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Olney Theatre Center for the Arts - ARCHIVE
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Night Must Fall
September 30 - October 25, 2009
Wednesday -Saturday at 8 pm; Sunday at 7:30 pm
Saturday - Sunday at 2 pm
Wednesday, October 7 and 21 at 2 pm
Tuesday, October 13 at 7:30 pm
Reviewed October 3
by David Siegel

An affectionate period piece, far from a nail-bitter as a thriller
Running time 2:10 – one intermission
Tickets $26-$49
Click here to buy the script


While not stuffed with genuinely unsettling moments, this carefully crafted 1930’s period piece exposing the dangers of a seductive stranger is a psychologically tinged who-done-it, visually handsome and technically accomplished; the aura of a time gone by. Emlyn Williams’ script is no nail-biter; yet it provides twinges of darkness along with ample sarcastic wit to make this an agreeable evening if you can drift back to a time when the word “nympho” could bring a gasp, and a child conceived out of wedlock was a criminal offense. John Going’s casting is solid, and the work of his technical design team shines brightly with a painstakingly detailed set by James Wolk. It is the interior of a proto-typical thatched roof English cottage including walls covered by gloomy faded wall paper, murky landscape paintings festooned about and lots of nooks-and-crannies. Veteran television actor Rosemary Prinz is an ornery, controlling, and getting-on-in-years woman apparently confined to a wheelchair with some unnamed ailment. From the finger curls in her short bobbed hair to the imperious manner in which she treats most others, she is a sweet grin to behold. When required to play into a slow inebriation she enlists an understated manner as her face falls and eyes begin to hood over, rather than a silly fall-down drunk state. Her well-honed skills also appear as she depicts the fear of being alone in the dark with an ever-increasing nervously fraught voice. Tim Getman is the bad-boy charmer who seduces everyone in his path with a quick smile covering his true being. Whether psychopath or bi-polar, Getman's work in the highs of his character surpass his self revealing lows. His smarmy charm does seem at times more off-putting than magnetic with his over-confidence as a pretty-boy hunk.

Storyline: In a small Essex town, a wickedly charming and attractive young man is hired as a live-in companion for an ailing woman residing with her niece. When the news of a local murder is revealed, the alluring stranger becomes increasingly suspect.

Playwright Williams (1905-1987) was also a screen writer and novelist with about two dozen works. As an actor he had the lead role of the psychopathic killer Danny in the UK premiere of Night Must Fall. The script has core roles with subtlety and substance along with an assortment of “Clue” game like characters. Williams also penned and starred in The Corn is Green about his own childhood in Wales. A limited run Night Must Fall was revived a decade ago on Broadway starring Matthew Broderick in the lead role.  An Associate Artistic Director at Olney, John Going has staged over 30 productions. He is a four-time Helen Hayes Award nominee, receiving the award for The Miser at the Shakespeare Theatre at the Folger. Here his touch is uncomplicated; the cast has no sub-text to deliver. His decision not to meander into an updating frenzy gives the production a centering. It does not creak along as a museum piece, though a bit more creepiness rather than just wordy foreboding might have made the production more genuinely enticing.

Julie-Ann Elliott is Prinz’s very prim niece; giving off a perfumeless presence as if there is no sensual woman beneath her demure clothes, hair up, round glasses hiding any hint of heat. Change comes later as she is awakened by the bad-boy presence. Her hair comes down, glasses gone and lips with some gloss. The ensemble is lead by Anne Stone as a sarcastic, wise cracking earthy cook who adds much needed zing as she verbally combats Prinz’s air of superiority. With her sensible shoes and house frock she is a strong-willed presence throughout the production. Briel Banks seems a low-energy cipher in her role as an apparently promiscuous young woman who finds herself pregnant by the bad boy and is at a loss as to what to do about it. She comes off as loopy. Even when she finally learns that the father of her child is a psychopathic murderer, visible reactions are limited; so little anger in her situation shows forth as she fades away too often. Carl Randolph is the wimpy, sexless suitor to Elliott, the necessary foil to the charming bad boy. With his soft, un-fascinating presence against the more testosterone-rich Getman, his role is key to the attraction of Elliott to Getman and to her transformation. Randolph is flat and weak voiced and begs to be loved. Paul Morella, as a Scotland Yard detective, and Kathleen Akerley, as a nurse, have no nonsense roles as they bring the outside world into the hermitically sealed little cottage.

A high point is the loving technical design team work. This is no square box set, but seems a three dimensional rendition of a photo of a cottage. There are rich touches such as a sun room. Now mind you, this is not a sun room somewhere off set and out of view, but one that that allows the characters to be seen doing little things. There are also very compactly accomplished scene changes as the cast moves about silently in a brown-out, bringing objects or moving about to get to places. Costumes are of the times, with some deft touches such as the bell hop uniform in which Getman is first seen, green fitted, shiny brass button jacket, flat hat and khaki pants. Over time he morphs, outfitted in a short brown leather jacket outfit, shirt unbuttoned reveling a strong physique. Elliott has her figure encased under jackets until very late when her jacket disappears revealing a woman with curves under a sleeveless sweater.

By Emlyn Williams.  Directed by John Going. Design: James Wolk (set)  Liz Covey (costumes) Leigh Smiley (dialect coach)  Dennis Parichy (lights) Jarett C. Pisani (sound) Christopher Youstra (music arranger) Stan Barouh (photography) Jenna Henderson (stage manager). Cast: Kathleen Akerley, Briel Banks, Julie-Ann Elliott, Tim Getman, Paul Morella, Rosemary Prinz, Carl Randolph, Anne Stone.

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A Passion for Justice
August 12 - September 13, 2009
Wednesday - Saturday at 8 pm
Sunday except September 6,at 7:30 pm
August 25 and September 1 at 7:30 pm
Saturday - Sunday at 2 pm
August 19 and September 2 at 2 pm
Reviewed August 15 by Brad Hathaway

A Potomac Stages Pick for the chance to spend an evening in the presence of legendary lawyer Clarence Darrow
Running time 1:50 - on intermission
Tickets $26 - $49

Theater can both feed and feed on great reputations. When done with intellectual honesty and rigor this can be a fine thing, as it is when Paul Morella takes on the persona of that icon of the crusading defense lawyer, Clarence Darrow, and gives an audience the chance to get to know both the man and his causes. The play is subtitled "An Encounter with Clarence Darrow" and that is just what it delivers, a chance to have one encounter with a great man who died sixty years ago. Darrow was no angel, and Morella, following a script he and Jack Marshall created a decade ago, gives plenty of attention to his self-confessed lapses. But this isn't an exercise in debunking, it is an effort to give a balanced presentation of a complex but fascinating individual who - it is quite clear that Morella and Marshall believe - had more virtue than vice in his makeup and whose intellectual gifts were matched by a self-depreciating humor and a skepticism regarding the basic traits of human nature.

Storyline: An evening with Mr. Darrow, the famous defense attorney whose cases range from labor unrest and strike breaking of the turn of the twentieth century to the "crimes of the century" including eleven blacks charged with murdering a member of a mob threatening to lynch them, the Scopes Monkey Trial in which he examined William Jennings Bryan on the topic of biblical truth, and the Leopold and Loeb case of two rich kids who killed a fourteen year old neighbor just to see what it was like. Interspersed between excerpts from Darrow's court presentations are flashes of his own self-depreciatory telling of his life story with forthright admissions of infidelity and other departures from "the straight and narrow," as well as a glimpse of the anguish he felt when he was on trial himself on the charge of jury tampering.

Jack Marshall's program notes provide a fascinating look at how this play came into existence as a result of the last minute withdrawal of the rights to another Clarence Darrow solo show he and Morella were preparing for the 1999-2000 season of Marshall's American Century Theater. The short version is that they got their dander up at the cancellation and created their own which Morella performed in Virginia and has repeated from time to time in a variety of venues and under a variety of circumstances. Here it gets its most substantial mounting.

What Marshall and Morella ended up with is a fine, balanced look at Darrow which avoids the temptation to make a saint out of a very human, flawed but highly admirable historic figure. They also ended up with a piece that is a fine match for the stage presence of Morella, whose work is nearly always a pleasure to watch because he has a way of bringing the thought patterns of his character to the surface where you can watch them. With his Darrow, a character with fascinating thoughts, this is a particular pleasure.

This stage is a bit too wide for a one man show, so designer Christina Todesco tightens things up a bit by concentrating the action in the middle on a patch of faded black and white checkerboard patterned linoleum. She gives it a theatrical flare by hanging a courthouse wall (complete with light sconces) at an angle above a helter-skelter pile of books behind the single desk and few courthouse chairs that complete the setting. The catawampus courthouse wall hangs just a bit to close to the table, at times making it look as if Morella/Darrow might well hit his head as he moves behind the table. Morella makes his entrances and exits through the audience, which is never completely in the dark under Andrew Cissna's active lighting design, deepening the feeling that you are, in fact, having "An Encounter with Clarence Darrow."

Written by Jack Marshall and Paul Morella. Design: Christina Todesco (set) Andrew Cissna (lights) Jarett C. Pisani (sound) Stan Barouh (photography) Renee E. Yancey (stage manager). Cast: Paul Morella.

