: The Center Theatre, 7630 Washington Ave. in Whittier How Much: $15 general; $12 seniors, students, and military with ID Info: (562) 696-0600 or http://www.whittiercommunitytheatre.org

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Tighter Staging will Save the King! – “The Lion In Winter” in Whittier

William Crisp as Henry II confronts his sons in Whittier's "The Lion in Winter"

William Crisp as Henry II confronts his sons in Whittier’s “The Lion in Winter”

On the short list of 20th century playwrights whose work I love in part because if their rich use of language, James Goldman is right up there. Take, as example, his play “The Lion in Winter.” In many ways it proves very talky, but this drama pitting King Henry II of England against his sons, his imprisoned wife, and the King of France remains a constant favorite because the characterizations are rich, and the talk is clever, fast-paced and unrelentingly poetic. It’s a feast for the both the imagination and the ear.

Yet this can all careen off the tracks if the pace is too slow, or broken up too much. Heat drives this play, and heat onstage dissipates quickly if not constantly fed. Which brings me to the new production at Whittier Community Theater. The cast is, particularly in the two most central parts, excellent. The costuming and feel of the piece are right. But constant breaks in the pacing, caused by the need to move furniture between each one of the short vignette-like scenes, make it excruciatingly long. In the process, that elemental heat cools.

This is fixable, but it will take some creative restaging along the way. That would be wonderful, because rather than listening to an audience groan at the length, it would be terrific to be able to embrace this show for all the things it does right. They are many.

William Crisp makes a terrific Henry – playing the elaborate game of political competition with relish, bringing a consistency to this medieval king even as he is wound-able, strong, afraid of aging, and admiring of intellect equal to his own. Candy Beck tackles the prodigious Eleanor of Aquitaine, Henry’s wife, nemesis, equal, and prisoner let out for Christmas. In a subtle supporting role, and despite a somewhat questionable wig, Jamie Sowers proves on a par with these two powerful and powerfully played characters as the young Alais, sister to the King of France, raised at Henry’s court to be the next queen, yet become Henry’s mistress. Her subtle strength makes her less of a pawn than often played, leading to a particular inclusion in this fascinating trio.

The portraits of Henry’s three sons are a bit variable, though they power the piece when necessary. Colin McDowell’s Richard the Lionheart manages the mix of fragility and power necessary, but tends to deliver his lines in a comparatively hollow tone. Jonathan Tupanjanin makes Prince John just as much a spoiled child as is necessary. Thanks to one mention of his being pimply in the script, he has been given facial spots which look like large measles or major melanomas, and are very distracting. Acne is a bit more subtle, even onstage.

Brandon Ferruccio makes middle son Geoffrey as frankly devious as can be, becoming the most memorable of the sons. Despite another odd wig, Luke Miller makes the young king of France subtly mature and even more subtly as devious in his own way as Geoffrey. It’s an interesting take on the character.

Karen Jacobson and Nancy Tyler are to be celebrated for finding costumes which truly fit the characters and the time period. Set designer Mark Frederickson has created the impression of a medieval castle, which sets the tone, but as used may also be creating much of the problem.

In the hands of director Lenore Stjerne, every scene is centrally staged, and uses the entire set. This means that between each scene lights dim, stagehands come out and move furniture, place or replace candles, hang tapestries, etc. – a project which can take 3 minutes or so. That’s too long, as pacing is key to effectiveness in this play. The use of “trucks,” which allow the quick wheeling in and out of setting pieces, or simply isolating some scenes in one part of the stage which is preset for the purpose, would solve this show’s one major problem and let people go home about a half hour earlier.

And that would be good, because this version of “The Lion in Winter” is definitely worth seeing, especially for the performances of the two leads. Hopefully the timing glitches will be solved by the start of the second weekend.

What: “The Lion in Winter” When: through November 22, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, with a 2:30 p.m. matinee on Sunday November 16 Where: The Center Theater, Whittier Community Center, 7630 Washington Ave. in Whittier How Much: $15 general, $10 seniors/students/military with ID Info: (562) 696-0600 or http://www.whittiercommunitytheatre.org

Community Noir: “Laura” in Whittier

The cast of "Laura" mysteriously appears at Whittier Community Theatre

The cast of “Laura” mysteriously appears at Whittier Community Theatre

Ah, “Noir”. The works of the likes of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, with their cynical gumshoes and fatalistic romantic tone, stand apart even today as a special part of American culture. Of these, none is better known than “Laura,” which began life as a story, a novel and then a play, all by Vera Caspary, before becoming an Otto Preminger film.

Now “Laura” returns to the stage in Caspary and Geoge Sklar’s original version at the Whittier Community Theatre. It’s a solid performance – well cast and strongly directed – which shows the polish often-maligned community theater companies can achieve. And there’s that good old mystery to go along with it.

For anyone who doesn’t know somehow, “Laura” is the story of a murder investigation. The detective in charge, Mark McPherson, finds himself fascinated by the victim whose portrait hangs in her apartment. In a story filled with peculiar twists and turns, this detective’s determination to find out the truth both of the murder and of the obviously complex character of victim Laura herself, make for fascinating watching.

Director Suzanne Frederickson has the feel for this piece, and it shows all the way down to the costuming and furniture. She has amassed a cast which manages to fit the various stereotypes required of this kind of story, and with talent enough to make them all human.

As McPherson, Steven Sullivan is the picture of a solid Irish cop, from his sharp eye, a crisp loyalty, and a subtle tugging of the heart. As the man who feels he “created” Laura, Norman Dostal manages the somewhat soft and slimy panache required to make Waldo a disturbing character. Jay Miramontes gives Laura’s fiance an interesting balance of acquisitiveness and fondness, while Candy Beck fusses with great warmth as the loving maid Laura hired and befriended.

Also worthy of note, the mysterious “girl” gets rounded treatment by Amy Anderson, Kieran Flanagan makes nice work of the rebellious teen from down the hall, and Julie Breihan bristles with genuine indignation as his frustrated, heartsore mother. John Francis makes a short, entertaining, but somewhat less believable appearance as a beat cop.

Considering the generally somewhat “low rent” nature of community theaters, which survive on tiny budgets and volunteers both in front of and behind the scenes, this production proves quite delightful. The pacing is good, the tone is right, and the mystery appropriately mysterious. If you’ve never seen “Laura” nobody telegraphs the ending. If you have, it’s a lovely and inexpensive chance to spend time with an old friend.

Although this run is almost over, stay tuned for this company’s next offering: “Charley’s Aunt”, due at the end of May.

What: “Laura” When: 8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 28 and Saturday, March 1 Where: The Center Theatre, 8730 Washington Ave., in Whittier How Much: $15 general, $10 seniors, students, and military ID Info: (562) 696-0600 or http://www.whittiercommunitytheatre.org

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