CVIndependent

Mon08032020

Last updateMon, 20 Apr 2020 1pm

Valerie-Jean (VJ) Hume

Ted Pethes is a lifelong musician who is about to turn 92.

In this time of the coronavirus pandemic, many people are pausing to reflect on the twists and turns of their lives—and looking back at his long and lucky life, Ted readily admits that most of it might never have happened without his clarinet.

There’s one more thing you should know about Ted: He’s my husband. He’s the only person I can really interview in person right now—and he’s got an amazing story to tell.

Born in Chicago in 1928, Ted was an only child. His musically talented mother played the piano and even the concertina; his father, an engineer, was a wannabe musician father who struggled with the violin, battling tone-deafness.

Ted grew up in a huge extended family of hardworking Polish, German and French-Canadian immigrants who often played and sang music at family gatherings. When he was given a clarinet early in life, they all soon realized that he was the true talent on the family tree. His grandfather—something of a celebrity who played Polish polkas on the clarinet on live radio, today’s equivalent of being a serious rock star—was his first teacher.

He went on to study with symphony musicians and freelanced with the NBC staff orchestra, extending his skills to include the flute, oboe and sax—both tenor and alto. But his true delight was sneaking, underage, into the smoky nights at the jazz clubs in the Black sections of Chicago.

“I would carry my sax in a case, and when they came to throw me out and then saw it, they would invite me up to play,” Ted said. “I was often the only white face in the club. I learned improvisation from those great guys.”

While in college, he was suddenly drafted to join the military for World War II. The day he was to report, he boondoggled away the day before finally dragging himself into the Army office around 4 p.m.

“Beat it!” a recruiter snapped at him. It was the day they stopped the draft.

However, in 1950, the strange experience of the “Korean conflict” began—and guess who came up first on the list for recruitment? Ted showed up at the Army recruitment office and was assigned to Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.

“Don’t take anything with you,” they admonished him. “No clothes, no nothing.”

Well … he did not want to leave his precious instruments behind, but he knew they’d be confiscated if he smuggled them in and they were discovered. His clarinet, however, could be disassembled into four pieces and squeezed into a little case. Sure enough, any of the Army higher-ups who glanced at him thought he was carrying a “ditty bag”—a case for personal toiletries—and ignored it.

Fort Leonard Wood was a former training base which was rapidly being reopened. “Local farmers had been given permission to use it for grain storage,” Ted remembered, “and they were still sweeping chaff out of the barracks when we arrived.”

In the chaos, Ted asked where the general could be found, and was pointed to his office. With his clarinet bag under his arm, he shuffled in and announced himself to the sergeant.

“Get the fuck out, grunt!” the sergeant bellowed.

But the general, hearing the commotion, stuck his head out of his office. Ted bravely suggested the need for a band at the base so the newbies could learn to march to music. The general thought.

“Dismissed!” he barked.

After a few days of basic training, Ted was summoned back into the general’s office. After some reflection, the general had decided a band was a good idea.

“I know a bunch of great musicians here from Chicago,” Ted said he told the general. “I can practically find all you need.”

The Army gets what it wants, and soon after Fort Leonard Wood received shipments of band uniforms, instruments and sheet music. Ted played his clarinet, but eventually was re-assigned to be the drum major—complete with a shiny whistle for communicating to the musicians, and a giant baton to establish the beat.

The march tempo, 120 steps per minute, was faithfully kept by the gigantic bass drummer they nicknamed Punjab. They rehearsed in a special hall that was part of their barracks, but played outdoors, with the music soon memorized for training sessions as greenhorn recruits stumbled past. The band also learned concert music for the camp’s entertainment on Saturdays.

The musicians came from all walks of life. “The band was built from auditions with the infantry, and they were accepted only if they were professional-caliber musicians,” Ted said. “We had some strong players—some from the symphonies, some from dance bands. Some were instructors! We didn’t teach anybody to play. They were all trained before they got there.”

“Regular Army,” or RAs, determined what would be played at the daily rehearsals. “Some were of questionable musical ability,” Ted lamented, “but they had the job, so they literally called the tunes. … We played for everything, including the graduating recruits and their families, who would first be treated to speeches from the general. Then, when they called ‘pass and review!’ that was my signal. When I blew my whistle four times and stepped off, everyone did, together. We were on our way.

“The relatives were sitting with tears in their eyes. … It was a touching moment for them, watching their sons now marching snappily in front of them, because they might be seeing their sons, or husbands, for the last time. They were being sent to Korea, to ‘defeat the enemy.’ This was the end of their training. They were now real soldiers.”

Ted, however, was never sent to Korea.

“My tour of duty kept me in the camp for my whole two years. The entire band stayed there,” he said. “We must have played for graduations every month or so. We were a unit, a training unit for the new recruits, so it was easier for the Army to keep us there than to constantly find new musicians.

“Fort Leonard Wood was the 6th Armored Division. Fort Leonard Wood became famous when a newscaster’s son was killed there in a training exercise. He was firing a bazooka when a live round fell at his feet and exploded. … It was a little rocket.”

After that, his celebrity father closed every nightly newscast by saluting “all the boys at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.”

“Accidents did happen in training. We used live rounds,” Ted said.

Word of mouth would sometimes seep back to the band members from the front lines about friends who had lost their lives. Many of the band members struggled with what is now called survivor’s guilt—but Ted was always grateful for that clarinet, which very well may have saved his life.

Ted returned to the university after his discharge, and went on to have a successful, wildly varied career—and his lucky ebony clarinet traveled everywhere with him. He has lived in the Coachella Valley since 1990. He played with our local symphony for many years, and regularly appeared with dance bands, jazz combos, show orchestras and even klezmer groups. At one point, we played together in the same band; that's how we met. We married in 2004.

Ted recently had to give up playing music, due to two cancer surgeries that altered his embouchure. That means his clarinet waits, for sale, at a shop in Palm Springs—and for a new home with someone who will hopefully honor its service and its history.

Who knows? Maybe the clarinet will save its next owner’s life, too.

Getting sober is one thing—and staying sober is another.

Since 1935, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings have been there to help members stay sober—offering a safe place for people to air their thoughts, questions and problems, with the tacit understanding of “what’s said here, stays here.” At least 10 percent of Americans deal with addiction issues, meaning AA and other 12-step programs are huge parts of many people’s lives.

Then came the coronavirus—and a societal shutdown the likes of which the United States hasn’t experienced in more than a century. When people can’t attend meetings … what happens to sobriety?

Enter the internet—and, specifically, Zoom meetings. While some local AA members continue to meet in person—risks to themselves and society be damned—most have turned to Zoom to continue to get the community and support they need.

We recently reached out to nine AA members and asked them how they’re coping as we all ride out the pandemic. We’ll start with D. and D., a couple who met in the program. Instead of physically attending meetings, they’re hosting online meetings daily via Zoom (zoom.us) at 9 a.m. The first meeting they held had 22 attendees. Within four days, attendance had soared to 92—a meeting featuring a screen full of faces on computers, tablets and smart phones.