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Ain’t Misbehavin'
July 8 - August 9, 2009 
Wednesday - Saturday at 7:30 pm
Sunday at 6:30 pm (except July 19)
Saturday - Sunday at 1:30 pm
Reviewed July 11 by David Siegel

An indestructible musical revue performed
 by a pleasing ensemble
Running time 1:50  – one intermission
Tickets $26
Click here to buy the CD

Sometimes all you want is the tried and true. Maybe an old friend from a more innocent time. Perchance an indestructible musical revue built on strong legs; bouncy tunes composed by a master of the art with a satisfying cast and musicians bringing it to light once again. If so, Olney’s National Players' Ain’t Misbehavin’ is just right for you. This is a comfortable evening with only a whiff of retro bawdiness and some tease of naughtiness. With an upright piano as the centerpiece, a five member ensemble spotlights the incredibly copious work of the beloved Fats Waller. For those of a certain milieu, say a bit of grey in our hair, the songs are instantly recognizable. For the younger set, this is a carefree introduction to stride piano, infectious tunes and wonderfully eye-crinkling lyrics. (Perhaps you might pay your parents and grandparents back for all they did for you and take them to this now almost quaint jukebox evening.) This is an easy evening with well synchronized work of the ensemble with some singular singing skills. Each player brings a different song styling to the ears. As for the visuals, there are lots of hips swaying, flaunting arms held chest or shoulder high, showy fingers pointed out or curled in. The cast is appealing and they are in cue with each other. The only upstaging is scripted under the direction of Devron T. Young who produces an uncomplicated evening. Musical Director Aaron Broderick’s work keeps the evening moving along at a jaunty pace. A pleasant night without spending tons of money for a cruise.

Storyline: The life and work of legendary pianist and composer Thomas Wright “Fats” Waller is covered in a musical revue. Thirty numbers recreate Waller’s magic and the unforgettable atmosphere of 1930s Harlem and the early war years.

Ain’t Misbehavin’ had a long Broadway run; 1604 performances from May 1978 to February 1982. It won the 1978 Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Direction of a Musical and for the late Nell Carter as Best Featured Actress in a Musical. The songs in the revue include Ain’t Misbehavin’, Honeysuckle Rose, Two Sleepy People, I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter, Mean to Me, The Joint is Jumpin’ and  the aching Black and Blue to name just a few. Director Young took to heart a line from the production: "find out what the audience wants and give it to them."  He has the cast give the audience a good time. He has the ensemble find ways into the audience both physically as they come down from the stage and in their personalities, which at times show with beaming winks and come-hither movements. He asks his cast to be likeable and not be seen as working too hard to make the evening fun. He has generally succeeded. Choreographer Yvette W. Shipley-Perkins uses each of the cast’s strengths in her design. Some clearly have a higher skill level, and their dancing abilities are showcased while others do non-stop hip swaying and arm twists to give visual identity to their singing styles.

The ensemble is up to their charge of giving an audience a good night out. Leonato E. Jones is the alter ego of Waller. His persona; the man of joy with a strong voice, a smile that brings sparkles and a shameless glee. He bounds over the stage taking the hands of the cast and bringing them forward to the audience or he melts in the ensemble whenever necessary.  Shaunté Corrina Tabb is a slim, very appealing scat singer who has the pizzaz to sway with a scat tempo, never losing her bright demeanor. Even her voice has a chipperness to it. Curtis Bannister is given a spotlight to do some Bob Fosse-like solo dancing in one long set, while in others he is the youngster with a much faster tempo to his singing and a smoothness in his delivery. Kelli Blackwell and Jesaira Glover each have a range and song style that exudes sassy, but in a toned-down manner as if they were asked to hold back lest they go too far.  Your reviewer does wonder what a midnight show with these two would be like. Their singing moves the full range from comic to sultry, to ballads of love and wistfulness. There are plenty of winks and knowing nods. One song movingly performed by the entire cast with a felt sense of ownership was Black and Blue. For this anthem, it was not actors performing, but performers exploring their real feelings.

The Olney Theatre historic main stage set is a simple one; an art deco bandstand for a drummer and bass guitar with the pianist on set with the cast at an upright with back to the audience. The set is done up in gold and black surrounding an eggshell white with round tables for two on each side of the stage. Lighting changes take the production through little scene shifts. Costumes for the women are 1940’s look with sparkling sequins. For the men suits and hats, two-toned shoes and one nifty pair of spats.

Book by Murray Horwitz and Richard Maltby, Jr. Music by Thomas “Fats” Waller. Lyrics by various writers. Directed by Devron T. Young. Choreographed by Yvette W. Shipley-Perkins. Musical direction by Aaron Broderick. Design: Hannah Crowell (set) Jeanne Bland and Pei Lee (costumes) Brian Engel (lights) Brendon Vierra (sound) Stan Barouh (photography) Becky Reed (stage manager). Cast: Curtis Bannister, Kelli Blackwell, Jesaira Glover, Leanto E. Jones and Shaunté Corrina Tabb.

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The Millionairess
June 17 - July 19, 2009
Wednesday - Saturday at 8 pm; Sunday at 7:30 pm
Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 pm
Other 2 pm matinees on June 24, July 3 and 8
Reviewed June 20 by Brad Hathaway

Even minor Shaw is a pleasure
Running time 2:20 - One intermission
Tickets $26 - $49

Click here to buy the script

It is always a pleasure when a company that can handle sophisticated comedy takes up a George Bernard Shaw play, especially one that isn't seen very often. Of course, there is a reason that this particular late installment in the canon of Shaw isn't often on a local stage. There are so many plays by the same author that are better. Still, Shaw is always Shaw, and that guarantees an evening filled with material worthy of attention. With John Going directing a cast featuring solid Olney contributors such as Julie-Ann Elliott, Paul Morella, John Dow and some new but very welcome additions such as Tonya Beckman Ross making her Olney debut and Nick De Pinto his second appearance on the new Main Stage, the evening flies by with a high entertainment quotient even if its message is a moral we've heard before.

Storyline: The wealthiest woman in England can't find a mate worth having - or can she? Her first husband "earned" her hand in a stroke of luck but his luck ran out. Then a would-be replacement fails the test. The test? Take a small amount of money and turn it into a large amount in a short time. Just to make sure it is fair, she tries it herself. She takes the challenge of actually earning her own living rather than living off her father's fortune. Everything she touches turns to "gold" but it is another man who wins her, one who could give away what wealth he had.

By the late nineteen teens George Bernard Shaw had penned a host of fabulous social conscience plays in which sharp characters spouted the lessons of his distinctive Fabian philosophy pointing out the failures of modern society and advocating gradual or evolutionary improvements in the human condition rather than violently revolutionary ones. World War I worked additional concerns into his consciousness, resulting in probably his last play to offer new insights instead of repeated feasts of previously served delectables. That was Heartbreak House (1920) and it drew to an end the long line of wonders which had included Mrs. Warren's Profession (1893), Arms and the Man (1894), Candida (also 1894), The Devil's Disciple (1897), Man and Superman (1903,) Major Barbara (1905), and Pygmalion (1913) among many others. The Millionairess was his 1936 entry. It offers very little that was new in the Shaw canon, but it was and is a delightful rehash of previous points. 

Director Going has Elliott as the preposterously named Epifania Ognisanti di Parerga, temporarily Mrs. Fitzfassenden, the aforementioned wealthiest woman in England. She's bright. She's flip. And, she's fun to watch. Matching her in brightness and flippancy is DePinto, such a delight in the entire first act that his presence is missed in the second and third. Also on view for less time than you'd like is Paul Morella as a Persian doctor in a fez who spouts truisms with panache, and Tonya Beckman Ross as the new woman in the life of Epifania's first husband, played gruffly by James Denvil. A break in polished upper-class tone comes with the third act's descent into the world of sweat shops where John Dow and Cherie Weinert put a face on the working poor. Dow pulls this off with an aggrieved sense of dignity but Weinert gets a bit too whiny.

With four very different locales for the four acts of the play, set designer James Wolk uses a turntable rotating in full view of the audience with set sections sliding on and off and flying up or down, along with rear projection. Taking just one intermission means that the shift from the solicitor's office to a dilapidated inn, and, later, the shift from a sweatshop to a fashionable hotel had to be interesting in their own right to keep the play from bogging down and to engage the audience's imagination at the same time. It works quite well, drawing the viewers even further into the progress of the story. 

Written by George Bernard Shaw. Directed by John Going. Design: James Wolk (set) Liz Covey (costumes) Nicole Paul (wigs) Dennis Parichy (lights) Christopher Baine (sound) Stan Barouh (photography) Renee E. Yancey (stage manager). Cast: James Denvil, Nick De Pinto, John Dow, Julie-Ann Elliott, David Frankenberger, Jr., Michael McKenzie, Paul Morella, Tonya Beckman Ross, Cherie Weinert,

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The Glass Menagerie
May 29 - July 12, 2009
Wednesday - Sunday at 7:45 pm
Saturday - Sunday at 1:45
Reviewed July 2 by Brad Hathaway

An intimate production of a Tennessee Williams memory play
Running time 2:50 - one intermission
Performances in the Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab
Tickets $26 - $49
Click here to buy the script

Tennessee Williams' portrait of a woman stretched beyond her capacity to absorb the blows of life suffering one last shock offers many delicate pleasures. Produced in the intimate Theatre Lab, the audience is up close. With other shows in this venue, the term might be "close to the action," but with Williams, action isn't what it is all about. Its not that things move slowly, it is that the concentration of the playwright, and, thus, of the cast and audience, is on the character of the people involved. Events are mere stimulants - jolts, really - to which each of the three characters in this lower middle class family respond in almost chemical reactions. Jim Petosa has mounted the play gently, directing his cast to avoid over emoting in order to make these reactions feel positively organic. It is a technique that works well whenever a reaction is given voice in Williams' script. However, there are moments in the story when the woman at its core reacts silently. Then Paula Langton, who otherwise provides a fine portrayal of the mother in the family, over does the facial reactions. Her glances and grimaces would probably work in a traditionally sized theater where there are hundreds of feet between the lip of the stage and the rear balcony, but in this tight space, they draw attention to the technique instead of to the internal feelings of the character - and internal feelings are the very essence of the play.

Storyline: Genteel Amanda has been abandoned by her husband and disappointed by her grown offspring. Her daughter is slightly crippled physically but severely crippled emotionally while her son, the breadwinner of the household, longs to get out of the house and out from under her stifling control. She places enormous importance on an otherwise meaningless event when her son brings a co-worker home to dinner. With her expectations unreasonably high, the failure of the evening is too much for her to bear.

