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Terrific “Gin Game” at Sierra Madre Playhouse

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The husband-and-wife team of Katherine James and Alan Blumenfeld shine in “The Gin Game” at Sierra Madre [photo: Gina Long]

When a play being produced locally has a long history of excellence, that can be both a blessing and a curse for a theater company, especially a comparatively small one. On the one hand, the name recognition connected to the play itself has the potential to bring in audience who might not otherwise have come through the doors. On the other hand, the expectation of that audience will be an excellence they remember or have heard of from previous productions (or even televised versions), which may be a tall order to produce.

When those expectations are realized in a positive way, however, it can be a particularly winning moment. Such a win is the production of D.L. Coburn’s 1970s classic, “The Gin Game” at Sierra Madre Playhouse. An articulate, well-known play is produced with great polish and passion. The visuals are evocative. The performers are impressive. The net result is well worth the price of admission.

The story is deceptively simple. Two comparatively active elderly people living in an “old folks home” meet and decide to play gin. The woman – Fonsia – though seemingly retiring, is a wizard at cards. The comparatively overt and opinionated man – Weller – is taken aback, as he considers himself to be excellent at cards as well and has increasing issues with being beaten. Still, they share a common bond of comparatively intact intellect and general dislike of the facility into which they have been relegated. Which will win out, the friction, or the bond?

At SMP the two are played by husband-and-wife team Katherine James and Alan Blumenfeld. They have a strong handle on the characters’ foibles, and bring the audience along with both laughter and revelation as they gradually uncover the more lovable and more unlovable elements of each these people. Director Christian Lebano has utilized the SMP space about as well is possible, aided by Tesshi Nakagawa’s extraordinary set.

“The Gin Game” is not new. It was even filmed for television with its original cast, also a married couple, Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy. Still, the performers here do not lean overmuch on previous portrayals, but rather on the words themselves, which become increasingly potent as our nation ages. The play is not, at its core, a comedy though the comedic elements are very funny indeed. It is, rather, a play of awareness. As such, though set quite determinedly in the 1970s (when it was originally produced), it has a wisdom which is totally contemporary.

What: “The Gin Game”  When: through October 6, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, with matinees at 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Where: Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd. in Sierra Madre. How Much: $40 general, $36 seniors, $25 youth 22 and younger  Info: (626) 355-4318 or

Polished “A Christmas Story” Charms in Sierra Madre

Since 1983 the film “A Christmas Story” has been a part of many a family’s holiday traditions. Based on the writings of Jean Shepherd it offered nostalgia for a simpler time in small-town America. There, a boy in the midst of the usual drama of growing up, focuses on convincing either Santa or his parents to bring him the one thing he wants most for Christmas: a Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model air rifle with a compass in the stock and “this thing which tells time”.

More recently the tale has become a play, based not just on the film but on other nostalgic Shepherd’s writings. Done right, it can have the same charm as the film in a more immediate format.

Now at Sierra Madre Playhouse comes a chance to see it done right. From gifted child performers to solid and artful direction, through a remarkable-for-SMP set (considering the size of their stage) and a unified sense of ensemble, there is much to enjoy in what even the theater’s artistic director pegs as “one of the most ambitious plays” they have ever mounted.

The children in the production, and there are seven strong character parts for young people in the play, are double-cast. In the version I attended Ralphie was played by Julian Moser, whose earnestness and subtlety of character carried the production in impressive fashion. Myles Hutchinson and Jude Gomez were equally convincing as Ralphie’s two pals,

Daisy Kopolowsky, as the class brain, and particularly Xochitl Gomez-Deines, as the girl with eyes for Ralphie, provided that intriguing underlay of pending adolescence. Gideon Cooney Lebano, required mostly to be menacing, proved imposing as the school bully. Marshall Gluck makes nice work of Ralphie’s somewhat odd little brother.

But to lay the success of this production entirely at the feet of its talented youth would be to miss several other performances of note. As Ralphie’s imposing, world-weary teacher, and as the store employee serving as Santa’s definitely disenchanted elf, Danon Dastugue finds the neat balance between humor and bitterness which makes both characters highly entertaining.

Richard Van Slyke makes Ralphie’s father’s obsessions and character quirks as naturally warm as the tale permits, while Andrea Stradling proves the epitome of the midwestern, midcentury mom. Jackson Kendall gives the adult Ralph looking back on this storyline a lot more character than that of simple narrator, providing the glue which holds the piece together.

All these fine folks operate in this episodic tale on Charles Erven’s remarkable, and impressively flexible set, which lighting designer Derek Jones transforms, along with portions of SMP’s audience space, into something bigger than one thought could fit into this size of theater. The costumes courtesy of Shon LeBlanc, long known for his sense of period, round out the visuals in important ways. Still, the ensemble, the flow and movement of the piece, and the unified spark which push this show to its potential land solidly at the feet of director Christian Lebano. His affection for this show and his understanding of the need to pacing tight make the whole enterprise work.

