October 1962 was a crazy time in the United States. The Cuban Missile Crisis had the world on the verge of nuclear war. Deadly riots after the first black student was admitted to the University of Mississippi had the country on edge.
Cultural change was afoot as well: Rock ’n’ roll was taking the country by storm, and some women, in some places, could gain control over their own bodies thanks to “the pill.” Oh, and kids were starting to wear sneakers to school. Yes, God forbid, sneakers.
This is the world in which the Whitebottom family of Worcester, Mass., finds itself in Duck and Cover, the dramatic comedy currently on the Palm Springs Womans Club stage, compliments of Dezart Performs. The organization’s mission is to present newer works of theater, and this is the West Coast premiere of Michael Kimball’s play. He should be proud of the fun, if flawed, production it is receiving from Dezart Performs and director Judith Chapman.
We first meet the Whitebottom family as the father, Hugh, is quizzing his 12-year-old son, Stevie, on state capitals and proper knot-tying. The mother, Claire, looks on, as the friendly neighborhood milkman, Mr. Rippit, drops by. We soon learn that Hugh served our country during World War II on a submarine, and that Stevie wants to be an electrical engineer when he grows up. The scene is straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting—at first.
We soon start to see small cracks in this all-American scene: Hugh chastises Claire for mentioning a financial matter “with strangers,” and makes Stevie feel stupid for dangerously leaving the door unlocked. Yes, Hugh’s a bit domineering—and we sense early on that this is going to become a problem at some point for the Whitebottoms.
The family’s relative peace is thrown into total disarray with the sudden arrival of Bunny, Claire’s brother. He shows up wearing tattered pajamas and holding a trumpet—the one thing he was able to save from the fire that has just destroyed his apartment. Hugh’s not a fan of his musician brother-in-law; he begrudgingly lets Bunny stay, but only until the end of November, and only if he pays $10 per week as rent.
A little later, the family is thrown into further turmoil when Eddie, a—gasp!—black man!—arrives. Turns out he’s a nice guy who is Bunny’s friend and co-worker, but his arrival sends Stevie fearfully scurrying into the bedroom, and leaves Claire wondering whether she’s ever seen a “negro” in person before.
Any play starring Yo Younger and Michael Shaw (Michael, I should disclose, is a good friend of mine) has a lot going for it; after all, they’re two of the best actors working in the valley today. True to form, Younger is amazing; she is, by far, the best thing about this production. She fully inhabits the role of Claire as she transforms from a put-on-a-happy-face housewife into a woman who decides she finally needs to put her foot down to protect her brother, her son and—most importantly—her own self-interests. This is a flawless, fantastic performance; Younger is so good that, at times, you may be tempted to race to the stage to give her a hug as she struggles to reconcile her needs with her reality.
Shaw, on the other hand, falls a bit short in his characterization of Hugh. The lines Hugh is given reminded one of my fellow play-goers of Archie Bunker—Hugh is a domineering bully of a man who declares repeatedly that in HIS house, and with HIS family, HE is the one who makes the rules. While Shaw brings plenty of bluster and frustration to the character, he doesn’t amp up the domination and anger quite enough; it’s hard to believe that Stevie and Claire would be so fully under the thumb of this Hugh. It’s only when Hugh shows off his lovable and noble traits—most notably in a scene near the end of the play when he cries out that all he really wants to do is protect his family from the turmoil of the world that surrounds them—that Shaw truly shines.
Local middle-schooler Stephen Lee is perfectly cast as the awkward, nerdy Stevie, while Scott Smith is good as Bunny; he’s especially good when expressing the adoration he feels for his dear sister, Claire. Hal O’Connell brings a lot of laughs as Mr. Rippit, the milkman who, we learn as the play progresses, is delivering more than dairy products to some of his customers. Robert Ramirez is strong in the first act as Eddie, although he descends a bit too far into stereotypes in the second.
All of the technical aspects of the play, per usual at Dezart Performs, are excellent, with one notable exception: The set. It’s a gorgeous, detailed, technically flawless piece of work, and may well be the best set that could have possibly been designed for the smallish stage at the Womans Club’s Pearl McManus Theater. Problem is, this play feels a bit too big for this stage: A living room, a kitchen and Stevie’s bedroom are all crammed in, and this leads to some awkward blocking by the characters, especially when four or more people are on stage at once.
Kimball’s script has some hilarious lines; I laughed out loud at least a half-dozen times. Still, the book could use some smoothing out. The characters’ transformations at the end seemed unrealistically sudden, and one moment—involving Stevie and Mr. Rippit—came off as downright creepy.
These issues aside, I thoroughly enjoyed Duck and Cover. It’s a funny and, at times, moving piece of theater that will leave you smiling as the talented actors take their bows. Don’t miss it.
Duck and Cover, a production of Dezart Performs, is performed at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, Feb. 8, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Womans Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $22 to $25. For tickets or more information, call 760-322-0179, or visit dezartperforms.org.