Williams’ “memory play,” set in pre-World War II St. Louis, came to Broadway in March of 1945 - just six weeks before the end of World War II in Europe. Victory was in the air and yet this introspective look at failure was so well structured and so gently written that it struck a chord. It was, of course, a harbinger of things to come. His A Streetcar Named Desire earned him the Pulitzer three years later, as did his 1955 contribution: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. The Glass Menagerie was different in tone than much of that season which had included a very different memory play, the schmaltzy I Remember Mama, that ultimate piece of froth, Harvey. the escapist pseudo operetta Song of Norway and the Oklahoma! knockoff Bloomer Girl, while Rodgers and Hammerstein refused to try to repeat their earlier phenomenal success only to find that their touch was still golden with the very different Carousel. It was also the season that Fancy Free, became the home-front experience, On the Town.

Langton's work as the mother is supported with a tasteful reserve by Michael Kaye as her narrating son - it is his memory that makes up the play - and Briel Banks as his oh-so-fragile sister who collects the glass animals that make up the titular menagerie. While the mother's relationship with her children is at the heart of the piece, the catalytic agent (to carry the chemistry comparison to extreme) is the daughter's lack of a relationship with the co-worker her brother brings home for dinner. Jeffries Thaiss plays that co-worker here, and while he doesn't make his entrance until the second act begins, he makes the strongest individual impression of the four while avoiding unbalancing the ensemble. His quiet moments with Banks are his best moments.

Within the confines of the venue, set designers James Kronzer and his associate Jeremy W. Foil take Williams at his word, creating a place of memory. Williams' script describes Amanda's apartment with a fire escape and Kronzer/Foil provide not one but a bit of a rabbit warren of fire escapes and landings. Williams also said "The scene is memory and is therefore nonrealistic. Memory takes a lot of poetic license. It omits some details, others are exaggerated according to the emotional value of the articles it touches." For this set, Kronzer/Foil omit the dining room table (with its negative role in the story) replacing it with up-focused lights surrounded by chairs. Also omitted is the portrait of the absent father/husband. The empty portrait frame emphasizes the sense of abandonment. The candelabra, on the other hand, is given the most prominent location down front and center with the entire set pointing in its direction.

Written by Tennessee Williams. Directed by Jim Petosa. Design: James Kronzer and Jeremy W. Foil (set) Nicole V. Moody (costumes) Daniel McLean Wagner (lights) Matthew Nielson (sound) Stan Barouh (photography) Jocelyn Henjum (stage manager). Cast: Briel Banks, Michael Kaye, Paula Langton, Jeffries Thaiss.

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King of the Jews
March 11 – April 12, 2009
Wednesday - Sunday at 7:45 pm
Saturday - Sunday at 1:45 pm

Reviewed March 21 by
David Siegel

Too little chaos to dramatize a frightful situation in an adaptation of a well-regarded Holocaust-related novel
Running Time 2:30 - one intermission
Performances in the Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab
Tickets $26-$49
Click here to buy the novel


Dramatizing how generally decent, if flawed, human beings react when presented with no exit from a frightful situation can make for vivid theater, but this drama falls short of the mark. Hampered by wordiness meant to carry a heavy punch -- but not delivering and in need of streamlining -- this assessment of the costs of an encircling Holocaust evil is an inconsistent adaptation by the author of his own well regarded novel. Under the direction of Cheryl Faraone, Leslie Epstein’s King of the Jews is a work with an overall mistrust of an audience’s need for subtle, complex characters. There is gallows humor in this evening aimed at Hitler (code name Horowitz) and Jews in general as well as a debate over how to react to Nazi demands for Jews to fulfill a quota for bodies.  The arguments ring hollow as a sense of danger and death stumbles to the foreground. A standout on the night your reviewer saw the production was stand-in Nick DePinto as the lone Nazi representing all Nazi evil. With only a few days notice he was in good form as a replacement for James Konicek. While his character is laden with too much responsibility to represent all evil, DePinto gets your reviewer’s ovation for what he accomplished. Young Justin Pereira in the role of an (at-first) mute boy stands and delivers a long monologue attesting to first-hand knowledge of the death of family and friends with panache. The final black out with David Little falling into hysteria as the appointed ghetto King of the Jews and the lone surviving Jew seemed an afterthought. Crucially, there was no heat to the vanity-riddled character Little played or to his performance.

Storyline:  The moral dilemma of the Jedenrat in Poland, the Jewish officials who in each ghetto of Europe were forced to collaborate with the Nazis and to choose who was to live and who was to die. The Jedenrat leader is the “King of the Jews.”

Novelist and playwright Leslie Epstein (b 1938) is the director of the Creative Writing program at Boston University. King of the Jews is his adaptation of his award winning 1979 novel of the same name. While the script had earlier readings, this is its world premiere. The script is long on statements and questions such as: “We must do our duty,”  “We can’t do nothing, we can’t do something” “What is death?” “Better to beat than to be beaten.” The script suffers for placing so much responsibility upon one young boy’s eye witness account of death while also having all evil in the contours of one character. It has to be noted that the production’s Act II seems to drag on with any number of several endings. Director Cheryl Faraone was the co-founder and co-director of the Potomac Theatre Project now based in New York after so many years in the Potomac region. For King of the Jews she has taken an approach that leads to loud, forceful presentations, but that lack a sense of internal self. Her actors convey too little emotion to give the audience a real sense of hurt or harm. Your reviewer wonders if this artistic choice was a mix of absurdist efforts and realistic drama that had not found a home in either.

Valerie Leonard, as the wife of a murdered café owner, seems to go over to the other side as a seductress without a blink or a tear. How could this be so? She loses all credibility as human unless she has been in a marriage of convenience, which is certainly possible but not presented here in her work as a Miss Kitty-like character. The words of one character (Delaney Williams) “they are killing me” gives the impression of being dropped out of nowhere, and that he quickly retreats out of view is a puzzlement. Cherie Widnert is a feisty red-head who uses her body to try to save Jews. As the links to the Shettel past there are two Rabbis, Carter Jahncke and Norman Aranovic. They are the epitome of Fiddler on the Roof type ill-dressed scrappy Talmudic scholars who argue over things that matter not, and matter dearly, with one remaining a Shettel type and the other becoming another member of the Jedenrat. Timmy Ray James’s work is all-a-flutter of hands and mannerisms as a Hungarian refugee caught up in the action, but why he is fey?

The Olney Muliltze-Gudelsky Theatre Lab is made into an impressive appearing café with all the trimmings, from piano band-stand to tables and a bar area. What is missing is a sense of sounds from the outside world seeping into the café. Every once in a while a door or window is opened and one learns that there is a world outside that impinges, but it is insufficient to give a sense of consuming danger. Lighting was most affecting as the ending neared and the redness of personal internal fire encroached. Costumes were of the period. All but the rabbis and the young boy were in finery that reduced the impact of the external world’s cruelty. In Act II the men’s costumes and hats seemed, well, more like the mad-hatter’s party in Alice in Wonderland.

Written by Leslie Epstein. Directed by Cheryl Faraone. Design: Jon Savage (set) Howard Kurtz (costumes) Anne Nesmith (wigs) Colin K. Bills (lights) Jarett C. Pisani (sound) Stan Barouh (photography). Cast: Norman Aronovic, Nick DePinto, David Elias, Carter Jahncke, Timmy Ray James, James Konicek, Valerie Leonard, David Little, Justin Pereira, Peter B. Schmitz, Cherie Weinert, Delaney Williams, Harry Winter.

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November 19, 2008 - January 11, 2009
Peter Pan
Reviewed November 22 by David Siegel

Running Time 2:40 - two intermissions
A new take on an old musical children’s classic
 … a risky venture worth a look

Click here to buy the CD

Sprinkle fairy dust over yourself and remove all memories of Mary Martin, Sandy Duncan or Cathy Rigby and return with Peter Pan to Neverland. If you don’t have fairy dust and are just a grownup unable to fly, please don’t visit this Peter Pan with a sense of “this is not what I remember.” If with your children or grandchildren, please do suppress the desire to say “well, what I saw way back when was so much better” for you will ruin their visit to this carefully constructed spectacle. For this Peter Pan, dear grown-up ones, does what the mature Wendy Darling accomplishes in the last act; allowing her own child to visit Neverland on her own to learn important life lessons. This Peter Pan is muscular, male and deep throated with some unexpected little sparks between Peter and Wendy. The usual casting of a small-boned, winsome, frenetic-type female in the title role is breached in Eve Muson’s production and direction. Daniel Townsend’s Peter is not a cute charmer, but rather a teen boy with assertiveness and verbal spunk.  When Townsend speaks and sings of not wishing to grow up and having responsibilities it resonates as real rather than as a gimmick to push the plot forward. Patricia Hurley’s Wendy is all sweetness with a demure approach to her delivery of scripted words and songs. She is a very pleasing and expressive actor; but it is her pitch-perfect singing even within small groups of other actors that is most delightful. As the dastardly Captain Hook, Mitchell Hebert brings a rich baritone intonation as well as a sense of insouciance. The flying of actors will bring delight to any and all and several weepy scenes, such as the near death of Tinker Bell, remain heart-wrenching and heartwarming. The lyrics and music will lead to many mouthing the words to “I Won’t Grow Up” as well as “I’ve Got to Crow.”  

Storyline: The tale of a boy who does not want to grow up and spends his life in Neverland battling pirates and Indians. Given the opportunity, he brings the Darling children including Wendy to Neverland as he seeks a mother who can tell stories for his Lost Boys. He finally defeats his foe, Captain Hook and the Darling children return to their own home to grow-up.