Zoom’s basic service is free, but meetings on the basic service can last only up to 40 minutes. Therefore, people happily chipped in to upgrade the service, with the extra money collected going to support the AA Central Intergroup Office of the Desert, which remains open on Date Palm Drive in Cathedral City. There, people have always been able to phone in or visit in person to pick up literature, ask questions about meetings, or simply learn about the mysterious disease of alcoholism. The central office now includes a list of Zoom meetings at aainthedesert.org.

D., the wife, got sober at the age of 14 and is a grade-school teacher with 43 years of sobriety; her husband of 14 years has 28 years of sobriety. They found out about Zoom after the husband took a course online several years ago.

“We were contacted for an (online virtual) AA meeting a year and a half ago—an early morning 6 a.m. meeting that went around the world, and we were both asked to be speakers,” the wife said. “There were people in Iceland, Cambodia, on islands, in remote areas of the world, or people here with jobs who had weird hours, and it was difficult for them to get to regular meetings. We had some apprehension—but we liked it.

“Zoom is free for 40 minutes, and anyone can use that. To upgrade, you have to pay. … We have unlimited time now for a whole year for $149.

“My favorite part of our meetings is at the end when everyone reaches toward the screen, and we say a final prayer. We feel a closeness of the spirit, and it’s like holding hands.

“Unfortunately, some people are too afraid of the technology to join us. This morning, there were a couple of people who had ‘slipped’ (drank again) during this coronavirus. … People are struggling, and they are not all finding Zoom right away. For newcomers especially, it’s difficult.

“Initially, we were just going to do this on Sundays. I wasn’t sure that I hadn’t been exposed at school to the virus … so it was a strange time. I wanted to do something normal like our Sunday 9 a.m. meeting. But I saw on Facebook an ad for (online AA meetings), and they were looking for hosts—and our first meeting was so great, and everyone was so touched, that we decided to do it every day.

“We are supposed to be in lockdown. We may be isolated—but we are still connected. That’s why we call this meeting Stay Connected.”

The husband added: “It helped me so much. When you share your sorrows, they divide, and when you share your joys, they multiply. It’s true! It still works online at a Zoom meeting.

“Because of the virus, I couldn’t see my mother in hospice the last two weeks, so it caused me to concentrate more on the meetings. Then I actually found out by being texted during a Zoom meeting … that my mother was beginning to transition. … We interrupted the meeting, which I have never done before, and told everyone what happened, (and) that we had to go. Another member stepped up and acted as host. … We ran out and left our computer on. As we were traveling, we were texted that my mom had transitioned. We were back home 10 hours later, and the computer was still on—the meeting had closed, but we had no idea when it had ended!

“Since then, it has helped me to share at the Zoom meetings, and hear others’ stories about family who had passed away. I felt like I wasn’t alone by sharing at this meeting. … It was the best, to feel the group support … and to my unexpected amazement, I found myself being more open with my emotions, even to a group with a lot of strangers. I didn’t know I was going to do that. People from all over the country chimed in; it was like we were all on a life raft together. Just like AA’s creation of the Grapevine magazine for the loners, it was this forward thinking that got Zoom (meetings) started.”

The wife added: “With phones and texting, we all check on each other and offer support—and we still do that too, being self-quarantined. The technology is harder for older people, but we have younger people who stick around after every meeting to help them. Everyone is helping each other. We have to talk each other through it, so there is an incredible amount of communication going on.

“You’ll see a girl, 18, helping someone who is 85. It’s great.”


Kirk is a snowbird, a retired firefighter with 23 years in AA. Accustomed to attending five meetings a week, he now relies on Zoom for his meetings at 6:30 a.m., as well as another meeting originating back home.

“I see my old friends at the meetings! I almost feel like a newcomer—I had a lot of fear and uncertainty about the technology, like when I first walked into the rooms of AA,” he said. “I don’t know what I’m doing, but I am going to keep doing what they tell me.

“I need a hip replacement and am taking a lot of Advil and Tylenol—we can’t do surgery on it right now. My doctor says this virus thing is a monster; everyone is so overwhelmed. It gives me goosebumps.

“I have not heard of anyone picking up a drink over this yet … yet. I am pretty bewildered by this; I think we are totally underestimating the power of this thing. None of us has ever done anything like this. … I think it’s going to get worse. I hear the doctors interviewed on TV, and their voices shake sometimes.

“I was cleaning up the yard yesterday, just to get out of my own head. Hopefully we will know more in another month or so. … We have to go back (home) at the first of April, and then we will come back down here until the end of May.

“I suggest that people pick up the phone and call someone you haven’t called in a while … and get connected! When I do, I can feel the anxiety leaving my body. Clean the closets; clean the garage—and stay away from the refrigerator! Bicycle riding is great. … Walking the dog is great.”


L., from Indio, has 29 years in the program; his wife, has 32. They met in the program years ago.

“I was all for the meetings shutting down because of the coronavirus. The meetings can be Petri dishes, because people go to them even when they are feeling sick,” the husband said. “They should have been closed sooner. I support them staying closed as long as this virus is a threat. I have a lot of people I am close to, and we are staying in touch on the phone, going to online meetings a bit, and practicing prayer and meditation at home.

“I met with one sponsee, wearing a mask, sitting seven feet away, sitting outside. It is the last face-to-face I will do, because he is in a recovery home, and people there are sick. Who knows how widespread this is?

“Having a wife in the program is an advantage, as she has a source of interaction other than me, with all her AA girlfriends, so the pressure is not on us to be each other’s source of entertainment. The online meetings I like, but not as much as in person, though it is a good way to stay connected.

“I am not living in fear. … We are taking all the precautions we can. We are in quarantine and go out only when we have to. … We have one N95 mask, and I wear that when I go out shopping. When I bring food home, I have a Tupperware container with water and bleach, and I wipe down everything.

“(My wife) and I are actually getting along better. … I don’t know why, but it is. We are on the same page.”

His wife adds: “I appreciate the online meetings. … I’ve been doing meditation and music—and making cookies! I’m trying to keep a positive attitude. I am doing good, staying healthy and feeling good.

“This is really strange, isn’t it? I think in the end, good will come from this. A lot of people are coming together in love and peace and gratitude.”


Scott, in Redlands, just celebrated three years of sobriety.

“AA changed my life, because it allows me to help other people,” he said. “I am a 100 percent disabled veteran with dual diagnosis—I have to treat everything. I had to learn skills to stay sane and sober, both. I work the 12 steps, and my sponsor allows me the freedom to work with my psychologist as well.

“… In AA, I learned to practice ‘radical acceptance.’ When I came to AA, I had no place else to go. Now I help other people, especially at (a center in Redlands)—first, by staying sober, and also by being involved in my 1,018 days.

“At first, I was a chronic relapser, but now I don’t relapse anymore, because I take every day as a gift from God. I have learned to build a life worth living, rather than destroying things. Part of the process is learning to love yourself. It was difficult, but I learned to believe in myself. Now I teach the guys I sponsor about assets and liabilities; you can look in your heart and decide who you want to be.

“I sponsor two newcomers, and one has relapsed, but came back; it had nothing to do with the coronavirus. You see, the opposite of addiction is not sobriety; it is connection, and that’s why the rooms of AA are so valuable—that’s where we connect. We have to learn to pick up that phone and call our sponsors, call our sponsees, and join meetings online.