So, if you are looking for something to watch to get you into the holiday mood, but have had enough of A Christmas Carol to last you awhile, why not try this show. It’s a change of pace, it’s very well done, and it will leave you thinking warm thoughts about the spirit, and the silliness, of this time of year. Children are more than welcome, though very young ones may find its humor goes over their heads.

What: “A Christmas Story” When: through December 31, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays, with added performances at 8 p.m. Tuesday, December 19, Wednesday, December 20, and Thursday December 14 and 21 Where: Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd in Sierra Madre How Much: $36 general, $33 seniors (65+), $21 youth to age 21 Info: (626) 355-4318 or

An Ode to Human Connection: “4,000 Miles” in Sierra Madre

Christian Prentice and Mimi Cozzens in "4,000 Miles," now at Sierra Madre Playhouse [photo: Gina Long]

Christian Prentice and Mimi Cozzens in “4,000 Miles,” now at Sierra Madre Playhouse [photo: Gina Long]

It is rare for a small, essentially community-based theater like Sierra Madre Playhouse to receive a chance for the Los Angeles premiere of a high profile play, but it has happened. Amy Herzog’s Pulitzer-nominated “4,000 Miles” has arrived at the small theater to much fanfare. The play, which looks at the interaction between an idealistic, somewhat immature young man who has bicycled across the country and the leftist grandmother he ends up staying with in New York City, offers a few statements on growth, on city vs small town activism, and on what the maturation process really means.

The tale starts with the arrival of Leo at the New York apartment in the middle of the night. Thrown by the rejection felt from the girlfriend he’d hoped to connect with (recently landed in NYC herself), he ends up staying with Vera, the wife of his late grandfather. As she teaches him focus and responsibility, he opens up about the horror of his cross-country bike journey, and gradually they both come to understand one another. It’s not that he will stay in the city, but perhaps now there is a link which will survive the distances.

Christian Prentice makes a great Leo – handsome if rough-hewn, overflowing with energy and opinion, slow to learn to listen. He makes a fine foil for Mimi Cozzens, as Vera, a woman used to being alone but gradually and increasingly glad of the comparatively non-standard company. Their best moment comes in a scene in which Leo introduces Vera to a bong, producing genuine laughter onstage and off.

Alexandra Wright makes fine work of Leo’s erstwhile girlfriend, displaying all the confident maturity and practicality he seems at first to be incapable of. In a brief, but very funny scene, Susane Lee has a great time with the Chinese-American girl Leo picks up one night, who cannot get over the fact Vera has “The Little Red Book of Chairman Mao” on display in her living room.

Director Christian Lebano has taken this rather talky play and given it as much legs as one can. John Vertrees’ beautiful set – complete with a background scene which got – and deserved – its own applause, makes a very realistic apartment for these folks to inhabit, though in some ways it becomes claustrophobic. But then, that may also be a point.

If there is any issue, it comes from Cozzens’ portrayal. Vera is to be occasionally forgetful, but Cozzens makes her, if anything, more so. Indeed, the hemming and hawing happens so often it begins to look less like the script and more like an actress struggling for lines. This is too bad, as the best moments are rich and filled with a special kind of wisdom and fatalism which comes with intelligent aging.

Still, “4,000 Miles” has a lot to say about adaptation, maturing, and the conflicting agendas of various generations. It’s worth a look as a picture of one corner of the American landscape. That is what made the Pulitzer folk take a close look. One note: the play is not recommended by the theater for children under 16, due to adult language and situations

What: “4,000 Miles” When: Through November 8, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays Where: Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87. W Sierra Madre Ave. in Sierra Madre How Much: $25 general, $22 seniors, $15 youth (15-22) Not recommended for children under 16 Info: (626) 355-4318 or

“Battledrum” – Music helps the young to identify with the Civil War

James Semenc, David Craine and Donzell Lewis the drummers in one of the multiple casts of "Battledrum" in Sierra Madre [photo: Gina Long]

James Semenc, David Craine and Donzell Lewis the drummers in one of the multiple casts of “Battledrum” in Sierra Madre [photo: Gina Long]

Arguably, in many circumstances the best way to teach children something about the past is to show them. For that reason, various groups at one time or another have created theatrical experiences intended as living educational tools. These can either be taken to schools or – if it is possible – students can be brought to the theater to appreciate two things at once: live theatrical performance, and a greater understanding of whatever historical period, etc., the show is trying to make come alive.