Playwright James Matthew (J. M.) Barrie (1860-1937) wrote of Peter Pan as early as 1900. The original play was produced in London in 1903. Since then the play has been a staple of the stage and has been revived on Broadway in major musical productions in 1954 with Mary Martin and Cyril Richard, in 1979 with Sandy Duncan and in 1990 with Cathy Rigby. Director Eve Muson has a rich resume including work with Olney Theatre and being cited for Outstanding Direction by the Kennedy Center/American College Theatre Festival. In program notes she proudly writes of her efforts to give the audience “a fresh and gutsy look at the play” by casting a young man in the role of Peter and to provide a sense of the under text beyond “whimsy and adventure.”  Her direction does accomplish that and makes the production one with a deeper subtext to ponder. Muson is to be commended for her risk taking. Even a children’s classic can benefit from changes; after all the world does not stand still. One can argue with the total success of this presentation, but the chance-taking is applauded.

Helen Hayes Award nominee Peggy Yates as Mrs. Darling is the mother that dreams are made of; the kindest, most loving mother that could ever exist. In Peter Pan that is to the good. Ethan Bowen as Nana the Nurse Dog is a bit of a technical mess. Somehow a dog identified as a dog by a face of a dog strapped to his chest seems a bit off-putting to say the least, though walking around on all fours may seem a bit passé. Boo Killebrew’s Tiger Lily is one strong vigorous depiction of a young Indian who will take on others even if they are men with weapons. She certainly actively ambles around without breaking a sweat throughout the entire production. Those who portrayed the Darling boys, Dan Stowell and Jace Casey, bound about and play off each quite well. They know their parts and what is expected of them. The various Pirates and Indians are good natured and project comic joyfulness. The overall singing and dancing has its ups and downs. The choreography is simple, but energetically presented, especially when Tiger Lily and the Indians dance as if in a high school cheerleading routine. The singing of Captain Hook and his Pirates is a jubilant hissing and warbling. When the Darling family croons the lovely mantra “Tender Shepherd” to calm the proceedings, the audience does sit in silent rapt attention. OK, there is one thing that this reviewer can’t get rid of from his own past … a crocodile slinking about. In this production the croc is a lighting effect early on and it is not until the third act end when it actually appears.

The set design is centered upon a huge circular window through which entrances and exits are made. The lighting design is luscious in the use of the pastel color palette including pinks, purples and greens. Townsend wears a white outfit throughout the production leading this reviewer to wonders if white for a boy who gets into such mischief is the right selection. The rigging team receives kudos as the actors fly about with great confidence. The small six member band  placed under the set plays about 10 different instruments. The microphone system for both band and cast seems to be set a bit too high and things can sound muddy at times.

Written by J. M Barrie. Music by Mark Charlap with additional music by Jule Styne. Lyrics by Carolyn Leigh with additional lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green.  Directed by Eve Muson. Choreographed by Ryan Purcell. Musical Direction by Christopher Youstra. Design: Tijana Bjelajac (set)  Pei Lee (costumes) Karlah Hamilton (wigs) Colin K. Bills (lights) Jarett C. Pisani (sound) Stan Barouh (photography). Cast: Florrie Bagel, Aviad Bernstein, Ethan T. Bowen, Jace Casey, Steven Cupo, Elizabeth Fette, David Frankenberger, Jr., Dexter Hamlett, Mitchell Hebert, Patricia Hurley,  Jennifer Irons, Boo Killebrew, Branda Lock, Sandra L. Murphy, Joe Peck, Matthew Schleigh, Kyle Schliefer, Kevin Sockwell, Dan Stowell, Daniel Townsend, Dan Van Why, Kara-Tameika Watkins, Peggy Yates.

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September 24 - October 19, 2008
The Underpants
Reviewed September 27 by David Siegel

Running Time 1: 40 -  no intermission
A piece of sweet fluff that covers social commentary
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During this time of national turmoil, what better way to forget your cares and woes then spending time with a charming little piece of sweet fluff. Then again, like so much else these days, the brightness conceals much saltier and darker things for those brave souls willing to look beneath the surface. If you wish only to take in the surface, that is fine. There is a well orchestrated attempt to give an audience a sugar high. To start, there are so many soft textured women’s bloomers hanging high above the stage. They disappear quickly, and ever so slowly some irritating scratchy surfaces appear under John Going’s carefully composed direction of Steve Martin’s adaptation of a 100 year old German concoction by Carl Sternheim. Going has a small, enthusiastic and energy-driven ensemble who seem to be natural comics handling the script full of double entendres and sexual innuendo. The savory little social and political observations begin to pile up, but do not reduce the production’s farce or pratfalls or its simple cuteness and silliness. Who could not root for a winsome woman with a smile worthy of the best orthodontist and cheekbones that puff when she smiles to get the happiness she deserves? That happiness comes from her finding her own libido with a touch from someone other than her husband. This production is almost a subversive social commentary about marriage and pre WWI anti-Semitism, with a quick big beaming smile and slapstick that includes an unexpected kiss that makes a man faint and a young woman lifting her skirts to the wrong man. Olney’s The Underpants speeds along with very few major speed bumps to slow down the double takes, held beats, eye rolls and rubber bodied physical movements. However, this reviewer muses: given the recent well received productions here in the Potomac area (Washington Stage Guild, 2003 and again in 2004 and Little Theatre of Alexandria, June 2007,) why mount it again? Was there nothing else around worthy? That can’t be true, can it?

Storyline: When his wife’s underwear slips to her ankles just as the King's parade passes by, a German civil servant fears he will loose his livelihood over the scandal that he foresees. His world is turned upside down, however, not by scandal so much as by new found wealth when men start lining up to rent their spare room: men who are smitten with the young lady they saw in such a compromising situation out on the parade route.

In the program notes, Steve Martin indicated he adapted Sternheim’s century old work because it was “ribald, satirical, self-referential and quirky.” Martin just wanted to “uncork” what had been bottled up for contemporary audiences. That he does. He sets the fuse with a 2 second explosion that happens off-stage before the lights come up … the unseen falling underpants of a young wife watching the King go by in a parade. How it happens and why it happens matters not, but the falling cloth sets this comedy in motion. Each character may be a type, but is not just a cut-out. Each has an unexpected side: the sweet young wife with a rich inner libido waiting to be brought to life; her husband oblivious to her sexual needs yet he can fall for an older neighbor; the neighbor wishing once again to feel herself heated up and fulfilled, yet not willing to ruin the young wife’s marriage. The Underpants is breathlessly paced by director Going. But the casting of the husband and wife leave something lacking … there is not only no spark between them, their appearances make even the thought of a spark impossible to comprehend. She is just too cool and he too blustery, almost to a fault. James Beneduce, as the husband, is all loud rant as he chews through his lines. His balding pate and chesty physique make him a bristling character. He seems to look past his wife as he speaks his lines, oblivious to her needs and caring only for himself. Allison McLemore as his wife is all winsome sweetness and light. She is a caged bird who happens to be a fetching blond with a long, lean figure and creamy skin. But, she does not seem to have the inner fire to carry off her desire to have an affair with another man, at least until the very end when an unexpected visitor appears. When she says “my resistance is gone” it is met with laughter, but not belief.

The work of the featured actors does make for an amusing evening that has wit, high-jinx, and a few side-splitting moments. Joan Rosenfels makes the most of her bawdy upstairs neighbor role. She is the purveyor of the naughty, lurid, and loud and she brings life to the production when she is on stage. The erstwhile Casanova is Jeffries Thaiss, all full of dark hair and handsome white suit along with poetic words delivered with a rich flourish that rile up McLemore. Bruce Nelson plays Woody Allen…oops, make that the self-denying Jewish nebbish of 100 years ago until the final scene when some self-awareness comes to him. Nelson is the best comic of the ensemble; with constant sniffly nose, attempts to hide his Jewishness by correcting his own words, and a rubber body as he walks or collapses at an unexpected kiss.

The Olney mainstage greets the audience with James Wolk’s stage full of heavy dark oak furniture and touches through-out of the Victorian era. There is no space unfilled as the stage is thrust forward with little depth. This is basically a drawing room comedy requiring three distinct acting areas that are the couple's apartment.  The lighting brings to the eye a sense of day time and night time while sound is used during the minimal blackouts that depict time and scene changes. The costumes are Victorian and are brightened the most when an unexpected special visitor appears at the end, resplendent in a hat that is an immediate laugh.

Adapted by Steve Martin, from a play by Carl Sternheim. Directed by John Going. Design: James Wolk (set) Liz Covey (costumes) Nicole Paul (wigs)  Dennis Parichy (lights) Jarett C. Pisani (sound) Jenna Henderson (stage manager). Cast: James Beneduce, Vincent Clark, H. Allen Hoffman, Allison McLemore, Bruce Nelson, Joan Rosenfels and Jeffrey Thaiss.

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August 6 - September 7, 2008
Rabbit Hole
Reviewed August 9 by Brad Hathaway

Running time 2:00 - one intermission
t A Potomac Stages Pick for a captivating portrayal of a couple grappling with grief
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This new play by David Lindsay-Abaire, a touching drama of one couple dealing with grief over the loss of a young son, won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It avoids the mawkish, emphasizes the human and deals honestly with the complexity of human relations under tremendous strain. With a topic such as this, one might expect a tear jerker of huge proportions. Lindsay-Abaire chooses, however, to examine this couple's effort to cope not at the moment of loss, or even in the immediate aftermath, but six to eight months later, when most of the well-wishers have delivered their immediate condolences and life has begun to move on. This gives the piece a chance to deal intelligently with many issues ignored in the first flush of loss, such as the complications that arise when the members of the couple have different rates of recovery or the compounding pressures of each feeling a need for support from the other (and vice versa) when they are at different stages of adjustment. As a result, the experience of watching the play involves more soulful sighs than sobs. Add the pleasure of watching Paul Morella, Deborah Hazlett and Megan Anderson bring their characters to life, and this is a very fine evening of theater.

