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Most valley theater-lovers are familiar with the work of Judith Chapman, either through her work onstage in The Belle of Amherst and Blythe Spirit, or stints on soap operas like The Young and the Restless. Striking, intense and always fully committed to her character, Chapman is a force to be reckoned with as an actress—and she certainly does not disappoint as Tallulah Bankhead in Desert Rose Playhouse’s production of Matthew Lombardo’s Looped.

The play is set in a recording studio in 1965. Bankhead’s career as a stage and film star is beginning to fade after years of tawdry affairs and substance abuse. She has been summoned to dub in (or ”loop”) one line in Die! Die! My Darling, which would prove to be her final film. Sound technician Steve (Miguel Arballo) and film editor Danny (Mark Fearnow) are hoping for a relatively short and problem-free recording session--its only one line, after all—but it is not to be.

Bankhead stumbles into the studio, several hours late, swearing about the traffic. Looking every inch the Hollywood has-been, she wears attire including large sunglasses, a cocktail dress and an ankle-length fur coat (despite the Los Angeles heat).

Once recording begins, it becomes clear that this will be a long day. Tallulah cannot seem to remember the one simple line of dialogue and is more interested in verbally sparring with Danny. Their star demands a drink to keep her creative juices flowing, then turns up her nose at the bourbon Danny offers. “You don’t have to drink it,” he counsels. “Of course I have to drink it,” she snaps. “I’m an alcoholic—that’s what we do!”

As the booze flows and Tallulah adds cigarettes and cocaine to the mix, the tales of her sexual escapades and her language get even raunchier. Aghast that Danny has dared to move her purse, she admonishes him: “Touching a woman’s purse is like touching her vagina.”

Of course, Danny is becoming more and more frustrated with Bankhead’s behavior, and is starting to get pressure from studio executives to get the job done. But eventually, Tallulah’s booze-soaked charm and inquisitiveness wear him down, and he opens up about the secrets and frustrations in his own life.

Fearnow is terrific as the beleaguered Danny. Early on, he strikes just the right notes as the buttoned-up, all-business film editor who just wants to complete what should be a simple task. Trying to give his star her due, he willingly plays her straight man—but soon his patience wears thin, and his anger toward this grown woman who is acting like a sex-crazed 5-year-old comes roaring out. Later, Fearnow has some touching moments when laying bare the secrets of Danny’s past.

In the small but vital role of sound engineer Steve, Arballo is quite good. Observing the battle of wits between Danny and Tallulah from high up in the sound booth, Steve grows understandably frustrated and impatient. He just wants to get the damn line recorded so he can take his kids to a ball game.

Looped is Chapman’s show. She embodies Tallulah in every way. Strutting around the stage in her blue taffeta and heels, she certainly looks the part. Her comic timing is flawless, and Bankhead’s salty language and bluntness about sex come across as organic in Chapman’s performance. But it is in the quiet, poignant moments when Chapman’s skill as an actress is clear. When her large, blue eyes fill with tears while recalling some humiliating moments onstage, there is no doubt the pain is real. The audience is right there with her. An acting teacher I once had would often implore his students: “Make me FEEL something!” Judith Chapman does just that—every second she is on the stage. Her portrayal of Bankhead in this production is a star turn.

Jim Strait, who recently retired as Desert Rose’s artistic director, returns as director here—and a fabulous job of directing it is. He cast the production well, and brings strong performances from each of his actors. The set, sound, lights and costumes all work quite well.

I did not know that much about Tallulah Bankhead before seeing Looped. I learned quite a bit, as will you if you see this play. But the main reason to go is for Judith Chapman. Hers is a performance you will not soon forget.

Looped is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Feb. 10, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $34 to $37, and the running time is about two hours, with one intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

A number of plays have moved me while I’ve been doing theater reviews in the Coachella Valley—but none have pierced my heart and shaken me to the core the way Dezart Performs’ The Outgoing Tide did.

That’s due, in large part, to its subject matter: Alzheimer’s disease. It’s a hideous, devastating illness—one which took my mother’s life nearly five years ago. She spent her final years in an assisted-living facility on the East Coast, so I was spared the daily trauma of seeing my mother wither into a mere shadow of who she once was. That pain fell to my dear, devoted father, who drove to the facility and fed her lunch every day for years. When I did visit, it was deeply painful to observe this once-vibrant, articulate woman rendered nearly speechless following two strokes and the dementia. Nothing scared her more … the thought of ending life in an institution, incapacitated and in a wheelchair, feeling helpless and alone.

It’s something we all fear. Many of us studiously avoid talking about the possibility that it could happen to us. But talk about it, we must.

