Drunk with Laughter

A chance meeting between four middle aged women results in the formation of a weekly happy hour society.  As their bonds of friendship grow, each begins to rediscover herself in a new phase of life.  This is The Savannah Sipping Society by Jamie Wooten, Jessie Jones, and Nicholas Hope and is currently playing at Maples Repertory Theatre.

This is a truly funny slice of life story.  The dialogue sparks and crackles with witty repartee and deadly sharp one liners.  Even more impressive is the fact that Wooten, Jones, and Hope have written a show that manages to keep an audience’s attention without benefit of a centralizing story.  This show is truly just a show about friendship and how these friends support each other through their individual arcs.  Each character is going through a major life change that can be universally understood by an audience:  divorce, death of a loved one, job loss, and finding one’s self.  As a unit, these four women work through these life changes and buoy each other as they become better versions of themselves due to the power of their friendship which enables them to overcome the obstacles in their paths to become more than they thought possible.

Talky shows are a difficult sell.  Talky comedies are even more difficult because it requires a masterful handling of the dialogue to sell it without benefit of sight gags and hijinks and a minute understanding of characters and their interactions to get the show where it needs to be.  Thanks to Peter Reynolds’ top notch direction, I have seen the best talky comedy ever.

Reynolds coaches a high caliber cast who keep the energy high and know just what words to hit to pick every piece of delectable fruit from the verbal tree of this comedy.  His understanding of the characters and how they interact is spot on as I fully believed in the friendship of this foursome in spite of their individual quirks.

As played by Erin Kelley, Randa Covington is a stick in the mud’s stick in the mud.  Randa has no life outside of her career and tries to live life logically which goes to pot after she is fired from her job.  Ms Kelley is wonderful as the overly serious and cautious Randa who is too focused on material success due to a desire to stick it to her dysfunctional family and too stiff to enjoy life. Seeing her loosen up and realize that life is an adventure to be experienced and learning what makes for a true family is one of the highlights of the production.

Nancy Marcy almost steals the show as Marlafaye Mosley.  Ms Marcy’s Marlafaye is the group friend whom you always feel will embarrass the group.  She has no internal filter or tact and says whatever she is thinking whenever she feels like it.  On the other hand, if you have a friend in her, you’ll have a friend for life and one who would walk into the depths of hell with you to watch your back.  Rare is the performer who can deliver a punchline like Ms Marcy who throws off acid tongue zingers as if they’re second nature.  Her performance is worth the price of a ticket by itself.

Donna M. Parrone is sweet as Dot Haigler.  Her interpretation of Dot will remind you of your own mother due to her kindliness and supportiveness and her occasional half step off attempts to fit in to the group activities.  Dot is definitely the most sympathetic character as life seems to beat her up a bit more than the others.  But Ms Parrone brings real strength to the character and shows it’s not about how hard you hit, but by how hard you get hit and yet keep moving forward.

Megan Opalinski is a riot as Jinx Jenkins.  Ms Opalinski’s Jinx is the friend who always manages to talk you into doing something against your better judgment.  She’s brassy, confident, stylish, and always looking for the next adventure.  But Ms Opalinski also brings a real dramatic heft to the character as she is on the search for an unknown something that keeps her from settling down in one place.  From her lovely performance, we learn the best meaning of the word family in both contexts, i.e.  the ones you choose and the ones you get.

P. Bernard Killian’s set is a beaut with the large veranda of the yellow house with the stunning Georgian columns and the glass French doors. Yvonne Johnson expertly costumes her performers appropriate to their personalities from the subdued, business garments of Randa, to the white trash garb of Marlafaye, to the motherly wear of Dot, and the stylish clothes of Jinx. Also impressive were some medieval gowns for a Renaissance fair scene, especially Marlafaye’s jester costume.

There were a few minor blips in lines and cue pickups, but this show is going to make you laugh yourself hoarse and It just might pull a tear from your eye along the way.

The Savannah Sipping Society plays at Maples Repertory Theatre through July 27 at Maples Repertory Theatre.  Showtimes are 2pm on June 22, 25-26, 29-30, July 5, 9-10, 12-14, 21, and 27 and at 7:30pm on July 3, 12, 20, 24, 26.  Tickets begin at $24 and can be obtained by calling the box office at 660-385-2924 or visiting www.maplesrep.com.  Maples Repertory Theatre is located at 102 N Rubey St in Macon, MO.

