A night at the theater | April 24, 2009 | Danville Express | DanvilleSanRamon.com |


Danville Express

Living - April 24, 2009

A night at the theater

Opening night of new Role Players show is smooth sailing

by Geoff Gillette

As a former thespian in community productions, I am excited to visit backstage at the Village Theatre on Friday just prior to the opening of the Role Players Ensemble Theatre's new production, "Three Tall Women."

My own memories of opening nights fill me with anticipation of the buzz and activity backstage as time winds down and the actors prepare for the lights to come up. Role Players Artistic Director Sue Trigg ferries me back to the dressing room, where the three women in question ready themselves for their first appearance.

On our way we pass the lone male cast member, Aaron Scherbath, grabbing a quiet moment and a cigarette in the parking lot behind the theater. Trigg calls out to the young man and asks how he's doing.

"Nervous," he says. "I'm nervous but I'm OK."

Trigg smiles and nods, "Nervous is good," she says and offers him the traditional actor's salute of "break a leg."

Inside the building I get a chance to spend a few minutes with the three tall ladies, Elinor Bell (A), JanLee Marshall (B) and Sarah Kate Anderson (C). Normally, those would be actual names in the parentheses, but in Edward Albee's play the women are never identified, so letters serve to set them apart.

The dressing room this evening has an energy to it, not of panic or fear but of quiet expectancy. These actors have been rehearsing the play for the last few months, but tonight it is real.

Bell is deeply engrossed in the process of transforming herself into the 92-year-old A that she plays in the show. When I ask if I can snap some pictures of them getting ready she offhandedly responds, "As long as I don't have to pay attention."

Moments later as I head out to take my seat she murmurs, "Well, that was pretty painless."

Ten minutes later the house lights dim, the stage lights come up, and the show begins, a dissection of the final days in the life of an elderly woman.

In the first act, she is awake and talking with her nurse (Marshall) and an attorney (Anderson). Her mind drifts in and out of the here and now, sometimes weaving conversations now with events that happened long ago. The two other women try to follow along with the twisting paths of thought, with only limited success.

Through it all, you get a picture of what the woman's life was like, its highs and lows.

The second act takes a turn and the same three women retake the stage as aspects of the elderly woman from the first act, at different moments in her life. They vividly display the joy of youth, the disappointment of middle age, and the sagacity of the elderly.

Director Richard Robert Bunker chose his cast wisely; these three women work well individually and together to present the life of A.

Bell turns in an astounding performance as her physicality coupled with the makeup transform her into a convincing 92. The scenes where she is grappling with her shifting memories ring true with a poignancy that is difficult to attain. You can almost see the light in her eyes go out, as she founders beneath a lifetime of memories.

She underscores the dramatic scenes with a caustic wit and delivers Albee's lines extremely well.

Marshall's performance requires a more layered approach, as she plays the nurse/attendant with a wry good humor in dealing with such subjects as loss of bladder control and keeping pace with her cantankerous charge.

Yet in the second act she is forced to act outside that character, showing the bitterness and anger that can fester in a life unfulfilled. Betrayals and disappointments build up, and in a scene where she finally erupts at her long lost son (Aaron Scherbath) the anger she displays scorches the air.

Anderson, the youngest of the three, displays the qualities of youth. The arrogance of a life yet to be lived and the loss of innocence that comes with the discovery of her own mortality. In talking to her older selves, she sees what is to come in her life and questions her future, wondering if she will be happy.

Scherbath has a difficult role to play, as the son who is only seen but never heard. He serves as the lightning rod to Marshall's anger but is unable to respond. Yet his facial expressions speak volumes as he watches his mother in her final moments.

"Three Tall Women" is not a fast paced show. It moves at its own tempo, revealing what it will at the time of Albee's choosing. The resolution, when it comes, while not a surprise, still catches you off guard.

The show is well done, in all aspects, from set design to lighting to costuming. Even minor audio hiccups fail to distract from the tableau created by the three actresses. "Three Tall Women" is a fascinating examination of a life as it ends, and Role Players more than does the work justice.

As is customary on opening night, patrons and actors go next door to the hall for an after-show party. Role Players supporters have cooked the food and set up a dessert buffet, which the crowd surges around as they talk about the show and the actor's performances.

Marshall, Anderson and Scherbath are the first to arrive, having less costuming and makeup to remove. They mingle with the guests, calling many by name. When Bell arrives, a low cheer greets her and many approach to congratulate her on an excellent show.

The comfort displayed by the actors in talking with the patrons shows just how strong a theater community exists in Danville, the support it receives, and the care and work that go into each show. Having done community theater, I know that having that base of support is crucial to the survival of a company. If Friday night was any indication, Role Players is in good hands.

For me it was fun, seeing the backstage, reliving the memory of being a part of an opening night. And I got to see the show as well. All in all, it was a good night at the theater.