Written by Bruce Graham, The Outgoing Tide tackles this tough subject matter head-on. The play centers around Gunner (Michael Fairman), who is battling the scourge of Alzheimer’s; his wife of 50 years, Peg (Judith Chapman); and their son, Jack (Scott Smith). Gunner is aware that his disease is rapidly progressing, which makes him grumpy and fearful. The situation is often humiliating, as when, after a tirade over a broken television, Peg points out that Gunner is trying to watch Cops on the microwave.

Things are really going downhill: Peg has begun securing the gates at night so her husband can’t wander, and he almost burned up his newspapers after placing them on the stove. Peg is considering an assisted-living facility where both she and Gunner can take up residence; they can be together, and she can still care for him as long as possible.

Both Peg and Jack (visiting at his father’s request) think it’s a good idea—but Gunner won’t hear of it. After touring the place and noting the condition of some of the current residents, Gunner quips, “It’s like a roach motel. You check in, but you don’t check out.” Gunner adamantly refuses to consider selling his house and moving to such a place, even though he admits to Jack that his condition is worsening: “I feel like it’s starting to show.”

Instead, Gunner has an alternative plan—one that would end his suffering and set up his family financially. It’s radical and controversial, and Peg is totally against it. Jack (currently going through a divorce) is often stuck in between his two strong-willed parents, and doesn’t know what to do. When Jack asks Peg if she really wants to spend the rest of her life taking care of her husband, she responds: “What else am I good at?”

Though the play’s theme is gut-wrenching, there’s plenty of humor as well. Peg dismisses the possibility of a suicide pact with Gunner: “He’d probably shoot me and then forget to shoot himself!”

The acting is absolutely superb across the board. As Gunner, Michael Fairman is flawless. We feel every bit of the fear, anger and frustration his deteriorating mental condition triggers. Though he’s made some mistakes as a father, he’s funny, charismatic and lovable, yet ultimately tragic. His Gunner makes us wonder about our fathers, grandfathers or uncles…what would they do in this situation? Could we support their choice, even if it meant we’d lose them?

The amazing Judith Chapman does not disappoint. As the long-suffering Peg, she is the glue that keeps the family together. She’s strong and level-headed, and seems to be able to keep it all together despite the gradual loss of her husband. But Chapman lets us see the heartbreak just beneath the surface. Does she love her husband enough to let him do what’s right for him … or will her fear of being alone stand in the way? There is not one false note in her performance.

Scott Smith is terrific as the returning son who loves his parents, but feels he’s in a no-win situation. Beyond the drama of Gunner’s advancing Alzheimer’s disease, Jack’s visit home reveals some long-held family secrets.

Once again, artistic director Michael Shaw proves his mettle as a director. He moves his cast members around ably on Thomas L. Valach’s outstanding set, and draws out award-worthy performances from each of them. Clark Duggar’s sound was spot-on, as was Phil Murphy’s lighting (after a couple of brief glitches early in the play).

I have seen a number of very good plays from Dezart Performs, but The Outgoing Tide is in a league of its own. The opening-night audience gave the show a well-deserved standing ovation. The play forces us to think about end-of-life issues and personal choice. Most of us, at one point or another, will be touched by the tragedy of Alzheimer’s disease. A parent, a spouse, a friend or even we ourselves will experience the mind slowly slipping away. What would you do?

The Outgoing Tide is the most profound theater experience I have had in quite a long time.

The Outgoing Tide, a production of Dezart Performs, is performed at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2:30 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, May 8, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $24 to $28, and the show is just more than two hours, with a 15-minute intermission. For tickets or more information, 760-322-1079, or visit www.dezartperforms.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

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.

Published in Theater and Dance

Many of us recall reading Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Yearling, back in grade school. Her book Cross Creek, and its resulting lawsuit, are less familiar.

Written in 1942, Cross Creek chronicles the fishermen and other backwoods folks living near Rawlings’ home in Alachua County, Fla. Most of the 121 characters in the book were apparently fine with Rawlings’ descriptions of them, but one—Zelma Cason—took definite offense and decided to sue. The trial, which was the first of its kind in Florida, is the basis for Dezart Performs’ latest production, Invasion of Privacy.

In Cross Creek, Zelma is not pleased about being described as “an ageless spinster resembling an angry and efficient canary.” (I wouldn’t be pleased, either.) Rawlings goes on to say about Cason: “I cannot decide whether she should have been a man or a mother. She combines the more violent characteristics of both and those who ask for or accept her ministrations think nothing at being cursed loudly at the very instant of being tenderly fed, clothed, nursed or guided through their troubles.” Cason claimed Rawlings did not have permission to write about her and sued for libel and invasion of privacy. She requested an award of $100,000.

