Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.

Tag Archives: John Francis

Solid “Diary of Anne Frank” Graces Whittier Community Theatre

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The Whittier Community Theatre, now in the midst of its 94th consecutive season, has admittedly had its ups and downs, but when they do something right, they really do it right. Take as prime example their current production of Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich’s adaptation of “The Diary of Anne Frank.” This deeply touching and absolutely true story of Jewish families hiding from the Nazis in a Dutch attic, as described to her diary by the teenaged Anne, cannot help but be affecting. Now, between casting, pacing and even the set design, WTC has brought the tale to life with an appropriate, clean vividness. As we, this year, mark the 70th anniversary of the defeat of Hitler, the show proves both instructional and endearing.

The tale is part of the modern psyche. After the liberation of western Europe Anne’s father returned to the attic where he, his family and several others had hidden for three years. Among the things left behind was the diary he had given his younger daughter, Anne, as they entered that attic. An aspiring writer, she dedicated long hours to describing their time there, philosophizing about the human race, and dreaming of a time beyond their self-imposed captivity.

Director Lenore Stjerne has gathered a cast of performers who not only embody the characters in that attic with skill, but look the parts as well. Richard De Vicariis, in perhaps his best role, plays Anne’s father Otto, the group’s central organizer and a man intent on keeping his humanity in the midst of claustrophobic human strife. Patty Rangel is Anne’s mother Edith, domestic and practical and desperately trying to maintain a sense of community.

James J. Cox is the somewhat questionable, bitter friend Otto feels he must pay back by bringing to the attic, while Joan Meissenburg makes interesting work of his materialistic, desperate wife. Tim Heaton gives the hermit-like last-minute addition to the group a petulant angst which helps define the tensions of this captive group. Casey Morlet makes a sympathetic Miep, the young woman who continued to supply the group with basic necessities throughout their isolation. John Francis makes Otto’s employee, and Miep’s partner in secrecy, a fragile but dedicated man.

Fitted in with this are the three young people, who define the specific conflicts of energy, desperation and hope. Wesley Mathews makes the shy, introverted Peter into a careful but deep thinker. Brenna Hanlen gives Anne’s older sister Margot a calm fatalism which provides interesting counter-balance to Anne’s optimism. And, as Anne – narrator of her own story and rich optimist about human nature – Gracie Lacey leads the cast in every possible way.

Thanks to Suzanne Frederickson’s set design, which utilizes the large Whittier stage while still giving a sense of the limited attic space, Stjerne can keep the flow going in such a way that one remains enraptured with the story. This is good, because the play is a long one – the first act an hour and a half – but the general quality means you don’t notice the passage of time. The costumes, created and coordinated by Karen Jacobson, accurately reflect time and place. Indeed, this whole production shows an extraordinary attention to detail, and a respect for the content which makes it a success.

In short, this “The Diary of Anne Frank” is most certainly worth seeing. I would also recommend it for young people who may not have been exposed to the book. Personally, my grandmother gave me a copy when I turned 10, with an introduction by Eleanor Roosevelt. This is powerful stuff, and as we reach a stage of history where almost all those who survived the horrors of the Holocaust have passed away, it behooves us to take the time to remind ourselves what they went through. Perhaps such remembrances can mean that one day we will reach a world where genocide itself is a thing of the past. Anne Frank seemed to think we might.

What: “The Diary of Anne Frank” When: Through November 21, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sunday, November 15 Where: Whittier Center Theatre, 7630 Washington Blvd. in Whittier How Much: $15 general, $12 students/seniors Info: (562) 696-0600 or http://www.whittiercommunitytheatre.org

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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

Golf as Farce: The Fox on the Fairway dashes into Whittier Community Theatre

Lewis Crouse and Roxie Lee, anxious for the outcome of "The Fox on the Fairway" at WTC

Lewis Crouse and Roxie Lee, anxious for the outcome of “The Fox on the Fairway” at WTC

Farce is an art form all its own. It demands a particular kind of rhythm, both from the performers and from the playwright. Ken Ludwig may be the best known farce-writer in America. His “Lend Me a Tenor” has become the gold standard of this kind of airy fluff. Now, at the Whittier Community Theatre, another of Ludwig’s silly pieces, The Fox on the Fairway,” offers up laughter, pratfalls and comic mayhem once again.

And once again, timing is everything. Fortunately, at WTC, the cast is – for the most part – up to the challenge. The play may not be quite as hysterical as “Tenor,” but it offers up plenty of laughs, snickers and a whole lot of golf humor. If you’ve got a golfer in the house, and want a laugh, this may be for you.

The plot – such as it is – is fairly simple. It is the day of the annual grudge-match golf tournament between Quail Valley Country Club and their arch-nemesis, Crouching Squirrel Golf and Racquet Club. Quail Valley manager Henry Bingham is sure he finally (after five years of losing) makes an unwise bet with his rival’s manager, only to find that his best player has defected to the other club. He thinks he is saved when he discovers that his new assistant, Justin, is an extraordinary golfer. The problem is Justin only plays well when not upset, something which may prove trickier than Henry thought.

Director John Francis has assembled a fine cast for this affair. Justin Patrick Murphy does everything but chew the scenery as the easily rattled Justin. MacKenzie Rae Campbell creates a delightfully volatile airhead as Justin’s fiance – the major cause of his upset. Lewis Crouse powers the piece as Henry – part bully, and part panicked investor. Greg Stokes, as the scheming head of the other club, really is as obnoxious and snotty as the character has to be.

MacKenzie Rae Campbell and Justin Patrick Murphy as the humorously volatile lovers at WTC

MacKenzie Rae Campbell and Justin Patrick Murphy as the humorously volatile lovers at WTC

Roxie Lee, as a club board member, and Toni Beckman as Bingham’s domineering wife, both have wonderful moments. However they both need to work on projection. Some of their funniest lines are quite hard to hear. Vincent Rodriguez – a young man for whom this show is a high school senior project – makes a fine tournament announcer, having also helped bring this production into being.

A nod must also go to Suzanne Frederickson for coming up with the perfect set for this kind of show, even if one of the swinging doors came loose due to all the slamming back and forth. Karen Jacobson must have had a ball with the costuming: finding all the truly obnoxious golf sweaters for Stokes’ character.

Indeed, there is a real sense of polish to this essentially amateur production. The sound effects are just right. The costuming is pretty much right. The set is created with farce in mind. The characters are well defined, and create the kind of ensemble which makes this particular kind of ridiculousness work. As with all of Ludwig’s plays, the humor builds: the crazy really comes out in the second half, so wait for it.

Try to catch this while you can. Sadly, WTC productions only last a couple of weekends – a part of their 92-year tradition.

What: “The Fox on the Fairway” When: Through June 15, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday Where: The Center Theatre, 7630 Washington Ave. in Whittier How Much: $12 general, $10 seniors/children, $8 students/active military Info: (562) 696-0600 or http://www.whitttiercommunitytheatre.org

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