Storyline: The parents of a young boy who was killed when he ran into the street after his dog attempt to cope with their loss while relatives try to comfort them and encourage them to get on with their lives. Things get even more tense when the teenager who was driving the car that struck the boy tries to establish contact.

Lindsay-Abaire is often associated with fairly quirky plays that have people (especially women) grappling with unusual twists of fate. Think of Fuddy Meers with its serial amnesiac, or Kimberly Akimbo with its heroine ageing at an incredible rate. This time out, he dispenses with the quirky plot devices. Grief over the loss of a child was once a universal condition. It is now mercifully rare in the developed world, but it remains a universal fear among parents everywhere. The author taps into this fear. Indeed, he is quoted as saying he wrote the play specifically because that other Pulitzer Prize playwright who was one of his mentors, Marsha Norman ('night, Mother,) suggested he write a play about something that scared him. The result is a very contemporary look at grief. You know it is a very contemporary play because when arguments are exhausted practically all of the characters at one time or another use the lazy locution currently so in vogue : "I'm just saying." As irritating as that habit can be, it is the way people talk these days. The play is carefully structured, the characters are all well defined and the dialogue ranges from sparklingly humorous to strikingly self-revelatory.

Mitchell Hébert, no stranger to Olney's stage as an actor, directs his first play here, bringing with him set designer Marie-Noëlle Daigneault, whose set uses a revolving rear section to bring the child's bedroom into play. The pace and the feeling of place are exemplary and the attention of the cast to little touches of muscle memory help say "real people live here." (Just look at the way Hazlett folds the laundry without needing to actually look at the clothing, or the way Morella reaches for a bottle opener when he gets a beer. You have to believe he's done that a thousand times before in this, his own kitchen.) Megan Anderson does a fine job with the flippantry of the younger sister of Hazlett's character while giving a feel for the empathy she has for her sister. Only Kate Kiley, as Hazlett's mother, does less than one would expect with her role, while Aaron Bliden as the young man who was driving at the fatal moment, is suitably uncomfortable but driven in his moments of contact with the parents whose lives he changed so dramatically.

An interesting sidelight to the play's selection for the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Drama: It is the first drama in recent memory to be selected by the Pulitzer Prize Committee after not being one of the nominees forwarded to it by the drama judges. Three other plays were nominated but none received the required majority and, thus, the field was open to any play and the committee members went with this one. That is not to say, however, that the play wasn't worthy of the honor. Clearly, from what was exhibited on the stage at Olney, this is a play that belongs on the list that includes such high quality recent work as Doubt, Proof and Wit.

Written by David Linsay-Abaire. Directed by Mitchell Hébert. Design: Marie-Noëlle Daigneault (set) Kathleen Geldard (costumes) Charlie Morrison (lights) Jarett C. Pisani (sound) Stan Barouh (photography) Renee E. Yancey (stage manager). Cast: Megan Anderson, Aaron Bliden, Deborah Hazlett, Kate Kiley, Paul Morella.

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July 2 - August 3, 2008
Big River
Reviewed July 11 by Brad Hathaway

Running Time 2:25 - one intermission
t A Potomac Stages Pick for a solid production of a unique musical
Ticket Price: $25

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The National Players mount Roger Miller's musical based on Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn on the Historic Main Stage. It fits well in this rustic space. The wooden planking of the set matches the wooden planking of the theater and the country-ish, folk-ish and spiritual-ish score feels right at home. With Eve Muson directing, some of the warm human values at the core of the piece take on a similar resonance - when Sam Ludwig breaks into the song "I, Hucklebery, Me" it is clearer than in most other productions that the song is about the freedom to be yourself, and when he joins Isaiah Johnson as the runaway slave in "World's Apart" it becomes a touching affirmation of equality. Five years ago, a revival of this musical that was developed by DeafWest Theater in Los Angeles transferred to Broadway with a blend of hearing performers and deaf ones. Under Jeff Calhoun's inventive direction, it was a glorious affirmation of human dignity. That revival was re-mounted at Ford's theater in 2005, bringing the show to the attention of a legion of theatergoers who weren't that familiar with the original. It was a superb production with many touches that meshed sign language with spoken and sung words in a way that was unforgettable. For many, it became the show they think of when they think of Big River. Here's a chance to take a look back at the original, streamlined a bit, but without the alterations that Calhoun made. It is worth remembering just how strong a show it really was in the first place.

Storyline: Mark Twain’s tale of Huckleberry Finn is set along the Mississippi River in the days when it was the key avenue of commerce between the reach of slavery and the free states of the north. Huck embarks on a raft trip down the river with runaway slave Jim, and is soon joined by a pair of charlatans who run scams among the river towns. His friendship with Jim sorely tests his acceptance of the concepts of slavery and the inferiority of one race of men as compared to another.

The same Roger Miller who had a string of hits blending a country sound with a uniquely humorous bent of mind with "Dang Me," "England Swings (Like a Pendulum Do)" and "King of the Road," turned his considerable talents to creating a score for a musical based on Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. He said he'd never actually ever seen a musical before and knew nothing of musical theater, but somehow his instincts and talent (not to mention the contributions of his collaborators) resulted in a fabulous show that won Tony awards in 1985 for best score, best book and best musical. The score is a unique blend of country, show tunes, spirituals and comedy numbers. The book for the musical relies on those songs creating emotional highs to keep the momentum going.

Ludwig makes a charming Huck and brings a fine singing voice to the role. Johnson holds up his end of the musical chores in the vocally demanding role of Jim. Everyone else in the cast handles multiple roles. For example, David Frankenberger, Jr. is highly entertaining as Huck's "Pap" singing about the dad-gum "Guv'ment" early on and then kicks up his heals as a con man pretending to be a "Duke" in the high spirited "When the Sun Goes Down in the South" that ends the first act. Daniel Townsend is particularly entertaining when he's "Tom Sawyer" - his "Hand for the Hog" is a delight - but, later on, he's a gentleman arrived from England.

The set is both impressive and highly functional, with walls of wooden slats and a platform on the floor that serves as a bridge at one point, a pier at another and splits to allow a portion to float off as a raft. Mark Lanks lights the foreground for action and the background for atmosphere while costume designer Pei Lee gives the members of the ensemble who have to double on multiple roles different looks so there is no confusing one character with another, even with performers who have made a strong impression such as Townsend and Frankenberger. The one misstep in costuming is the footwear for Ludwig who, as Huckleberry Finn appears to be sporting tennis shoes that go back perhaps to the early part of the twentieth century but certainly not to the nineteenth. The songs are all well supported by a small band in the pit under the planking, led by Aaron Broderick.

Music and lyrics by Roger Miller. Book by William Hauptman. Adapted from the novel by Mark Twain. Directed by Eve Muson. Choreographed by Boo Killebrew. Musical direction by Aaron Broderick. Design: Jeremy W. Foil (set) Pei Lee (costumes) Mark Lanks (lights) Jerett C. Pisani (sound) Stan Barouh (photography) Jocelyn Henjum (stage manager). Cast: Priscilla Cuellar, Elizabeth Fette, David Frankenberger, Jr., Rebecca A. Herron, Isaiah Johnson, Nicolas Lehan, Melvin B. Logan, Deborah Lubega, Sam Ludwig, Daniel Townsend, Gregory Joseph Twomey, Vishal Vaidya, Dan Van Why, Jade Wheeler.

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June 18 - July 27, 2008
Stuff Happens
Reviewed July 5 by Brad Hathaway

Running Time 3:05 - one intermission
t A Potomac Stages Pick for sharp theatricality applied to a crucial public issue
Click here to buy the script

What is the difference between history and current events? Do events have to run their course and all of their ramifications come to fruition before an assessment can be rendered with something approaching not objectivity, but fairness? David Hare is, as everyone who saw his Via Dolorosa at Theater J in 2002 knows, a playwright who can't wait for the filter of time to free his judgment, a man who needs to ask "why" even before all of the "what" has come to pass. Here, in a sprawling, episodic play featuring twenty seven named characters and uncounted "others" in who knows how many scenes over three very full and fascinating hours, he explores just how America and the world got into the fix it is in in Iraq. He offers no solutions, but doesn't shy away from a strong independently derived position as he creates a history play out of current events.

Storyline: As George W. Bush takes over the Presidency, he's faced with the challenges of formulating his own foreign policy - a challenge turned into a crusade in his mind with the terrorist attacks of the 11th of September in his first year in office. How that event drives him toward wars in Afghanistan and Iraq is portrayed in a text drawn from public documents, private recollections and the author's imagination.

As the Bush administration approaches the end of its eighth year and the war in Iraq its fifth year, this play, which takes its title from a comment by then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, is less than four years old. Yet it begins to take on the feeling of the judgment of history. Some will find in it confirmation of all their fears, disapproving positions and regrets over the path their country has pursued throughout this young century. Others will see in it some sort of proof that the current President's critics will go to great lengths to discredit him and his administration. But no one can be anything but impressed by the accomplishment of this talented cast, these gifted designers and especially the work of director Jeremy Skidmore, who marshals all the forces in a crystal clear staging that flows from scene to scene, point to point and event to event with a sense of propulsive momentum. The script seems a bit compressed toward the end, as if the playwright looked at what he had written through the scene depicting Colin Powell's negotiations with France's Dominique de Villepin and said "I'm running out of time ... lets move it right along." The rest of the scenes seem a bit rushed to get to the end before the clock runs out.