“The way to get through this time is this: If we don’t change our paradigms to changing circumstances, it isn’t going to work. We need to accept the change and be willing to change our behavior. It is a battle for all of us … but we’re not doing this alone. Even if technology is too much, we can all still use the phone!”


European-born Lena, now with 22 months of sobriety, lives in Palm Desert with a sober roommate.

“We actually have open meetings outdoors at noon each day, out in the fresh air, and we have a meeting (where) we hike to up at the cross at 8 a.m. … We are between four and nine people there every day,” Lena said. “I never had so many friends in my life! My sobriety is completely different as a result of this. … It’s like I didn’t know who I was.

“I started to use alcohol late in life, like after 40, and the progression was very fast. I came to California in 2017. I now volunteer and have a part-time job, but I am a dental assistant and don’t have my license yet. I went back to college late.

“I miss meetings … but Zoom meetings, thank God for them. It’s all over the country, which is great. So I am hiking in the morning, walking in the evening, and (having) Zoom meetings in between. I know several people who have ‘picked up’ (relapsed) over this, out of frustration, fear or justifying it—or they don’t want to go to meetings. Everyone who goes to meetings regularly stays sober, even with this stupid virus.

“I am very active. I have a very good sponsor, and we usually go to women’s meetings together. … I feel positive—it’s a great life, even with financial insecurity. God is everything or nothing, right? So I guess He’s everything!”


John, of La Quinta, celebrated 36 years of sobriety two weeks ago.

“When the meetings shut down, I knew I had to take care of myself—by phone, online, or even at outdoor early-morning park meetings … where I went only once,” he says. “I am now in a 15-day lockdown.

“I respect what the president is doing; he is the CEO of the country. … I can’t imagine where we would be if we hadn’t shut down. I have five sponsees right now, and I have to take care of them! I am going to stay in contact with them, and with other people, and with God.

“I am kind of retired from physical work. The online meetings have been a challenge technologically. Yesterday was the first day I seriously tried to do an online meeting, with partial success. I plan to definitely try again. My sponsees are doing really good; one guy is home with his kids, painting the house together!

“There are still (physical) meetings actually happening, and he is going to those in person. I didn’t get on him about it, but if we are all staying home, I think he should, too. I have another sponsee who is a nurse, and he is still working; he is doing OK. I say to him, ‘Take care of yourself, even with that protective gear!’ Another one is a kind of a hermit who never leaves the house much anyhow; we are only in touch by phone now, although we have met in person every week for five years.

“Another sponsee is moving! In the middle of this! He is lugging stuff right now.

“I used to go to meetings every day, and I love them. Acceptance is a big part of our program, and now we have to accept this new way of life. … We can’t get uptight about the new rules. Like the 12 steps of AA, we have to stay sober by doing them, and so we have to follow these rules in our civilian life to stay alive.

“God is asking a lot of us right now, but I think everyone will be just fine.”


In the city of Coachella is Joe, who plans to celebrate 21 years of sobriety in April.

“While this coronavirus is impacting people worldwide, I think it’s brought us closer than ever before,” he says. “We educate each other and stress the importance of being connected.

“We now have meetings in our home every day—sponsees and family, about 10 people. We aren’t worried about the virus; we are sanitizing and keeping our distance a bit, but we are not locking our doors.

“When I was overseas as a Marine, we had an Iraqi translator, and he used to walk around freely where everyone else was ducking flying bullets. He had no weapon. We asked why he did this, and he replied, ‘If it is meant for me to die, I will.’ I remember two other Marines under fire—one was taking cover; the other wasn’t, and he said to his friend, ‘Don’t bother hiding; you can’t die yet. You gotta get those teeth fixed first!’

“I won’t live in fear! I have to remind myself not to listen to my head, to live in a neutral zone … so I can’t go around thinking I might get the virus. My head will always try to feed me negative information. Every time we cough or sneeze now, we think we have the virus!

“There is a reason for all the principles of AA—we have to use the ideas, not just think of them as words. Now that we are home with our family all the time, I stay away from the news, because my mind gets worked on by it. AA tells me how to direct my day, and I am a whole lot better. It is a daily event, and if I don’t live in faith, then I can hear my mind talking to me. … It is stuff that is no good for me or anyone else. That’s why we hold these little get-togethers.

“People are so grateful for these! One gal just got 30 days (of sobriety). Another guy is 14 years old, and he just got two months of sobriety. To hear them say they need this makes it worth it—every time. I think I have had more get-togethers now than ever before; it is making us closer, while the rest of the world is isolating!

“I’m not yet going to meetings on Zoom. I say: Keep removing fear whenever it comes up; we are not running the show!”

Work: Love it or loathe it, it determines everything about you. It affects where you live, what you drive, how you dress, the hours you keep, how you shop, who shares your life, whether you rent or own, your taxes (yes, it’s that time of year), your environment … and the list goes on.

Dezart Performs’ production of Sweat is about work. The peculiar title suggests physical labor—a fact that’s confirmed when you find out that the setting is the steel town of Reading, Penn.

The author, Lynn Nottage, won her second Pulitzer Prize for Drama for this script (the only woman to win two!). The play’s great director/producer, Michael Shaw, told me that Ms. Nottage spent five years researching what happened to these hardworking folks caught in the ghastly triangle of struggle between The Union, The Management, and The Workers of the plant which employs them. Yet her script contains a few welcome laughs along with the gritty realism of words like scab and lockout.

The scenes bounce back and forth between the years 2000 and 2008. A fascinating addition to the onstage action: news headlines appearing on the proscenium between the scenes, including the temperature that day in Reading—and these headlines rocket us back to the names and events of those days. The play begins in 2008, then flashes back to 2000, but the changes in the time are handled beautifully by the cast of nine.

The main set is a neighborhood saloon. Created by the amazing Thomas L. Valach, who has given us so many fabulous and varied play designs, it is the quintessential cozy bar—and Shaw confided that it is a functional one, too! Watch the bartender! The stage is expanded when the actors chase down the aisles, and later, an extra hidden set pops out, too, courtesy of the show’s most excellent lighting by Phil Murphy. Kudos to all the techs who contributed their brilliance to the success of this play, all aided by Shaw’s flawlessly balanced blocking. Terrific work, all.

Conflict begins with the play’s first words. This solid cast of actors, some whom Shaw has imported, have all done their backstory research, so we meet fully realized characters. These people take pride in working with their hands and in being multi-generation factory workers. This is a life so far removed from our sunshiny world in the Coachella Valley that it’s spellbinding. This play’s dark atmosphere implies the gloom and grime of the steel mill where these people toil, but the neighborhood bar is a familiar haven that promises light, music, warmth and relaxation. Alas, it is also the setting for gossip, heartache, blame, jealousy, frustration, injustice, revenge and eventual violence.

Let’s look at the actors in alphabetical order, like your program does. Miguel Arballo plays Oscar, a Puerto Rican barback with ambition. A lot goes on behind his watchful eyes. He eavesdrops on the customers whom he resents because they ignore him—though he learns from them. Arballo brings multiple layers to his creation of Oscar, and he surprises us with this character’s growth.

Melanie Blue plays Jessie, a brunette who frequently finds herself “over-served” at the bar. This fearless actress uses her expressive face and subtle gestures to build a character in whom we see opposing thoughts existing together inside her head … except, of course, when she is passed out.

