Winneshiek Playhouse, that is, the oldest continuous all-volunteer amateur community theatre in the nation, opens “Saving Grace” tomorrow evening. The comedy is part of the 90th season for the organization. Ninety seasons include major World Wars, Depressions, economic ups and downs, and a new roof. Yet there are always actors entering and exiting the stage in Freeport, Illinois.
This latest production was written by Jack Sharkey, a prolific playwright who churned out some 80 plays, mostly musicals and comedies. While never glitzy Broadway smashes, his creations achieved better success for community theatre organizations like WP. With oxymoronic titles, smaller casts and generally more accessible to more audiences, the results are ever more impactful for a larger theatre crowd across the country – something that Broadway hit “Titanic” learned when the massive extravaganza could not be produced anywhere else; it has been revamped since to reach the classic story everywhere.
So it is a boon to all theatre lovers that a playwright like Sharkey came along to keep smaller stages alive and well. He was indeed a forward-thinking artist.
This particular comedy can be described as zany, fast-paced and light-hearted. Director Doug Munda notes that comedic timing is key to the delicate back-and-forth dialogue that can make or break mini-moments of laughter. Moreover, he adds that each production is an entirely different show, having been around a big Freeport block of stage experience, sometimes acting, sometimes directing. Always learning.
For that, Munda needs little introduction. Of his some three decades of acting and directing he has been fortunate to glean a wealth of layered understanding about infinite, yet detailed, fleeting moments onstage and off. So many plays, so much applause, and his remarkable resume can only be narrowed to a few of his favorite roles that include “Of Mice and Men,” “The King and I” and more recently, “Deathtrap.”
Straight away in “Saving Grace,” you must appreciate the ‘70s set design. The style will likely remind us how tasteless our visual senses of the era with the surroundings of shag rugs, gawdy lamps and blond rickety furniture – almost as bad as the retro junk of the ‘50s. If you hate it, then staff Lucy Roloff, Michelle Yeager with construction guys Ken Deutsch, Adam Moderow and Glen Wiegert will have achieved great success.
While in the moment of embarrassment about our past tastes, costuming with its garish colors and ugly plaid pants are the creative work of Lucy Roloff.
“Saving Grace” has merely five characters including Grace Larkin, Walter Chepple, Harriet Larkin, Alex Docker and Gregor Vanitsky. The characters represent a perfect recipe of oddities that wreak havoc between each other, as well as provide an endless array of mistaken identity.
The Grace to be saved is Jessica Caruso who embodies the Nervous Nellie as if a heavy diagnosis of hyperactivity has taken her from stutter to stutter at each entrance and exit. Her original male prospect is wooden insurance man Walter Chepple played by Glen Wiegert who happens to be her boss. At each glass of Scotch, he is less wooden and more confused as various love interests and marathon lies unfold.
Enter aspiring criminal/phone repairman (remember this is the ‘70s) Alex Docker by Craig Downing who throws everyone into a tailspin. A Highland Community College student, Downing seems addicted to the stage already. Built ever so slightly, he may to be a character actor in the making since his appearance seems versatile to embody many different roles, mostly comic but one never knows what lay ahead for aspiring actors. Most impressive is his instinct to use his entire body to convey the action.
Playing Grace’s sister Harriet Larkin, Dawn Degenhardt is hysterical at a mere glance. She typifies even the name of an ungainly “Harriet” with all the rough edges and carved expressions of horrified reactions. She rolls her eyes and smirks deeply with each melodramatic nuance, especially effective in the drunken scene where her face is completely askew in its natural state.
Brief and unlikely love interest of Harriet is a most convincing Douglas Rappa as evangelist Gregor Vanitsky whose satire of moves and Russian accent provide much spice to the already confused characters.
A signature asset of this farce is the duet of dialogue reactions followed by an exclamation point that crop up at the exactly the right time. You will find these little sprinkles of spice that move along a comedy.
“Saving Grace” opens December 4 and runs 5 and 6 (2 p.m. matinee) and 11 and 12 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets $15 at box office (815) 232-7023 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include a non-perishable food donation for FACC or hat/gloves for PADS of Freeport. ###