Broken Dreams

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From left to right, Tony Schik as Lennie and Josh Peyton as George

George and Lennie have a simple dream.  They just want a piece of land of their own where they can grow some vegetables, tend some rabbits, and live life as they please.  On the cusp of realizing that dream, the ground suddenly threatens to fall away from under their feet with the most cataclysmic reality.  This is John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men currently running at the Omaha Community Playhouse.

Reviewing this show is a true pleasure as it is not only the best show I’ve seen this season, but also the best local show I’ve seen in the past few years.

I’m truly grateful that Steinbeck chose to translate his classic novel to the stage himself as I do not think any writer would have been able to properly communicate his ideas and themes as well as he could.  What made Steinbeck’s writing so beautiful is that he was able to present an incredible amount of themes and power, but kept it wrapped up in a relatively simple story.  At its heart, this is a story of friendship and loyalty, but Steinbeck also introduces themes of greed, poverty, infidelity, hope, frustration, love, and racism.  And he presents these ideas through ordinary, realistic conversation.

A great work needs great direction to properly relay the story to an audience and Ablan Roblin’s direction is a piece of art.  Rarely have I seen such skillful handling of a dialogue driven play.  Roblin keeps the words energized and moving.  He never allows the scenes to become static as he inserts just enough movement and animation to keep them lively and real.  His understanding of the turns and twists of the plot allows him to make sequoias bloom from the tiniest moments.  And the coaching of his cast is championship caliber.  Each actor is fully aware of her or his function and utterly confident in his or her abilities.  This allows them to come together as a whole and create something that is truly greater than the sum of its parts.

There isn’t a weak link in this cast, but some exceptional performances from the supporting cast include Donte Plunkett as a broken, acerbic ranch hand forced to live separately from his working class brethren due to the color of his skin; Mallory Vallier as the lonely, man-hungry wife of The Boss’ son, Curley; and Nick Zadina as the tough, but level headed bunkhouse leader, Slim.

Dennis Collins has a powerful turn as the one handed ranch hand, Candy.  Collins well essays the loneliness and feelings of uselessness of this character.  He’s an older man approaching the end of his days, barely able to work due to his missing appendage, and friendless except for his beloved hound.  The utter joy Collins displays through his eyes and inflection when he is allowed the opportunity to share in George and Lennie’s dream is a true treat for the audience.

Josh Peyton’s handling of George is so effortless that it almost doesn’t seem like he’s acting.  One can actually feel his bond of brotherhood with Lennie and all that entails.  Yes, you can see George’s love for Lennie as he cares for him and stands up for him, but you can also really feel his frustration at the difficulties of caring for Lennie.  Peyton’s emotional choices with his words and body language are always spot on and he is especially compelling when he has to make a crucial decision about Lennie in the play’s final moments.

I was leveled by Tony Schik’s portrayal of Lennie.  It is truly a revelatory performance that’s certain to place him in the running for the Playhouse’s prestigious Fonda-McGuire Award.  He is so utterly believable as the simple, childlike man whose intelligence and maturity is incapable of handling his incredible strength.  Shick brilliantly communicates Lennie’s essence with a slack jaw, veiled eyes, constant excited giggling, and a delivery that shows that Lennie really has to think about what he wants to say before he can say it.  You can’t help but love this big kid, yet ache at the fact that his immaturity and unpredictability make him hard to handle, though life is certainly never dull with him around.

Jim Othuse has crafted another winner with his bunkhouse set.  It is exactly what it needs to be:  simple, dilapidated, but functional for working men.  His lights enhance the moments from darkening at climactic moments to the night sky in the opening scene.  Darin Kuehler’s props add to the effect with his bunk beds and authentic bales of hay.  John Gibilisco’s sounds strongly support the work with sounds of ranch hands talking and the clink of horseshoe playing.  Amanda Fehlner’s costumes are perfect from the elegant dress of Curley’s Wife to the rich clothing of The Boss to the gear of the ranch hands and the poor, common clothing of George and Lennie.  An original score by Timothy Vallier helps to sweep the audience into this world.

John Steinbeck was truly one of America’s greatest writers and this is one of his finest works.  It may not be the feel good play of the year, but it could very well be the best play of the year.

Of Mice and Men plays at the Omaha Community Playhouse through March 17.  Showtimes are Wed-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm.  Tickets start at $40 ($24 for students) and can be obtained at the OCP box office, online at www.omahaplayhouse.com, or by calling the box office at 402-553-0800.  Parental discretion is advised due to some strong language and a few scenes of violence.  The Omaha Community Playhouse is located at 6915 Cass St in Omaha, NE.