Desireé Clarke is Cynthia, a smart girl whose intelligence is layered with sweetness. She is keen to advance at work, yet is highly sensitive to injustice, favoritism and the feelings of others. This actress, as always, turns in a beautifully focused, believable and thoughtful performance.

The role of Tracey is played by Theresa Jewett—an assertive single mom, worried sick about her job, finances and her tattooed son. “I was never any good in school,” she says, dismissing the possibilities of union retraining. Alarmingly, we see her spiral downward faster than anyone else once their plant locks them out. Yet Jewett’s strong character never indulges in self-pity.

Cortez Johnson plays Chris, Cynthia’s son, a young man determined to free himself from the factory’s problems by pursing a teaching degree. He skillfully creates a complex role layered with a wide variety of emotions as he deals with his parents, his choices, his mistakes, his joys, his fears and anger.

Corydon Melgoza is Jason, Tracey’s son (and his tattoos actually play a role, too—watch them). When we first meet him, he is a sullen young felon, but when we next see him, it’s eight years earlier, when he was a high-energy boy with exuberant hopes. In Jason, Melgoza has carefully created a multifaceted character who runs the gamut of emotions.

Eddie Stephens opens the show with his character, Evan, an authority figure who is a parole officer or counselor for Jason. Interesting to watch, this actor chooses to play his part largely with downturned eyes—an amazing choice which works for him, though it is rarely seen onstage. Brave and unusual!

Cary Thompson plays Brucie, a character who can break your heart. His relationships are always subject to his con-man habits and a firm belief that everyone is a sucker. Thompson shrewdly layers this over a thin film of desperation, then tops it with an irresistibly sweet smile, creating a character that we both love and hate.

Mike Truelock is the bartender, Stan, who gives his role a greater arc than any other character in this play. “Shaken, not stirred,” he smiles to Jessie, handing her a martini like 007. The affable, philosophical former factory worker presents as a charming and friendly guy, which is why his story is such a shock. Truelock is unforgettable in this deceptively simple role.

Some performances are already sold out, but see Sweat if you can. Believe me: After what happens in Sweat, you will leave the theater shaken AND stirred.

Dezart Performs’ production of Sweat is performed at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, March 8, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $35 to $40. For more information, call 760-322-0179, or visit www.dezartperforms.com.

Creating suspense has to be one of the most difficult effects for a play to achieve.

In movies, the complex use of sound effects, special lighting and music can all heighten that tension, along with some camera-lens trickery and a lot of cleverly timed editing. Yet at the Pearl McManus Theater in Palm Springs, the Desert Ensemble Theatre Company has produced one of the most jaw-dropping, edge-of-seat, suspenseful live plays you will ever see—with absolutely none of those fancy assists.

Adoption Roulette uses only three actors and a black-box theater setting … literally: There are four black wooden boxes that get shuffled around the stage to be used as imaginary chairs, a desk, or a seat on an airplane, against the black-curtained background. There is no scenery except a minimalist white-pipe impression of a couple of rooftops to imply an urban setting. The show uses the most basic lighting, zero sound effects, no props and few costume changes.

But Adoption Roulette will fry your mind.

To accomplish this kind of theater experience, you obviously require a great script—and artistic director Jerome Elliott can take credit for its discovery. At the theater, we were introduced to one of the playwrights, Joel Vig, and we chatted briefly about his bringing to life this true story, authored along with the woman who actually lived it, Elizabeth Fuller. The result is a magnificent and tightly written play that starts off so innocently that you can’t possibly dream of what lies ahead.

This nice American couple, Liz and Reuel (pronounced “rule”), want to adopt a child—specifically, a little girl. They find intolerable roadblocks and insufferable delays with the adoption system in the United States, so they investigate adopting a child from Russia, where it is apparently a little easier and faster. What happens to them during the winter of 2004 as a result is … unthinkable. This is truly one of the most surprising scripts you will ever see—and DETC is presenting it for the first time ever: This is Adoption Roulette’s world premiere!

Shawn Abramowitz directs this two-hour, two-act show, and for his cast, he has shrewdly collected the considerable talents of Yo Younger, Fergus Loughnane and Adina Lawson. Younger plays the key role of Elizabeth (Liz) Fuller, while Loughnane plays her husband, Reuel—as well as four other parts. Lawson gets to play a total of seven supporting roles.

The bulk of the work falls on the delicate shoulders of Younger. As the hope-filled Elizabeth, this actress must make us empathize with her decisions and accept her rationalizations, regardless of whether life is sunny or otherwise. She draws us in slowly but surely, gradually raising the tension of her frustrations to a pitch that becomes almost unbearable. Watching her, particularly in the second act, you forget to breathe; you forget she is an actress; and you forget you are watching a play. Some of Younger’s lines are spoken directly to the audience as a narration of the events, and she makes it seem perfectly natural for her to step outside the action and explain it to us, then slide effortlessly back into her role. Younger’s extraordinary performance is not to be missed—and I pray that her vocal cords can stand up through the run of the play. Just to watch her hands is a study; it is beautiful work.

Loughnane plays her husband as an engaged and reasonable man with naturally sound instincts and the good judgment that is born of experience. He is fully believable as Reuel, and his concentration and focus are admirable. In sharp contrast, he also plays Igor, a cab driver with attitude. He creates a colorful and likable character—a chain smoker and a Willie Nelson aficionado (Psssst! Don’t forget to exhale that smoke!)—who pops up frequently through the play. He also plays a smoothly handsome airline pilot and a scary agency official as well, though they are less-explored characters.

Adina Lawson has waaaay too much fun romping through her seven yummy roles. Some are better defined than others, but her strange blonde, Olenka, is unforgettable. It is her largest part, and she has mined it well, creating a rich character who keeps us baffled as to whether she is friend or foe. She also brings to life a briefly hilarious Nurse Blatovsky and a fascinating Russian judge (an homage to Judge Judy) we wish had more stage time. She also plays several American ladies and a spokeswoman, characters who appear too seldom for us to get to know very well. It’s fun to see an actress relishing her creations.

Abramowitz’s direction is to be admired. The skillful and measured increase in the play’s tension is meted out perfectly; I shudder to think of what the director and his cast went through in rehearsals. The only possible criticism to make involves the use of mime, a staple of black-box theater and staged readings. As they speak on the phones, some actors are “holding” a phone, while others are just talking out to the audience … in the same conversation. Usually, the actors all do it the same way, with “phones” or without. It’s a small point, but worth mentioning, as it happened frequently. Other than that, the blocking is beautiful; the actors speak clearly; the theater’s new lighting is well-used; and the show is … amazing.

If you have ever experienced what qualifies as a living nightmare, this play will wring memories and feelings out of you. If you haven’t, it will horrify you to observe what you luckily have been spared. Either way, you cannot watch this cautionary tale without reacting to it—it’s that involving.

As adoptive parents of an endangered (and darling) desert tortoise, we went to the theater expecting a play that would make us feel all warm and fuzzy about the good we were creating through participating in adoption, even with “just” an animal.

Wrong. Go see this play … and brace yourself for a goose-bump-raising experience beyond your imagination.