One of the most recent of these is “Battledrum,” by Doug Cooney and Lee Ahlin, the new, original musical running at the Sierra Madre Playhouse. Its main purpose is to educate, and in that capacity it has booked an impressive number of daytime performances for classrooms-full of students. The usual lobby posters have been replaced with an extensive historical display of photos and commentary. Even samples of period clothing appear at the end of the hall. Opening it to the general public for evening performances appears to be only a sideline to the show’s main purpose.

The story revolves around an under-discussed aspect of warfare prior to the 20th century: the role of the drummer boy. Drums were used by officers to communicate across long distances, and thus the boys playing them were often seen by the enemy as targets in the same way the radio man would have been in the 20th century.

In this case, the topic is the American Civil War, and we follow three disparate boys who end up as drummers for the same northern company. One has been with the army for some time, moving up to the primary drummer as those above him have been picked off, and is proud of his status as first drummer. One is a boy the company picks off after his farm is destroyed by those troops. He has nowhere else to go, and likes to drum, but his loyalties are complex. The third is an escaped slave absorbed – somewhat problematically – by this company and befriended by the two other boys.

As a play, “Battledrum” is a good introduction to the tensions and risks of war for younger children. The characters are empathetic, and the music – though not particularly memorable – is sung with gusto and commitment. There is a sense of military hierarchy, and the pathos of an absent mother and of a young Southern woman in shock. And there is enough drumming to keep the kids rather envious. It is also short – less than an hour and a half, without an intermission, so the wiggles will be comparatively few. On the adult evenings, at least, members of the local Civil War Roundtable, who study and portray folks from that period, were on hand to give a local angle to that rather distant war. This may be an attempt to add a certain sophistication to what is essentially a live “afterschool special”.

The show has been double-cast, because of all the daytime performances. The night I saw it, Chris Clowers brought a gee-whiz quality to young Rufus, who escapes his burning barn to end up in the friendly hands of his enemy. Patrick Dillon Curry gave a sense of youthful authority to the drummer boy somewhat resentful of Rufus’ presence as his potential replacement. Damone Williams created a very likable, earnestly freedom-seeking young escaped slave ready for the protection and adventure of his new military position. Will Cespedes provided – and provides for all performances – an anchor of command as the friendly but authoritative company captain. The cast was rounded out by other strong players, with smaller or multiple parts, including Kaitlin Cournelle, Mark Ostrander and Tara Bopp.

Director Christian Lebano has put his all into making this play work, and it does give a sense of authenticity (though perhaps the treatment of the slave is a bit on the warm and fuzzy side for even northerners of the era), until the very end, when suddenly all the performers are drummers, doing a really cool routine no captain would ever be a part of. It’s as if nobody really knew how to end it on a historically accurate note.

In any case, the costumes by Elizabeth Nankin are excellent, the setting – though spare – gives an open impression on the tiny SMP stage, and the vitality and pacing of the piece keeps the audience connected. It’s a great way to be introduced, as a child, to what the Civil War was like, even if it is rather the “kinder, gentler” version of events. In any case, it’s great for grade school kids.

What: The West Coast Premiere of “Battledrum” When: Through April 19, 7 p.m. March 21, 22, and 29, April 5, 12, 18 and 19; 10 a.m. April 11; 1 p.m. April 8; 2:30 p.m. March 23 and 30, and April 6 and 13 Where: Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Ave. in Sierra Madre How Much: $25 general, $22 seniors, $15 youth (13-21), $12 children Info: (626) 355-4318

The Battle Between Hubris and Faith: “God’s Man in Texas” as character study

The cast of "God's Man in Texas" consult over tea at Sierra Madre Playhouse

The cast of “God’s Man in Texas” consult over tea at Sierra Madre Playhouse

There is a memorable moment in the film “Oh God” when the deity, played by George Burns, shakes his head over a wealthy television preacher: “If what he wants is to make money, let him sell Earth Shoes.” The struggle between faith and mammon which comes with huge religious enterprises and megachurches is one worthy of examination.

And that’s what David Rambo’s “God’s Man in Texas” wrestles with: the positive, even saving energy such a community can provide, yet the potential for hubris, insulation and extravagance. Now at the Sierra Madre Playhouse, a polished, clean-lined production gives the audience food for thought.

Dr. Philip J. Gottschall, now in his 80s, has built an entire community around his enormous conservative church. There is a television broadcast, school from kindergarten to college, recreational activities, annual parades – a community at once welcoming and insular. His wife’s Bible study group contains the political movers and shakers of the Houston area. The take in the collection plate is in the thousands every service.

But Dr. Gottschall is in his 80s, and the board which runs the church’s enterprises is looking for an eventual replacement. After various try-outs, they seem to have picked Dr. Jeremiah Mears. Thus begins a struggle for the soul of this huge institution between the man who see himself in every part of the thing, to the man who wants to make it his own. Through it all, they are each assisted and given certain reality checks by Hugo, a devoted member of the church’s 12-step programs who provides the practical voice of the common man.

