Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years
Tag Archives: small-stage theater
Dramatized by Albom and Jeffrey Hatcher, the play version of “Tuesdays with Morrie” now graces the stage of the Sierra Madre Playhouse. I mean “graces” quite literally. Schwartz’s peaceful openness provides a strong balance to Albom’s focused energy, and in the process offers up the lessons about calm acceptance, the humor in life, and the inevitability of its finalities. All this happens in a gentle series of conversations kept active and engaging by director L. Flint Esquerra’s subtle choreography.
Jackson Kendall plays Mitch Albom, both narrator and and participant in the dialogues which so shaped his world. Kendall balances the intensity of a man dashing from event to event with his character’s inner desire to get back to something more meaningful. Larry Eisenberg, as Morrie Schwartz, a man at home in his own life and, even as it begins to betray him, his own body makes realistic, convincing shifts required of advancing ALS, without being maudlin or losing the sense of the man behind the disease.
Indeed, Eisenberg’s humorous delivery underscores the practical positivity which made the encounters between the two men worth recording. So too the production, which allows for audience empathy without ever reaching a place where tragedy is the preeminent theme.
Set designer Amanda Knehans has provided a polished yet homey space capable of changing with the storyline without need for actual shifts of scenery, allowing the story to flow unimpeded through time. This it does, as “Tuesdays with Morrie” is performed without intermission, a choice which can sometimes feel long but in this instance proves exactly what the arc of these encounters needs.
Though it is true that watching someone convincingly disintegrate under the ravages of ALS may sound excruciating, in this production that proves not to be the case. Rather, one ends up focused on the profound legacy Morrie leaves behind for all of us, and not just Mitch Albom.
“Tuesdays with Morrie” plays in brief overlap with “Stuart Little,” SMP’s annual program for young people.
What: “Tuesdays with Morrie” When: through March 31, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays, except March 17. A special “Pay What You Can” performance will take place at 7 p.m. Monday, March 18 Where: Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd. in Sierra Madre. How Much: $40 general, $36 seniors 65+, $20 students 21 and under. Info: (626) 355-4318 or http://www.sierramadreplayhouse.org
Despite the media packaging, Thanksgiving, like any other major family occasion, can be fraught with underlying tensions. Not all families meet the greeting card standard. Making fun of this potential for awkwardness and insanities can prove great fodder for playwrights.
One example of this is Phil Olson’s “A Nice Family Gathering” now open at the Whittier Community Theatre. The play itself is a multiple award winning comedy. As produced at WCT, there are still struggles to find the balance of quirky comedy and meaningful family message. The awkwardness, it appears, is not in their script, but in themselves.
As a story it’s sort of a modern “A Christmas Carol” meets “All in the Family.” The Lundeens are gathering at the family home in small-town Minnesota for their first Thanksgiving since the death of their father. For each, issues arrive too. The writer feels he never lived up to his father’s expectations. His older brother, the doctor, feels the pressure to continue following in his father’s footsteps. The younger sister, generally ignored, arrives with issues of her own. And their mother seems kooky: is it depression due to loss, or the onset of Alzheimer’s?
And then, in walks the ghost of their father, offered one day to – through his writer son, who can see him – tell his wife he loved her, something he never quite got around to doing while alive.
In this production the three adult children come off as interesting individuals. As the writer, Carl, Justin P. Murphy all but vibrates with personal frustration, and juggles well the subterfuge necessary to hold conversations with someone nobody else in the room can see. As his older brother, Michael the “good son,” John Warner becomes the stuffy image of respectability, melting just a bit as he explains how such rigid goodness is dooming his marriage.
Meghan Duran gives the ignored sister Stacy an aura of fatalistic acquiescence, which works up to a point, though it doesn’t explain the connections suddenly created in the second act. Greg Stokes plays the father’s old golf buddy Jerry with a genuineness, which helps dispel the father-ghost’s suspicions regarding Jerry and the ghost’s widow. Jerry Marble plays the ghostly father rather all in one key, but perhaps that would happen if you had one day to watch your family rearrange itself without being able to contribute.
Laura MacDowell is a harder sell as Michael’s wife. Supposedly hyped on hormones and desperate for a fertility that eludes her, her only way to show emotion is to face-plant into someone’s chest and make weeping noises. A more rounded characterization would have added to the comedy. Andrea Townsend, called upon to be both goofy and mom-practical does much better with the second act’s human interaction than she does with the more bizarre actions of the first act. It’s mostly that her timing, like MacDowell’s, is off from the rest of the piece, making jokes fall flat.
Director Karen Jacobson doesn’t seem to have talked her cast through their characters’ transitions much. Michael’s abusive behavior of his little sister is simply gone suddenly, and dismissed in the process. Carl’s abuse of Jerry is equally left at the “he’ll get over it” stage. Either the emotions and interactions on stage are far more intense than the script, or that transition is supposed to be telegraphed by actions that are missing. It leads to a sense that the first and second acts are not really the same play.
I also have to wonder a bit about the choice of this play for this particular audience. So much of the crowd at WCT plays is of an older generation. A show about kids sure that all quirks of their parent are oncoming dementia, not to mention ending up listening to the ache of a long-time spouse for a companion wrested away too soon, doesn’t seem to be the kind of thing these folks would laugh at. The resulting lack of feedback may also be a part of the timing problems for the performers.
In any case, “A Nice Family Gathering” has some cute moments, and handles some difficult material with humor and pathos. Still, as served up at Whittier Community Theatre, it has some significant flaws one cannot overlook. On the other hand, if you come with food for a local food bank, they’ll give you free goodies at intermission. That, and the support of the oldest community theater in the greater Los Angeles area are incentives for attendance all by themselves.
What: “A Nice Family Gathering” When: through November 19, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sunday, November 13. Where: The Center Theatre, 7630 Washington Ave. in Whittier How Much: $12 general, $10 seniors/students 18 and under Info: (562) 696-0600 or http://www.whittiercommunitytheatre.org