Adoption Roulette, a production of Desert Ensemble Theatre Company, is performed at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, Feb. 9, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $28. For tickets or more information, call 760-565-2476, or visit www.detctheatre.org.

Yee haw, little dogies! If’n you’re hankering for a Western-flavored good time, slap on yer best bib and tucker, and mosey on down to the Desert Rose Playhouse! Those Musclebound Cowboys From Snake Pit Gulch are a-waitin’ on you, buckaroos!

The sold-out house of patrons for the opening weekend of this world premiere sashayed into the theater in high-falutin’ denim, Stetsons and boots. The mood is immediately set by the piped-in sounds of great country Western music from stars like Johnny Cash, Tammy Wynette, Hank Williams and Patsy Cline.

Interestingly, the stage and house at DRP have been completely reimagined for this production. The now-sprawling stage area features different levels that include a saloon, a set of stairs and even a hoosegow. (That’s “jail” to you whippersnappers.) A dividing curtain, which can be drawn across the stage at an angle, creates a backdrop that hosts small scenes. The reason for this is explained by playwright Andy Halliday in the printed program: The play was not originally envisioned like this; it was “cut down” for the DRP production, which changed the timing. Each scene transitions into the next without pause—which is actually how Shakespearean plays were originally enacted. This speeds up the play, and the flow allows the entire show to be filled with mini-scenes that keep the action moving nicely.

So here’s the premise: What if the Old West was … all gay? Why not? In this imaginary town of Snake Pit Gulch, the writer has mixed the classic stereotypes of the Drunken Sherriff, the Sneaky Villain, the Fresh and Innocent Farm Boys, the Young Troublemaker, and so on—and then thrown in a visiting Femme Fatale. It’s a recipe for pure melodrama. But gay, as one may expect from the valley’s only LGBTQ playhouse.

And it’s a musical—with lyrics by CJ Critt and music by Frank Schiro. The musical director is hardworking Jaci Davis—in an outrageous mustache and bowler hat—who not only serves as the accompanist for all the songs, but even doubles as the bartender in one scene! Alas, the mic-ed sound of the keyboard sometimes overpowers the singers.

It doesn’t take long for the audience to realize that only a couple of the members of the enthusiastic seven-man cast are trained singers. Well … can you imagine doing the casting for this play? With a title like this one, the crucial emphasis was obviously on musculature rather than vocal skills. So the singing voices are mostly not … operatic, let’s say.

Kai Brothers plays Sam Cantrell, a naïve farm boy. Brothers is an actor who knows how to use his bright eyes to his advantage, and seems at home in this role. His big brother, Evan Cantrell, is played by Clay Sales, a professional dancer and bodybuilder (those quads!) with a degree in computer science—go figure—whose flawless skin and shaven head drew much approval from the audience. The boys head off to Snake Pit Gulch, where they meet such characters as the sheriff called Wheezy, played by Tom Warrick. Warrick plays Wheezy as an alcoholic who vows to quit drinking. The goal is to solve the mystery of a vanished deed to a gold mine—and the next time we see him, he is suffering a ghastly case of alcohol withdrawals. Warrick is a rare breed—an actor whose innate confidence allows him to play silly comedy, and who is fearless about appearing ridiculous. That’s a gift.

“Topeka” is the nickname of another of the town’s characters, played by Rob Rota. He is very believable as a flirt and a troublemaker who claims to have been raised by wolves and who rationalizes his promiscuity on the basis that he has never experienced true love. He gets to do a song with lots of double entendres. Michael Pacas devours the role of Big Jack Slade, the mandatory villain, although he modifies the usual nastiness of such roles and instead plays him as more of a slick, crooked businessman—in superbly toned shape. Mark Fearnow plays Scully Jones, a character who keeps popping up unexpectedly, along with a couple of other roles. Fearnow quickly establishes himself as a professional singer; his versatility and powerful, beautifully managed voice are refreshing.

But it’s Anthony Nannini who dominates the show. He plays Daisy LaFleur, a Pinkerton detective who goes undercover—in drag, of course. Wearing the most fantastic huge-skirted gowns and thigh-high boots, he switches hair colors from a ratty red to a prettily coiffed blonde, and handles his costumes smoothly. With his signature athleticism, Nannini bounces and leaps amazingly around the stage, and survives countless pratfalls on cue.

The play is directed and choreographed by Robbie Wayne, and much is made of the Gay Rodeo Association lending items and props to this play—including, on opening night, an actual horse! The legendary Phil Murphy again lends his considerable skills to the lighting design, cleverly creating smooth transitions between scenes. Matt Torres is the costume designer, deftly handling a multitude of enormous challenges—mostly decisions about the amount of skin shown.

The story is at times a bit confusing, but that doesn’t slow anybody down. There are misunderstandings and switches in the relationships—but it’s not about the plot, because that’s not what you came for. You came to laugh and see them thar muscles, right? You won’t be disappointed.

As one of the characters exclaims: Holy corn pone!

Those Musclebound Cowboys From Snake Pit Gulch is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Feb. 9, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $34 to $37. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

The Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre has begun its first full season in the company’s wonderful new playhouse in Cathedral City—and, rather appropriately, this season’s theme is “New Beginnings.”

The opening show is Dinner With Friends, by playwright Donald Margulies. It won the Pulitzer Prize for drama back in 2000, along with a batch of other awards. Now … if you’re looking for a play full of action, this is not for you. If you’re looking for a catharsis-provoking tragedy that will have you wringing out your Kleenex, forget it. If you want an uproarious thigh-slapper of a comedy, move on. However … if you have ever wanted to be a fly on some wall where you could watch the interactions between people and see the changing of their relationships, this quiet play might interest you.

Dinner With Friends has a cast of four—all efficient actors who maintain a low-key approach to their work. The role of Beth is played by Corryn Cummins, a slender actress with a plump resume which includes work onstage, in film and on TV. Redheaded Beth, when we meet her, is finishing up dinner and vainly attempting to appear interested in the blathering of a married couple, Gabe and Karen, who are endlessly rattling on about their trip to Italy—specifically, about the food they encountered. It turns out that their profession is, in fact, writing about food, so it is of keen interest to them … though not so much to their friends.

The role of Gabe is brought to life by Scott Golden, a veteran of TV series and commercials as well as theater. Dark-haired Gabe is married, stable and solid, a family man keenly interested in all food and drink—a topic that occupies part of his brain in almost every scene, regardless of what else is going on.

His stolid brunette wife, Karen, is portrayed by Jennifer Sorenson, an actress and a dramatist in her own right. She brings a wide range of experience to the role of Karen, a woman with the casual air of a multitasker accustomed to juggling kids, husband, kitchen, friends and career—without raising an eyebrow.

Christopher Wallinger, who can be seen on everything from HBO to FX as well as the stage, plays Tom, Beth’s husband—although he is not present in the first scene. An attorney, he travels a lot, and when we meet him, Wallinger subtly shows us a Tom who is a slightly spoiled and entitled golden boy, despite his rather casual attire.

Director Darin Anthony captures the laid-back quality of the writing and inserts it into the actors’ movements and speech—in every scene. The audience will sense a restrained and drifting quality in the ambiance of the play, which prevents us from anticipating what will happen next. Many plays charge full speed ahead to their goal, but here, as in life, there are no big important signs flashing or foreshadowing every event that occurs. Hmmm.