Larry Parr’s play is based on transcripts from the 1943 trial and interviews with Rawlings’ husband, Norton Baskin. It’s a bit of a Southern soap opera, filled with colorful, hard-to-forget characters.

The role of Marjorie is the glue that holds the entire production together. Gina Bikales captures the author’s strength and righteous anger over being told what she can and cannot write about, but her depiction of the Rawlings’ personal struggles—with booze and her often-absent husband—don’t ring as true. The opening scenes with Bikales and Peter Nicholson (Norton Baskin) lack chemistry. In fact, it’s not until near the end of the play that we see even a shred of Marjorie’s vulnerability. When she laments the death of her beloved dog and goes on about how much she misses him, we somehow just don’t believe it. Because Bikales has a strong stage presence and an animated face, the character would be more interesting and more likable if she toned things down just a bit; too much gesturing can get distracting. Sometimes, less is more. However, Bikales’ scenes with Louise Ross, as Zelma, are effective.

Ross—who stepped into the role three weeks ago when Blanche Mickelson (whose photo is featured prominently on the program and in press materials) had to withdraw for personal reasons—does a fine job. In her tacky, down-home outfits—the costumes are all terrific—Ross charms us as boozing, tough-talking Zelma, although Zelma could have used a bit more energy and fire at times (particularly in the courtroom scene at the end of Act 1). She shares some nice moments with Marjorie in her bathroom (it’s the only warm room in the house, you see) as the two women pass a bottle of whiskey back and forth and try to make up. Though Marjorie has come armed with an apology and a peace offering (a cake), the effort fails, and the former friends end up madder than ever.

Peter Nicholson holds his own as Rawlings’ other half, Norton. He’s likeable onstage, but he, like Bikales, could use a few more levels to his character. It occasionally comes across as a one-note performance.

Corbett Brattin is thoroughly entertaining as Rawlings’ good-ol’-boy lawyer, Sigsbee Scruggs. After failing to convince Rawlings and her husband to settle the case, Scruggs digs in to the task at hand, although he takes a brief detour from his dedication to the cause to flirt with his opposing counsel in the empty courtroom. His suggestion that she get to know the other male lawyers in town by going hunting with them brings a well-deserved laugh. Brattin’s performance is well-crafted and funny, and may well garner him the Desert Theatre League award win he’s so far been denied.

But the true jewel in the cast is Yo Younger as Zelma’s attorney, Kate Walton. Always a standout, Younger can command the audience’s attention simply by standing at the edge of the stage and gazing forward: You can’t take your eyes off her. Call it charisma; call it presence—whatever you call it, Younger has it. Her performance is passionate and strong, yet also vulnerable. When her character recounts the sting of being chastised by her family for even considering law as a career, and then being called a hillbilly by her law-school classmates, we feel every ounce of her pain. However, she’s always in control, and never pushes too hard. Younger splits her time between the valley and Los Angeles. Hopefully she will continue to share her acting talent with desert audiences for years to come.

In a small role as Judge John Murphree, Jason Lewis has some nice comic moments, particularly when he directs those in the courtroom to sit without uttering a word. However, he could pump up his energy level and vocal volume a bit.

The play is nicely directed by soap-opera and stage veteran Judith Chapman. She deftly captures the mood of backwoods Florida in the 1940s. The blocking seems to flow naturally, and Chapman generally keeps the action moving at a good pace (though a couple of scene changes lagged a bit). Having the audience double as the jury in the courtroom scenes, with the lawyers speaking directly to us, is quite effective.

The split set—one half Marjorie’s back porch, and the other the courtroom (and briefly Zelma’s bathroom)—works quite well.

Dezart and artistic director Michael Shaw have once again chosen an entertaining play that has a deeper message: Do we have a right to privacy? More than 70 years after the Cross Creek trial, the answer to that question seems more elusive than ever. Here in 2014—the “Age of Information”—privacy seems all but impossible.

The Rawlings legal case took more than four years with appeals. It also took a huge toll on the writer’s career—she only published one more full novel in the decade after the trial.

Dezart’s Invasion of Privacy is thought-provoking theater that will spark much debate on the ride home.

Dezart Performs’ production of Invasion of Privacy takes place at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, Feb. 9, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Womans’ Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $22; or $18 for seniors, students and members of the military. Running time is two hours, with a 15-minute intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-322-0179, or go to www.dezartperforms.com.

Published in Theater and Dance