Theatre West is a Los Angeles institution. Unlike almost any small theatre in town, it has held forth for more than fifty years in the same functional space on Cahuenga Boulevard. Founded by working actors who loved their theatre roots, now becoming successful in film and television, TW became a safe haven where producing new plays and teaching one another the elements of performance was the prime directive. Working as a collective, stars like Betty Garrett and Lee Meriweather paid their monthly dues, taught classes, produced, directed and acted to the mutual delight of one another and to supportive audiences. Never was it their goal to come away with a living wage. The goal was to keep Theatre alive, keep experimenting, and to embody the spirit of the Living Stage with the unique experience of live performance. In memory we can all hear Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland’s excitement in Babes In Arms to “put on a show.” In fact, it ain’t easy to just throw up a curtain and build a stage and turn on some lights, but working together, Theatre West has fostered that spirit and from the look of things they will continue to succeed for at least another fifty years.
Jim Beaver’s autobiographical memoir, first produced at Theatre West in 1985, surveys the life and times of Richard Muldoon (Adam Conger), an aspiring young actor who falls into the topsy turvy world of his old home town, Edgar, OK, just a little ways from Oklahoma City. It is late summer, 1972, as reflected nicely in Marjorie Van Derhoff’s period costumes. Written and produced well before Tracy Letts’ August Osage County (also an Oklahoma story) and years after Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard (1903) Beaver’s story has elements of both. The opening tableau on Jeff G. Rack’s weather beaten set is somewhat misleading, as the lights come up on Act I. The characters all appear strong and potent in the half light: reminiscent of a pleasant memory. Richard narrates his story to the audience, sweeping his hippie hair back out of his eyes, dreaming of becoming an actor and remembering himself at the age of twenty-four, searching for his identity. Harassed by wiry Farley Kern (Ian Lerch), Richard stays the course while torn between settling with the lovely Linda (lovely Katie Adler) who loves him and pursuing his dream of becoming a movie star.
Down the aisle and up a ramp preceded by an ongoing yammer comes Margaret Fielding (non stop Sheila Shaw), the matriarch of the Fielding family. She’s confined to a wheel chair, but that does not stop her from bullying and berating her ‘staff.’ She is paralyzed and holds forth with a speaker phone while Mae Bee Burley (excellent Corinne Shor) and Ben Bo Burley (Dylan Vigus) tend to her every need, removing layers of furs and even holding a bucket for her to do her business in (thankfully behind a hospital three fold). Oklahoma accents are tricky, but the cast has mostly mastered their north of Texas drawl. Ben Bo invites Richard in to meet with Margaret who hires him on the spot to help with chores around the house that mostly only get half done. Margaret ignores her bills and campaigns not only for slick Senator Bruce Bagnall (David Mingrino), but for his opponent as well. She is harassed by her conservative son, Carl (David Goldstein), whom she hangs up on when he calls and dismisses when he and his ditzy wife, Bonnie Fern Fielding (over the top Chloè Rosenthall), come to call. He wants to sell the house! Money and Margaret’s needy state of affairs are the issue.
Playwright Beaver himself plays Margaret’s brother, Jockey. Jockey and his good old boys are in the woods brewing corn, which keeps him in a constant glow. It may be his glow that prompts the title, Verdigris. Richard tells about working in a bar where one of his jobs was to polish a brass rail so the gray green tarnish would not dim it’s glow. The beautiful poster for the play exhibits a pristine photograph held up to a now gray green prairie home. In 1938 Jockey was the captain of the Edgar High School football team (Margaret was the Homecoming Queen!). Now, the glow has diminished to the old man’s blush of corn mash, his constant companion. Margaret’s old flame, Carter Cobb (solid Cal Bartlett), recounts his early affection, but losing her to his rival John Fielding who died while pushing his wife down the center stripe of the highway.
Beaver is no Chekhov nor Letts, but Mark Travis’s direction allows for a talented cast to have at it with gusto as life choices are forced and the characters allow themselves to be pitched to and fro at the whim of the disabled matriarch. The most touching scene in the play comes near the end where brow beaten Mae Bee has left the home. She is dowdy and embarrassed, having hoped to have a boyfriend, never been kissed, but loyal to a fault with her devotion to Margaret. She returns and in a moment of mutual caring and declaration of love, she comes to terms with her employer. Touchingly, Margaret, at last, shows love and gratitude for her.
In two acts, the play goes on and on a bit, but the grit and struggle pay off as the characters evolve showing the care that Beaver and Travis have deep within themselves to bring them to life.
VERDIGRIS by Jim Beaver
Revived at Theatre West
3333 Cahuenga Blvd. West
Los Angeles, CA 90068
Friday and Saturday at 8PM
Sunday at 2PM
Closes April 26, 2015
Tickets and information
323 851 7977