A heads-up that you could miss if you don’t carefully read the program: The second act is a flashback to 12 years before to the first act.

As always, CVRep’s resident set designer comes through beautifully with scene changes that amaze: Jimmy Cuomo’s designs for each scene are moved in the dark or semi-dark, which is a bit of a disappointment, because it is such fun to watch his terrific sets morph from one to another. Moira Wilkie Whitaker’s lighting designs come through beautifully as well in each of the play’s seven scenes. Kudos to the entire CVRep crew members, who, as usual, have thoughtfully and professionally shared their skills.

I won’t give away the rather thin plot—but this play is all about relationships, and what happens to other people who are not directly involved when a sudden, enormous change occurs in someone else’s relationship(s). It has happened to all of us: A friend or relative goes through a transformation of some sort, and you react to it. This raises questions, such as: What do we really truly want for our friends? How is being married different from being single, beyond the obvious? Have we assigned labels or roles to our family and acquaintances that suddenly don’t apply when a person changes? Are true family members our blood relations, or the people we choose to be close to us? What are the necessary and/or sufficient ingredients that affect or alter the course of a relationship? Why do people grow in different directions after being together for years? Can you ever truly reinvent yourself?

Heavy stuff. We see the characters wrestle with denial, with differing views of reality, with the bonds of marriage and of friendship. We see them talk at the same time instead of listening to each other. We see them test their relationships, with varying results. We see people surrounded by other people—yet experiencing a deep loneliness. We see people unable to communicate their wants and needs—and the craters in relationships this can create. We see people blame others for their own choices. We see them wonder if they ever actually knew each other.

You get to be the fly on the wall watching all this.

Dinner With Friends is performed at 7:30 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, Nov. 24, the CVRep Playhouse in Cathedral City, 68510 E. Palm Canyon Drive. Tickets are $48 to $58. For tickets or more information, call 760-296-2966, or visit www.cvrep.org.

The Independent is starting our seventh season of theater reviews—and the first of this new season celebrates the emergence of a new theater company.

Well, the Encore Theatre District isn’t really “new”: For two seasons now, Encore has been quietly performing at the Black Box Theatre at the Palm Springs High School. For the 2019-2020 season, Encore has moved to the Palm Springs Cultural Center (formerly the Camelot Theatres), where it is rumored that the popcorn is most excellent. (BTW, why is it that popcorn makes a movie better? Regardless, I can’t bring myself to take it in to a live performance.)

The group’s artistic director, Tiffanie Patscheck, is ETD’s inspiration and driving force. She was born here and studied with the legendary Rosemary Mallett before moving to Connecticut for five years; she returned after marinating in its enormously successful theatrical community.

“I see us as different,” she told me about Encore. “Most of our productions are not what the other theater companies in the valley would do. We are minimalists. You won’t see us doing Peter Pan here! But the advantage is that we can work practically anywhere.”

Many of Encore’s shows feature actors playing multiple roles; in her upcoming Alice in Wonderland, six actors will play about 60 parts. For most thespians, that’s a dream come true. Each show is cast separately; Tiffanie and her son, Jeremiah Rhoads, alternate as directors of the plays. The company opened in 2017 with Lydia, which immediately established a reputation for tackling unusual, controversial and difficult theater pieces.

Now, in the cozy 100-seat Cultural Center room, Encore has opened this season with 25 Questions for a Jewish Mother. Oy vey! The title alone … !

The play, written by Judy Gold and Kate Moira Ryan, uses only two actresses. Katrina Dixon plays a standup comedian—as well as about 20 different Jewish mothers. Audrey Liebross is the stereotyped Jewish mother whom we know as the star of so many hilarious and dreadful jokes. Here, she bludgeons us with the most indescribably irritating over-the-top whine of a voice ever to hit any stage on the planet. She also gives us—delivered in her own voice, thank heavens—the offstage introductions to the different roles played by her partner. The show is directed by Patscheck, and Rhoads is the stage manager for this production.

It’s as if we are seated in a comedy club, with a bespectacled lady comic wearing fancy boots ranting away into a microphone (which, in this case, isn’t hooked up, oddly enough). She ends each section of her spiel by posing a question to us, her audience, and then she morphs into one of the Jewish mother characters to answer that question.

This is not easy! Dixon’s feat of memorization is amazing. The show is basically a monologue, with some cues thrown in. The stories become increasingly interesting and varied through the play. The emotional toll of morphing in and out of the various characters must be huge—but Dixon has done her homework, and gives each and every part she plays distinctive looks, attitudes, gestures, voices, postures and facial expressions. At one point, I could swear she even changed her face’s shape. Watch for it: That’s acting. We might like to see her wearing a solid color rather than her shirt’s distracting design, and she needs to avoid dropping her volume on final syllables—but Dixon turns in an impressive piece of work. She starts off by asking her audience, “What makes a Jewish mother different from a non-Jewish mother?” Her performance is the answer.

Audrey Liebross relishes her outrageous comedy bits in this sometimes-awkward play. She earns the chortles as well as the show’s only belly laugh. Alas, some of her lines are delivered while she stands on the floor in front of the stage, outside the lit area—which different blocking could easily correct. An actor needs to find the light! Otherwise, it is fun to watch her swagger and declaim, and it is always delightful to see an actress so thoroughly enjoying her role.

The show deals with sensitive topics. Some—such as the definition of kosher, the importance of tradition, and bat mizvahs—are educational for anyone (including the surprising date of the first-ever female rabbi). It can be a little discomfiting for anyone to hear discussions on such topics as anti-Semitism, Jewish stereotypes and the Holocaust, but this show is unsparing in its investigation into the private lives and private thoughts of the characters it presents.

The show’s pacing is to be complimented. The seats are super-comfortable, as they were built to anticipate lengthy stays for films—and they even include drink holders. From the time when the Camelot was the only movie house around, it has always been freezing cold inside, and that tradition continues—so bring a sweater, and don’t say you weren’t told.

There is much to like here, and it is important for us all to encourage a new theater company, so we hope you will support this show. It runs only two weekends—so get to it.

25 Questions for a Jewish Mother, a production of the Encore Theatre District, is performed at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Oct. 6, at the Palm Springs Cultural Center, 2300 E. Baristo Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $25. For tickets or more information, visit www.facebook.com/encoretheatredistrict.

Loren Freeman is one of the best actors in our valley—and now he’s making his directorial debut with the Desert Rose Playhouse’s summer production of Ruthless! The Musical.

So here’s what is wrong with the show: Absolutely nothing! This is a not-to-be-missed romp, with a high energy level that will leave you wrung out from laughing, music that will delight you, and extreme hilarity.

I asked Freeman how he felt about directing his first show. “It’s a great excuse to boss everybody around,” he confided, “if you’re that kind of person.” Well, that is beyond modesty, because everyone in the cast clearly wears the stamp of his famous style. He has a matchless gift for over-the-top work, and has uniformly inspired these actors with his special comedic flair.

It is a show about obsessive showbiz ambition; can there be any juicier topic? The original Los Angeles production of Ruthless! ran for an extraordinary eight months back in 1993, and guess who starred in it? You got it: Loren Freeman himself. Voila!