Central to the story, of course, is the role of George W. Bush. In a performance that avoids cartoonish impersonation, but which uses mannerisms to establish and maintain identity, Rick Foucheux finds a bit more depth in Hare's version of Bush than Hare seems to have actually included in the text. His "George W" may be cocky and devoid of self doubt, but he shows a strength that comes through almost subtly despite incidents of subordinates presuming to preempt him ("What the President believes is ..." says Deidre LaWan Starnes as a self-possessed Condoleezza Rice). The distinction between cartooning and characterizing is observed as well in Jeff Allin's Donald Rumsfeld, and, to an extent, Leo Erickson's version of Vice President Cheney. The presentation of Cheney is the least nuanced of the main characters in Bush's circle, but that seems more a feature of the text than of Erickson's performance. Colin Powel, powerfully played by Frederick L. Strother, Jr., is given the most sympathetic portrayal in Hare's version of events. Stephen F. Schmidt breathes some life into British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Many of the members of the cast play multiple roles. Amir Arison is magnetic as France's de Villepin and affecting as the Iraqi Exile who has the  final summation, while Naomi Jacobson nails two speeches by observers from overseas and also handles the role of Laura Bush. Some of the doubling results in cross gender casting which the audience soon learns to accept.

The sound design of Jarett C. Pisani goes a long way toward heightening the theatricality of the performance, particularly the all-encompassing sounds of the impact of crash after crash after crash in the depiction of those awful moments on September 11 which are burned into the consciousness of so many around the world. James Kronzer's set design has multiple subtle features such as the gently curved red line on the black floor which establishes the global reach of the piece and the matching red balcony balustrade that surrounds the audience in this theater-in-the-pit staging. The key feature of his design is a seemingly inexhaustible supply of plain hard-back chairs which are assembled in a never ending series of arrangements to create everything from the General Assembly at the United Nations to the cabinet room of the White House or from Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas, to the Oval Office itself. Of special note is Debra Kim Sivigny's work as costume designer. With a cast of characters of this size, she was required to come up with a very large number of outfits, each capturing both the public persona of the individual and reinforcing the view of the character the text and the performer's approach. She did this without attracting excessive attention to the costumes, letting each subtly contribute to the total impact.

Written by David Hare. Directed by Jeremy Skidmore. Design: James Kronzer (set) Debra Kim Sivigny (costumes) Dan Covey (lights) Jarett C. Pisani (sound) Stan Barouh (photography) Laura Smith (stage manager). Cast: Barry Abrams, Jeff Allin, Amir Arison, Carlos Bustamante, Leo Erickson, Rick Foucheux, Meghan Grady, Naomi Jacobson, Daniel Ladmirault, Daniel Lyons, Stephen F. Schmidt, Deidra LaWan Starnes, Frederick L. Strother, Jr.

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June 11 - July 20, 2008
The Mousetrap
Reviewed July 5 by Brad Hathaway

Running Time 2:20 - one intermission
A smashingly entertaining evening

Click here to buy the script

Olney has staked out one heck of a summer - even if it doesn't have the Potomac Theatre Project in residence anymore. (That former staple of serious summer theater founded here by Jim Petosa, Charyl Faraone and Richard Romagnoli has relocated after twenty years to New York City where it's July slate is being performed in a downtown venue.) The mix of serious and diverting is a good one with a balance between drama, comedy, fantasy, mystery and docu-drama. Both comedy and mystery elements make The Mousetrap a stylish addition to the summer's programming in a production that sets out to entertain, and accomplishes just that. Director John Going - who has staged a host of satisfying shows here, where he also serves as Associate Artistic Director - has a design team serving up lavish visuals to match stylish performances by a host of familiar cast members. Add a fine original score of incidental music (with a chamber piece of variations on "three blind mice") and the bottom line is a marvelously entertaining evening to simply sit back and enjoy.

Storyline: An English couple open a guest house in a country manor, but a snow storm isolates them and their very first guests while the radio reports the news of a murder in the neighboring town. A policeman on skis manages to reach them to pursue his investigation because it seems every one of the guests may have had some connection to the murder victim.

This superb example of Dame Agatha Christie's craft as an entertaining mystery writer for both the stage and the written page first opened in London in 1952 when England was mourning the death of King George VI and anticipating the coronation of Queen Elizabeth. Now, fifty-five years later, Elizabeth is still the Queen and The Mousetrap is still playing and is now approaching 25,000 performances. It was based on a short story which was based on a radio play which was based on a real case dating from 1945. Its title is a lift from another famous English playwright: "The Mousetrap" is the title Hamlet gives when he says "the play's the thing Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the King."

Going's cast includes Julie-Ann Elliot doing a nifty version of a bright and cheerful British bride who is approaching the first anniversary of her marriage to a somewhat overprotective husband, played nicely by Scott Barrow. Among regulars playing their guests are the marvelously humorous Jeffries Thaiss as a neatly named "Christopher Wren," Paul Morella obviously having a fine time playing a thick-accented stranger, and Harry A. Winter giving a warmly avuncular performance as a retired Army Major. The only face that is new to long time Potomac Region theatergoers is that of Andrew Grusetskie, making his Olney debut as the detective who skis through the storm to investigate the crime. He's a welcome addition to the talent pool that is often impressive here.

James Wolk's highly detailed set of the manor's great hall is a lovely, warm place with its wooden walls, comfortable furniture and a glowing fireplace. All of this contrasts nicely with the vision of the snow storm (complete with blowing flakes) out the upstage center window. The sense of time and place of post-World War II England is reinforced in Liz Covey's costumes, each carefully calculated to speak volumes about the personality traits of the individual characters. (Thaiss's sweater is a thing of beauty in this regard!) Add the touch of actual snow on hats and shoulders of each character making an entrance from the outside world and the effect would be complete if it weren't for the fact that no one ever seems to have wet shoes. F. Mitchell Dana's lighting design is effective throughout the evening but never so effective as when there is no light. For the blackouts, he has the safety lights at each of the steps in the audience extinguished until illumination is resumed. Nice touch, that.

Written by Agatha Christie. Directed by John Going. Design: James Wolk (set) Liz Covey (costumes) Karlah Hamilton (wigs) F. Mitchell Dana (lights) Joe Payne and Jarett C. Pisani (sound) James Prigmore (composer) Stan Barouh (photography) Carey Stipe (stage manager). Cast: Scott Barrow, Julie-Ann Elliott, Andrew Grusetskie, Cornelia Hart, Paul Morella, Jeffries Thaiss, Harry A. Winter, MaryBeth Wise.

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April 9 - May 18, 2008
Reviewed April 27 by Brad Hathaway

Running time 2:55 - one intermission
A sluggish but still stirring historical musical

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The musical 1776 has a deeper impact when performed in the Potomac Region, where we live each day elbow to elbow with history. Here the arguments over the values for which this country was founded take on special meaning. Sherman Edwards, a song writing history teacher with little or no experience in musical theater, with the help of the inestimable Peter Stone (Titanic, The Will Rogers Follies), managed to make this history lesson one of the most entertaining, genuinely funny, romantic and passionate musicals. It is often mounted here (this is the seventh production we have reviewed since Potomac Stages began publishing less than eight years ago). Each has its own strengths and  weaknesses. The strengths here are the Pennsylvania delegation and the two women who join the large cast of men. However, the overall impression is that director/choreographer Stephen Nachamie leads a competent crew to deliver a solid but somewhat stolid presentation.

Storyline: In a hot and humid hall in "foul, filthy, fuming Philadelphia," the delegates of the 13 colonies debate everything from opening up a window to declaring independence. Central to the cause of separation are John Adams who is "obnoxious and disliked" but devoted to the cause, Benjamin Franklin, "a sage, a bit gouty in the leg" who understands the importance of crafting coalitions, and Thomas Jefferson, who, at age 33, has "a remarkable felicity of expression." The audience knows what the outcome of the debate will be, but there is tension and drama aplenty along the way to the final vote.

The real magic of this piece is the way Stone and Edwards manage to communicate the complexity of the issues and avoid making simplistic cartoons of the majority of the characters they portray. Richard Henry Lee is treated with less respect than most, being a comic popinjay of an egotist, but the adherents to the heritage of the British nation are shown as earnest, honest men who have sincere differences of opinion. Indeed, Stone writes a marvelously moving moment at the end when the victorious John Adams pays tribute to the defeated John Dickenson who has fought with all the energy and passion at his command in a cause he holds dear. Even the question of slavery, which was finally resolved on the side of human dignity only by bloody civil war decades later, is presented with both sides landing telling blows in the argument.

Paul Binotto is strangely unaffecting as the tormented John Adams and Rob Richardson brings vocal strength and physical height but little else to the role of Thomas Jefferson. The three best performances all happen to be delivered by actors playing Pennsylvanians. Harry A. Winter's Benjamin Franklin is refreshingly free of comic caricature and full of charm, wit and real commitment. Thomas Adrian Simpson's well balanced portrayal of John Dickenson has all the dignity and strength the roll demands. John Tweel takes the small part of James Wilson, who finds himself in the undesired spotlight as the swing vote at the end, and delivers a moment of superb acting. His bright, intelligent eyes go into an unfocused introspection and his tongue licks his dry lips as a tightly controlled inner panic is triggered by his predicament. Both of the women in the cast bring beauty (both physical and vocal) to the otherwise male-dominated performance. Jessica Lauren Ball delights as Martha Jefferson who so charms Adams and Franklin in "He Plays the Violin," and Eileen Ward is the better half of the Adams family here. Both are Toby's Dinner Theatre alumni, Ball most recently impressing in Titanic. Carl Randolph adds a sense of dignity as the Congress' President, John Hancock.

The play requires a representation of the hall in Philadelphia where the political magic of 1776 occurred. Robert Kovach has designed one that uses a forced perspective technique but then doesn't carry the perspective lines through for all the set pieces. While the chair railing is properly horizontal and the crown molding where walls meet ceiling angles upward to create depth, the doors, windows and wall decorations all stay distractingly square. Howard Vincent Kurtz' period costumes are a fine representation of the styles of the time with sumptuous fabrics for many gentlemen but simple garb for others. Christopher Youstra's six-member orchestra in the pit gives out a thin sound played fairly tentatively. Ah, but there is some fine ensemble singing from the stage with "Sit Down John" delivered with verve by all twenty voices, and Chris Sizemore searing the hall as Edward Rutledge attributing responsibility for the "peculiar institution" of slavery in his solo, "Molasses to Rum."