Ted Heyck gives Dr. Gottschall the right mixture of pronouncement, paranoia and earthly pride, as a man who cannot admit to his own aging, or that anyone else could really be as right as he is. Christian Lebano’s particular timbre of calm as Dr. Mears makes a fine balance against the intensity of Heyck’s character. Thoughtful, devoted, but increasingly frustrated, his demeanor as well as his lines underscore the differences in the approach of the two men to the same topic. Paul Perri is a hoot as Hugo, at once fragile and practical, silly and dedicated.

Director Nancy Youngblut keeps this very talky, often amusing piece visual, utilizing the tiny SMP stage effectively and creating a sense of a huge church out of nothing but a pulpit and the look in her characters’ eyes. This is aided by the particularly fine (if a tad wobbly) set by D. Martyn Bookwalter, which creates specific spaces with artful minimalism.

Obviously, this play leans a lot on sermons and talk of religion. Yet, the interest comes from the balance of those religious sentiments with individuals’ actions – and the purposes behind the words, when spoken. Even audience members who do not echo the passions of those onstage will find “God’s Man in Texas” an interesting, if not overly deep study of character and ethics.

What: “God’s Man in Texas” When: through May 18, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays Where: Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd. in Sierra Madre How Much: $25 general, $22 seniors, $15 youth, $12 children 12 and under

Opening a Door: Sierra Madre Playhouse’s Spin on “Driving Miss Daisy”

The cast of SMP's "Driving Miss Daisy"

The cast of SMP’s “Driving Miss Daisy”

This production has been extended through March 20, 2013

Once seen mostly as a sweet, sometimes fascinating character study, Alfred Uhry’s “Driving Miss Daisy” has gradually become a subject of controversy, in much the way that “The Help” has. The genre, which tends to view the segregated south through the lens of the humanity created by personal interaction between the traditional white elite and their patient African-American domestics, has kind of had its day. That is, if one still plays those parts with that tendency to pigeonhole its participants.

What seems to set the new rendition of Uhry’s play at the Sierra Madre Playhouse apart from some others is the essential maturity of all the characters. This Daisy is terrified of being alone and covering it with bravado. This Hoke is a shy but manly figure whose deference is more to infirmity than color. This Boolie genuinely loves his mother, “gets” Hoke, and is personally cheered by the relationship his mother has with her confidante.

Director Christian Lebano, realizing this may not be an easy show for some, has even included in the program a set of questions for people to use as discussion starters after the play is done. It’s an acknowledgement of both the touching nature, and the baggage, of this play.

Still, “Driving Miss Daisy” remains, at heart, a play about distinct and interesting individuals. Impressive actors can make this piece what they will, and this is most certainly the case here.

Mary Lou Rosato ages with great physical accuracy as Miss Daisy, moving as an aged woman would while giving a refreshing balance of crochety-ness, underlying care, and subliminal fear to the part. Even the very end – a tough element of this play which is rarely done with subtlety – has a startling truth to it, which makes it particularly human.

Willie C. Carpenter gives Hoke more than just the usual dignity, but a kind of presence which lets him look Daisy’s son Boolie in the eye. These are not equals, perhaps, but these are both men who understand that the differences in their social standing are societal more than personal. Carpenter infuses Hoke with that manliness, and – once again – accurate view of the aging process, which make him Daisy’s rock as much as Daisy’s driver.

Perhaps most surprising is Brad Reed’s Boolie. Boolie is usually played as a classic “trying-to-fit-in Jewish Good Ol’ Boy.” Reed’s new spin on the part doesn’t humor or patronize his mother, but rather walks the delicate balance between his love of and identification with her and the realities of his business life in the Atlanta of his day. He gets her. He gets Hoke. He even sometimes seems a tiny bit envious of their ability to live honestly themselves. This portrait ties the whole piece together in interesting ways: a new view, if you will, of the entire proceeding.

Kudos also go to the show’s production values. Gary Wissman’s blissfully simple set keeps the pace of the play (which is performed without intermission) moving right along. Kristen Kopp’s costumes are accurate right down to Daisy’s shoes – impressive for such a small theater. Simple polish seems to be the hallmark of the whole production.

So, take a look at this “Driving Miss Daisy.” Though it remains admittedly controversial, a chance for a new window into such a piece is always useful. And that’s what this production offers: a new window, a new slant on something which has often gotten either too cosy or too disquietingly stereotypical. Whether you agree or disagree with the play or the interpretation, the discussion to follow can be a fine exercise all on its own.

What: “Driving Miss Daisy” When: Through March 9, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays Where: Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd. in Sierra Madre How Much: $25 general, $22 seniors (65 and older), $15 youth (13-21), $12 children (12 and under) Info: (626) 355-4318 or

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