The open set that greets the audience, designed by Bruce Weber, is a living room done in mid-century modernism classic, with crisp whites, cool blues and minty greens—a classic home of the ’50s. The lady of the house—in pearls, apron and a baby-blue polka dot shirtdress—is bizarrely Stepford Wife-like. This is Christine Tringali Nunes, perfectly playing the role of Judy Denmark with a brainwashed or maybe tranquilizer-addled sweetness—but this actress cleverly slips us a hint of other moods to come.

Her darling daughter, Tina, brilliantly played by Elizabeth Schmelling, wears identical polka dots, a crinoline and tap shoes; she introduces herself in a number that reveals a confident soprano voice, fine dance skills and the palest sky-blue eyes ever. Her heart-shaped face can instantly transmogrify from child-like sweetness into that of a devilish brat or a sullen rebellious youth; it’s a fabulous face that bears watching in the future.

The kid has talent—and she’s ambitious! Although still in school, Tina aspires to greatness. And that’s where Sylvia St. Croix—extravagantly and fabulously played by the theater’s artistic director, Robbie Wayne, in drag—comes in. Her amazing wardrobe, also courtesy of Bruce Weber, echoes Hedda and Louella and those overdressed Hollywood ladies of the ’50s. You can’t take your eyes off her. She is the self-appointed agent/guardian/manager of little Tina, swaggering around under gigantic hats, huge diamonds worn in the daytime, and wild colors in animal patterns. Her lipstick alone is terrifying.

Oh! This show is a musical, and the multitalented Steven Smith once again provides flawless music direction … plus he accompanies each performance as a one-person orchestra on keyboard. The songs are very funny, and the sound is beautifully balanced thanks to Adrian Niculescu and Miguel Gomez. There is no choreographer listed; evidently, the dance steps are the self-invented brainchild of the actors and/or Loren Freeman.

This show being a musical explains the presence of musician/vocalist Dana Adkins in the cast. A longtime Valley fave, she plays Miss Thorn, Tina’s teacher—everyone’s worst nightmare of a schoolmarm, with the nose-perched reading glasses, pencils poked into her beehive hairdo, ghastly sensible shoes, lips pursed in perennial disapproval, and the pointiest eyebrows imaginable. Her vocal range takes her from a hilarious falsetto to low growls—dangerous voice use for anyone except an experienced singer like Adkins, who manages it breezily.

Jaci Davis plays the theater critic (ahem!) Lita Encore with jaw-dropping gusto. She serves up a fascinating silver-haired character who sports one of the most powerful singing voices anywhere, demonstrating a masterful vibrato and an edgy style that appears effortless. Her energy is incandescent, and she simmers with a stunning stage presence.

One of the greatest challenges (and most fun) in acting is playing multiple roles in a production, and this play gives Leanna Rogers an opportunity to showcase her impressive chops with two wildly different characters. First, Louise is a peculiar schoolgirl aspiring to grab the lead in Pippi Longstocking, and then Rogers switches to play Eve, a jealousy-consumed secretary/assistant to a successful Broadway star. She changes everything from posture to hair, makeup and vocal choices between the characters, and yet manages to bring a tinge of brief sadness to both roles.

But there are laughs everywhere in this production. Our audience applauded frequently and enthusiastically, and roared at the punchlines. (Actually, a couple of people nearly lost it, so be warned.) The second-act set takes us to a Manhattan apartment, featuring the glitziest of multihued drapes, the purplest possible shade of settee cushions, and the fanciest telephone that ever rang.

This show involves several different styles of comedy, meaning the range for each of these actors can be fully explored. It is rare to find material that provides this kind of opportunity, and these six talented thespians are no doubt grateful for the chance to show us what they can do with the music of Marvin Laird and a book by Joel Paley. Yet the evenness of the production has to be credited to Freeman’s eagle eyes and his sense of timing.

Enormous kudos to whoever did the casting for this play; the selection of these players is flawless. The lighting is designed by the incomparable Phil Murphy, and it can’t get better than that, thanks also to lighting tech Duke Core. The temperature in the Desert Rose Playhouse is very comfortable (not like certain movie theaters determined to freeze us out with running noses). What a joy to see a live show in the summertime—and you are absolutely guaranteed to enjoy this one. It has some really great moments and truly unforgettable lines.

This is a directorial debut that was evidently long overdue. Not only has Freeman pulled hilarious and layered performances out of his actors, but the stage blocking is beautifully balanced; the tension continues to mount through surprising plot twists right to the outrageous endings; and the overall atmosphere of silliness and send-up never stops tickling the audience. The only way this show could possibly be improved would be to see Loren Freeman himself back up on the stage along with his fabulous cast!

Ruthless! The Musical is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, July 14, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $34 to $37. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

We’ve reached the end of the season at most of the valley’s theater companies—sob! But what a year it’s been, and what a great way to end it: with Good People, at Coachella Valley Repertory.

Have you seen the new CVRep Playhouse in Cathedral City? This is the second production here, and right away, you have to love the steeply raked levels of seating so that no head, no matter how tall, can blot out your view of the stage. Huzzah! And they serve coffee at the snack bar! Can it get better than this?

Well, actually yes. I hate to give this away, but nothing could dampen the surprise that awaits you when you see the scenery: The amazing Jimmy Cuomo, CVRep’s resident set designer, nearly steals the show. Wait until you see what he does with this high-tech new stage! The open set that greets the audience is a grotty and depressing back alley in South Boston’s lower end, with one lonely plain chair on the stage. Some jaw-dropping theater magic is in store for you thanks to Cuomo. It gave us goose bumps.

The playwright of Good People is David Lindsay-Abaire, a Pulitzer Prize-winner. When this play opened on Broadway, it garnered all kinds of awards, including two Tony nominations. If his name seems familiar, it’s because he penned Rabbit Hole (which was given a riveting production by Dezart Performs in January 2018), and you might remember him as author and lyricist for Shrek the Musical. You are in good hands here.

The show’s guest director, Michael Matthews, has brilliantly aimed this script directly at your brain pan. Its gritty reality is played out, giving the audience a being-there feeling that never wavers. The dialogue is cleverly “telescoped” so that Matthews’ actors appear truly spontaneous, and it gives the show a spirit of breathless anticipation. There isn’t a great deal of movement onstage, but it is accomplished logically (except twice when an actor moved on someone else’s line … distracting, but not important.)

Remember the seedy back alley we mentioned? Our protagonist, Margaret, magnificently and utterly believably portrayed by Reamy Hall, is marched out the back of the dollar store where she toils, by manager Stevie, perfectly underplayed by Erik Odom, for a talking-to about her work performance. It does not go well. In the next scene, in a cramped kitchen with two friends—the cynical Dottie, unforgettably played by Barbara Gruen, and the fiery gossip Jean, delightfully played by Candi Milo—Margie bemoans her lot. We learn about the women’s relationships with their families, the neighbors and each other. We learn about their values like “Southie Pride,” the local spirit in so many places—here with a special defiance attached to it. We see some flashes of the infamous Irish temper. We learn about their lives in “the projects,” and attempts to escape—with various results.