Music and Lyrics by Sherman Edwards. Book by Peter Stone. Directed and choreographed by Stephen Nachamie. Music direction by Christopher Youstra. Design: Robert Kovach (set) Howard Vincent Kurtz (costumes) Karlah Hamilton (wigs) Jeffrey Koger (lights) Jarett C. Pisani (sound) Stan Barouh (photography) Lou Timmons (stage manager). Cast: Jessica Lauren Ball, Don Edward Black, Paul Binotto, Peter Boyer, Andrew Boza, Michael Bunce, Byron Fenstermaker, James Garland, Dave Joria, Don Kenefick, Scott Kenison, Bill Largess, Sam Ludwig, Dean Marshall, Joe Myering, Joe Peck, Rob Richardson, Carl Randolph, Ben Shovlin, Thomas Adrian Simpson, Chris Sizemore, Jonathan Lee Taylor, Joseph Thanner, John Tweel, Harry A. Winter, Eileen Ward.

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March 19 - April 20, 2008
Bad Dates
Reviewed March 29 by David Siegel

Running Time 1:45 - no intermission
A mild evening of spun confection

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Dessert comes first in the spun confection of Bad Dates written by Theresa Rebeck. Then comes the heavier courses and some complexity of character that save this production from being just a mild, too quickly forgotten diversion from television for the evening. Bad Dates is a pleasant saga about a middle aged single mother, played by Melissa Flaim, out and about on the dating scene after years of hiding herself away. The themes are not so much about her many shoes and outfits, or being a constant shopper, as hinted at in the marketing for this show, as they are about trying on different identities until one is found that might fit; at least for the particular moment at hand. Along the way, the main character in this one woman show, discovers that men are every bit as varied as she and her outfits and shoe choices. She learns a way of living, perhaps, in which risking rejection can lead to personal growth as she finds her own authentic and comfortable individuality. She also seems to learn that attracting certain men, those she doesn’t well relate to, may be in part due to the way she dresses or the height of her heels. Billed by director Lee Mikeska Gardner as a play for, by and about women, Bad Dates is as much a depiction of the struggles of insecure, angst ridden humans trying to find someone to love and trust through trial and error. Melissa Flaim is one likeable actor in this one-woman show. She is on stage for the entire production, and easily makes the audience either her sisters or her best friends as she has a conversation with them about her life, her dating and her desire to understand men. This is a production for an audience wanting not to stretch too far or to be required to look for sub-texts.

Storyline: Haley Walker, a divorced single mom with a love of shoes, moves from Texas to New York City and re-enters the dating scene while she runs a restaurant for the Romanian mafia as their front to launder money. Haley seems to confide only in a very few about her string of rotten romances with men as she tries to find Mr. Right.

Playwright Theresa Rebeck has written for the stage (Omnium Gatherum, finalist for 2003 Pulitzer Prize) and for television. Her television credentials include Brooklyn Bridge and Dream On, each a 30 minute sitcom. She also wrote for L.A. Law,  Law and Order and NYDP Blue. Bad Dates is a sweet little bonbon with plenty of dark chocolate covering rich creamy ice cream, but with an unexpected savory and chewy center. Rebeck has given her one-woman show a quiet sense of daring in how she has the character speak so intimately with, rather than to the audience as if sharing coffee together. This is not an angry anti-male riff, but rather something much gentler. There are very few enormously side-splitting lines.  Rather, this has a warm humor, something like the old Mary Tyler Moore show a bit updated more than the harder outlook of Sex and the City. There are lines such as “men will sleep with anyone, even someone they don’t like, while women won’t.” Perhaps. As directed by Lee Mikeska Gardner, this is a pleasant evening, with lots of motion and action and business before one’s eyes, given that it is a one-character show depicting the bedroom of a New York City apartment. What you see and hear is what you get under the confident direction of Gardner.

Melissa Flaim, a local actress and vocal coach, has appeared in a number of Potomac Region theater productions. She plays her character as one who is frazzled, passionate, and too impatient with herself. She “dresses” her character with life; as if she has not memorized the lines from a script but is recalling her own real life memories. Flaim is a tall woman, with long legs that she shows off under a comfy terrycloth bathrobe for any number of scenes. Her steady presentation is natural, with little fakery or dramatic cleverness. Her vocal skills are heard in the way she can lengthen any and all words to make a single syllable go on forever. There is no bitchiness in her delivery, even in the attempts at sharper humor, and she is in constant motion as she dresses and undresses with nary a missed line … and all as if she is dressing before a close friend in her bedroom. Flaim is particularly skilled in her ability to depict the pain of attempting to wear too small shoes as they strangle her toes. Then again, maybe the shoes used at stage are too small or that the moment is just too totally real to her. At the final blackout, Flaim has discovered an unexpected male protector in a situation where such a human being is useful. She finds herself in a police station with the Romanian mob after her for skimming money from the restaurant she runs for them. Flaim plays this as a quietly revelatory situation … that someone would be there for her at this time. She is warm and tender as she contemplates providing him with coffee for his efforts. How very real; just coffee at this point in time, nothing more.

The Multiz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab is a fitting intimate setting for Bad Dates. A well-crafted bedroom awaits the audience as they take their seats. A quibble though. The set, which is supposed to be a woman’s apartment feels and looks too male. The color scheme is beiges and there are few if any touches such as flowers, or colors such as rich pinks, deep purples, or dusty rose. Only the walls and not even all of them, have some color and that is a sea foam green. The pre-show music runs the gamut from acoustic guitar to the upbeat and finally to club music with a strong dance beat.

Written by Theresa Rebeck. Directed by Lee Mikeska Gardner. Design: Milagros Ponce de Leon (set) Melanie Clark (costumes) Andrew Griffin (lights) Jarett C. Pisani (sound) Stan Barouh (photography) William E. Cruttenden III (stage manager). Cast: Melissa Flaim.

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February 13 - March 16, 2008
Doubt: A Parable
Reviewed by Brad Hathaway

Running time 1:30 - no intermission
t A Potomac Stages Pick for superb performances of a superb play
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John Patrick Shanley examines the essence of doubt in ninety minutes of intense and absolutely absorbing human drama. He certainly gets to his point right up front. The opening line of the play is "What do you do when you're not sure?" He never takes the easy way out and never gives the audience a chance to either, with no revelations, no certainties and no easy answers. When you leave the theater, you too will still have ringing in your ears the final line: "Oh, I have such doubts!" Indeed, you may find yourself debating long into the night whether the priest is guilty or innocent and whether the sister was right or wrong in her actions. There is no correct answer and there is no end of justification for either side of either question. What isn't debatable is the quality of the play or the quality of the performance. Both are superb.

Storyline: A Roman Catholic nun who runs a parish school suspects that the young parish priest has established an inappropriate relationship with one of the boys in the school, but she has no proof. How should she deal with the situation?

The storyline above doesn't tell you exactly what the "inappropriate relationship" might be - neither does the author. He's not setting up a concrete "whodunit" or even a "what's-he-done." Instead, to see what Shanley's intent is, look to the the subtitle: "A Parable." The moral dilemma facing Sister Aloysius is that she has doubts, not proof. She has duties and responsibilities too. The time is 1964. Today's revelations of pedophilia among clergy dating to that period make this a highly topical play, but its approach to the central question is timeless. No wonder Shanley received both the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony Award for best play.

Shanley's script presents just four people as it lays out its conundrum. There's the sister herself. What a role! No simple stereotype of a set-in-her-ways, officious official. This nun is a widowed woman with a strength based on her discovery late in life of the certainty of the church, a certainty tempered by a lifetime of seeing how temporal things work. Cherry Jones won the Tony Award for her performance in the role. Here at Olney, Brigid Cleary gives every bit as strong and impressive a performance. Potomac Region theatergoers were fortunate to have Jones perform when the touring version of the play came to the National last year. Those same theatergoers should journey out to Olney to experience Cleary's take - just as insightful, just as affecting and just as human - but quite different.

James Denvil, as the charming, youthful priest, and Deidra LaWan Starnes as the mother of the youth in question, are every bit as marvelous as those who toured the nation with the play and Patricia Hurley, as the young teacher in the school who surfaces the initial suspicions, is even better. With a marvelous set by James Wolk and a nimble sound design by Jarett Pisani, this production is proof that regional theater in the Potomac Region is a match for theater anywhere - and that includes the vaunted environs of New York's Broadway!

Written by John Patrick Shanley. Directed by John Going. Design: James Wolk (set) Howard Vincent Kurtz (costumes) Dennis Parichy (lights) Jarett C. Pisani (sound) Stan Barouh (photography) Renee E. Yancey (stage manager). Cast: Brigid Cleary, James Denvil, Patricia Hurley, Deidra LaWan Starnes.

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November 14, 2007 - January 13, 2008
Fiddler on the Roof
Reviewed by David Siegel

Running Time:  2:40 one intermission
An enjoyable family musica
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Four decades after it opened its multiple Tony award winning Broadway run of 3,242 performances this musical continues to be an audience pleaser. The plot is uncomplicated; the fictionalized lives of small village Jews in Eastern Europe at the turn of the 20th century as the modern world impinges on them. The Olney Theatre production is very solid throughout with Helen Hayes Award winners Rick Foucheux and Sherri L. Edelen in the featured roles. The upbeat, infectious and beautifully rendered songs of the first act are especially gorgeous and carry the production through its less fulfilling and speedy second act. Fiddler certainly remains worthy of revival. It is a show that could be on auto-pilot and would still receive a standing ovation for those familiar with it. One wonders if Fiddler will find itself becoming a niche production with a less universal message as America’s demographics continue to change and other immigrant stories of love, loss and relocation are finally told.