How much does it matter where you come from? So many desert residents cheerfully admit to “re-inventing” themselves upon arrival here, without a trace of embarrassment about it. But back in Southie, it apparently matters a great deal. Those who do well are jeered at as being “lace-curtain Irish.” Those who never make it away from their ghetto will forever play desperate mind games of “What if?” How much does our environment really shape us?

But we also discover that, in looking back, two people can selectively remember the same incident very differently. Michael Matthys gives us a deliciously multi-layered performance as Mikey Dillon, who, through hard work and some luck, makes it out of the neighborhood. Now an upscale and successful doctor, he is married to his privileged, elegant and sophisticated wife, an African-American woman named Kate, played by the smoothly stunning Nadege August. When they find themselves confronted with Mike’s past by Margie, their attitudes about it show how memory can be affected by time. Kate, with her combination of high-society finishing-school grace—plus her phenomenal figure in a skin-tight knit, and her wicked eagerness to sneak into the wild side—is one of the most complex characters on any stage, and August shrewdly plays every card in her hand to create this fascinating role.

The play’s theme slowly emerges: the eternal conflict between truth and rationalization. How far can your moral compass wobble before you are no longer a good person? Can blaming someone else justify your actions? Are your choices the right ones? How far will you bend your morality to change someone else’s life? Whom do you “owe,” and how much? Whew …

Study the biographies of the actors (and staff!) in the hefty program. The full bios detail where you may have glimpsed these terrific performers elsewhere, in movies or on TV. These experienced pros know how to sweep you into their world. They will drag you through a bumpy mix of thoughts and emotions … and they’ll bring you to your feet at the end of the show.

This theater’s matchless brain trust, led by artistic director Ron Celona, has assembled a formidable staff. Kudos to lighting designer Moira Wilkie Whitaker, production stage manager Marcedes L. Clanton, sound designer Rebecca Kessin, sound engineer/audio technician Karlene Roller, costume designer Chandler Smith, hair/makeup artist Lynda Shaeps, and prop master Doug Morris. Flawless work!

Good People is performed at 7:30 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, May 19, the CVRep Playhouse in Cathedral City, 68510 E. Palm Canyon Drive. (There is no show Tuesday, May 7.) Tickets are $53. For tickets or more information, call 760-296-2966, or visit www.cvrep.org.

Admit it: You think it’s funny when a man puts on a dress.

Well, you’ve got company—and Desert Rose Playhouse is smart enough to know that. Hence, Pageant, the company’s final show of the 2018-2019 season. It’s guys in drag competing to win the title of “Miss Glamouresse”—and the hilarity builds right up to the final scene, which contains more belly laughs than any show in recent years. It only runs until May 12, so we strongly suggest that you run, not walk, to see this show—whether you’re in high heels or not. The packed house at our presentation—containing way more ladies than we’ve ever seen in a DRP audience—would agree.

The open stage that greets you—designed by Bruce Weber—is pink, pink, pink. This is the signature color of the “Glamouresse” brand, and your eyes will water from 50 shades of pink during the nearly two-hour show (with no intermission!). Pale pink ostrich feathers, Elsa Schiaparelli shocking-pink costumes, Pepto-Bismol pink—it’s everywhere. Brace yourself. Phil Murphy has even used pink lighting on the filmy curtains.

Robbie Wayne, the show’s director and Desert Rose’s producing artistic director, leaps onto the stage to welcome you—and joyously admits that this show has no “message.” It was just chosen because of its laughs. How wonderful!

So, bring on the girls. This pageant presents six semifinal competitors from various regions of the USA, such as Miss West Coast, Miss Industrial Northeast and Miss Bible Belt. Can you imagine such titles? Well, why am I surprised? In my home town there was a contest for Miss Potash, for heaven’s sake …

The competition’s emcee is Frankie Cavalier, played by Michael Pacas, who strides onto the stage wearing what might be the most frightening toupee in all of show biz. He fabulously combines the smarm of so many professional emcees with flawless timing and relentless cheeriness in the face of imminent disaster. Just keeping the names and titles straight must be exhausting, but Pacas’ energy never flags. He introduces the girls, who appear in all shapes and sizes, proudly wearing their title banners. Our judges, chosen from the audience, sit alertly up front. Consulting your program will only confuse you, as the actors’ headshots bear zero resemblance to the female flamboyance that you see on the stage.

Miss Great Plains, for example, is played by Larry Martin. Miss Industrial Northeast is created by Noah Arce. Timm McBride plays Miss Texas. Miss Bible Belt is Ben Reece. Miss Deep South is played by Miss Rusty Waters, and Miss West Coast is played by Jersey Shore, aka Brian Keith Scott.

Three shades of blonde, two shades of brunette, one auburn—and there they are.

Through the competitions, we get to know them personally. The emcee rattles off their qualifications and qualities (Miss West Coast, for example, is “Karma,” a double Gemini with a past including self-improvement techniques and tie-dying) throughout the various contests, such as evening gown, spokesmodel, fitness, talent cavalcade, philosophy, and—brace yourself—swimsuit.

You can instantly see the opportunities for merriment. My favorite part was the talent competition, during which these hugely talented actors toiled with their extremely creative director to create a jaw-dropping segment. Wait until you see what stuff they strut … and there are some extraordinary moments, such as Miss Bible Belt, wearing a flaming-red choir robe over a gold sequined gown, wailing a song called “I’m Bankin’ on Jesus,” or Miss Industrial Northeast on roller skates playing an accordion. Seriously!

There is no program credit given for costumes, but they are many and varied, and all are fantastic. Perhaps they came from the actors’ own closets. Some quick changes are required—another opportunity for laughs. There is no choreography credit, either, though there is dance aplenty, with some cute routines. One change suggestion: From most of the seats, when an actor lies down on the stage, he becomes invisible. It makes the neck-craning audience—except those in the front row—feel as if they are missing something, possibly important. The only real criticism is that the music, directed by Jaci Davis, was too loud, and drowned out the actors at times.

The competitors themselves select a “Girlfriend” award, like Miss Congeniality in most beauty pageants. A running gag throughout is their “spokesmodel” competition, in which the girls are forced to shamelessly shill for “Glamouresse,” which turns out to be a big-business brand in the field of beauty products, by creating a commercial. And the surprise guest who arrives at the end—well, let’s not ruin it for you.

The comedy here varies from slapstick to intellectual to tricky, so there is literally something for everyone in this play. Although I have had to stop slapping language warnings on reviews since four-letter words in theater have become so ubiquitous, we must compliment this show on not taking the cheap shots—there isn’t one objectionable word in the script. Amazing! It CAN be done. There are a couple of (terribly funny) adult-humor sexual references, but you could basically take anyone to see this show.

With drag queens, it’s all about nuance. It’s not just popping on a wig and makeup and a dress. To really be a standout requires infinite subtlety and much careful study. Drag is an art form dear to my heart, because when I was starting my performing career, I was invited to be in several shows at a drag club (they introduced me as “a real girl”)—and I learned a LOT from the queens of drag. This show reveals incredibly varied, individualized and thoughtful performances by all these entertainers, and it is a play I would love to see again.

So, who wins the crown? That rollicking finale alone is worth the price of admission.

Pageant is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, May 12, with a special show at 7 p.m., Thursday, May 9, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $34 to $37. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

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