Storyline: Fiddler on the Roof  is loosely based upon the stories of the Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem (1859-1916) with his everyman character Tevye. Tevye lives to keep tradition alive. It is tradition that provides safety from the infringements of the adjoining world. But, the outside world comes crashing down on him, his family and his tiny village of Anatevka. Always buffeted, Teyve must come to terms with the unexpected in his life. Like a fiddler playing on a roof, Tevye must find his balance.

Director John Vreeke has a difficult artistic task. How to revive a show that so many know from an Academy Award winning film and a play that has been revived four times on Broadway, including as recently as 2004?  With musical director Christopher Youstra and choreographer Gabrielle Orcha, a production has been developed with their own creative outlook without irritating those who come to see what they remember (read “tradition”) rather then something new and off-putting. This is also not a stripped down revival with second rate actors and voices; this production has 25 cast members and a small 5-piece band all up on the stage and in full view. The lyrics and music by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick include audience favorites such as the opening number, "Tradition," that draws the audience into the show immediately with its tale of how life is to be lead with unchanging assigned roles and responsibilities. With the full cast singing (assisted by microphones) the feel is one of a big production number.  "Sunrise/Sunset" is the emotionally touching poetry of a parent’s feelings pouring forth at the letting go of a child. The night time hallucinations of "Dream of the Tailor" includes delightful large puppet heads and arms used expertly in this one tricked-up scene.

Rick Foucheux is Tevye, the husband and father who argues not only with his wife, daughters and neighbors, but with God Almighty as well. With his baritone voice, his singing is what it should be; not sweet and striking but substantial and a bit off center. In his "If I Were a Rich Man," the upbeat lament of a man without money, the words don’t matter as much as the charm of Foucheux as he delivers it. Sherri L. Edelen plays Golde his wife with a broad comedic outlook. She fills the theater with her strong presence. When Edelen has the chance to sing solo or bring her voice to the fore within a larger group, the beauty of her signing voice is magnetic. As the daughters Patricia Hurley, Jenna Sokolowoski and Margo Seibert are each a charmer in her own way. When they sing together their harmony is captivating. The daughter’s suitors are Paul Downs Colaizzo as a way-too-timid local tailor who marries the eldest; Andrew Boza as the radical and intellectual teacher from the big city who marries the middle daughter, and Evan Casey as the non-Jewish Russian who courts the younger one through the love of books. It is their marriage that is a major faith-related crisis for Tevye - does he follow tradition and consider his daughter dead to him since she married outside of her faith, or does he forgive her and give his blessing? Andrew Zox is the mute “fiddler” who, with his lithe body, makes his presence felt throughout the production.  Finally, in the wedding scene toward the end of Act I, there is the marvel of a small kick line of dark clothed men with dark hats, arms entangled, moving up and down, sometimes with their knees touching the floor, dancing expertly, each with a bottle on his head. Absolutely magical!!

The set is elevated from the floor with a long ramp for Tevye to pull his cart to the main stage area and for the townspeople and Russian troops to enter and leave. In one procession of townspeople, as the house lights are dimmed, the lighted candles carried by the townspeople are simply stunning. The set area is loaded with trap doors and elevators that are used to give additional movement and dimension to the production. The 5-piece band including adept fiddler and clarinetist is tucked into a corner of the main stage area, but dressed as townspeople in full view of the audience. Note: The Fiddler title comes from a surreal painting by Marc Chagall … the fiddler is a metaphor for survival, through tradition and joyfulness when life is uncertain.

Music by Jerry Bock. Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick. Book by Joseph Stein. Directed by John Vreeke. Music direction by Christopher Youstra. Choreography by Gabrielle Orcha. Design: Jon Savage (set) Howard Vincent Kurtz (costumes) Charlie Morrison (lights), Jarett C. Pisani (sound ). Cast: Kate Arnold, Rachel Blaustein, Andrew Boza, Sara Brunow, Evan Casey, Paul Downs Colaizsso, Michael A. Crea, Jamie Eacker, Sherri L. Edelen, Rick Foucheux, James Garland, Lily Goldberg, Karlah Hamilton, H. Alan Hoffman, Patricia Hurley, JJ Kaczynski, Timothy Dale Lewis, Amanda Montell, Natalie Perez-Duel, Zack Phillips, Carl Randolph, Ron Sarro, Kyle Schliefer, Margo Seibert, Mary C. Sheehan, Jordan Silver, Chris Sizemore, Jenna Sokolowski, Mike Vires, Harry A. Winter, Andrew Zox.

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September 26 - October 26, 2007
Of Mice and Men
Reviewed by David Siegel

Running time 2:35 - one intermission
A solid production of an American classic

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Can a 70 year old drama that for decades was required reading for many in school still have the power to make you jump at the final pop and fadeout? Can it make you feel for the victims of the uncontrolled power of a strong man who does not know his own strength until always too late? You bet it can. Do the rootless in their loneliness and their desire for companionship still resonate as a theme, maybe now more so than ever? “I ain’t got no people….That ain’t good…A guy goes nuts if he aint’ got people.” Yes, the play still can reach into audiences. It is not just a cultural artifact that has been dusted off. And, the “arched eyebrow” innuendoes about why men might travel together are spoken quietly almost as an aside, at least in this production. It is the abject loneliness of men and women and their need for dreams to move them beyond their current places in life that resonant throughout the production … as well as the inability of men to connect to women beyond the superficial and the sexual. Of Mice and Men remains an undiminished American classic in the workmanlike production directed by Alan Wade.

Storyline: At the height of the great depression, two traveling, migrant ranch workers are once again on the road, traveling to a new place, fleeing their sketchy past, hoping to find some permanent work and earn enough money to buy their own ranch. To own land is to save themselves from the vagaries of having no family to bring them love, attention and validation. One is physically strong but with intellectual disabilities, the other is the close brother on the road who looks out for both of them, or at least tries to.

John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men was written in 1937. It ran for 207 performances on Broadway and won a New York Drama Critic’s Award. It was about an America far different from today. The Depression still affected both urban and rural populations, but the rural poor needed a spokesperson - they found it in Steinbeck, among others. The play is a message play and wears that mantle directly and proudly. It is a play that has you leaving the theater talking and thinking about the final act of the protector toward his physically strong but emotionally challenged companion. Steinbeck was an early left-leaning torch bearer for rural America and Of Mice and Men preceded a full body of work leading to his selection for a Nobel Prize in 1962. But, his language, which once must have been startling and confrontational, is now less so. It seems burnished rather than angry and edgy.

Alan Wade’s directing is solid throughout. His choices let the story tell itself and the veteran cast is first rate with several standouts. Christopher Lane has the complex task of playing Lennie, an intellectually disabled man-child with the strength to kill, but the inability to modulate either his physical strength or his voice. He is excellent in his work. Richard Pilcher is a good physical presence traveling with Lennie, but the conflicts of being Lennie’s road companion and the “why” of their relationship don’t emotionally come across.  And when he is confronted with the major decision of the play, there is somehow a missing visual or physical conflict in him. The moral challenge that director Wade mentions in his program notes seems missing in action. Jeff Allin, as the world weary, laconic ranch hand, is especially adept. Keith N. Johnson, as the African-American “other” on the ranch, gives a fearful, restrained portrait of a man who has learned to not trust white folk and with good reason. He wears his loneliness for all to see as a defensive posture.

One of the main characters is less fulfilling. Carl Candelario, as the supposed hot-headed husband and son of the ranch owner, comes off as having little or no swagger or perceived muscularity in his manner. He is a bully who would not be believed on the school yard, and he seems to care little about his young wife, except as an object. In this production the death of a dog has more emotional wallop and affect on the dog’s owner (played by John Dow) than a wife’s end. Margo Seibert (as the young wife) plays the role nicely, not so much as a tart or floozy, but as someone who in her own loneliness and desire to get away from an abusive family marries the first ticket out. The technical work as a recreation of the time and place is top-quality. Carl Gundenius' set moves from a simple background of fences to ranch-hand rooms, barns and back to fences in a wonderful evocative manner with a few interesting theatrical affects to evocate a large canvas of the outdoors or larger buildings or even a camp fire. Jarett C. Pisani's incidental music and sounds establish the right atmosphere, and Charlie Morrison's lighting provides a hint of the big sky or the dark night. But, while Kathleen Geldard's costumes are spot on; they are just too clean. They look new rather than used; there is no grit or dust or dirt. Even the hats have no sweat spots on them. And not even stubble of a beard shows when first we see the travelers on the road. A kudo to Olney: The company has developed a relationship with DC area schools and is welcoming more than 3,000 students over the run of the production to see Of Mice and Men.  Ah yes, one last thing, the title. From Robert Burns poem To a Mouse, “the best laid schemes o’mice an’ men/Gang aft agly [oft go astray].”

Written by John Steinbeck. Directed by Alan Wade. Design: Carl Gundenius (set) Kathleen Geldard (costumes) Charlie Morrison (lights) Jarett C. Pisani (sound) Stan Barouh (photography) William E. Cruttenden III (stage manager). Cast: Jeff Allin, Carlos Candelario, John Dow, Keith N. Johnson, Christopher Lane, Robert Leembruggen, Richard Pilcher, Margo Siebert, and R. Scott Williams.

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July 17 - August 12, 2007
Reviewed by Brad Hathaway

Running time 2:40 - one intermission
t Potomac Stages Pick for a handsome staging of a compelling drama
Click here to buy the script

Any map reader knows that the west is on the left and the east is on the right. Any student of German cold war history knows that the west had the the economic success which allowed them to restore the grandeur of their buildings while the east had to be content with depressingly utilitarian concrete structures. Anyone in the audience sitting before James Kronzer's superb set for the Potomac Region premiere of Michael Frayn's latest exploration of fascinating intellectual issues in contemporary European history will find those truths on view before their very eyes. Kronzer provides the physical reality on which the story plays out. It is the story of an East German spy - tremendously portrayed by Jeffries Thaiss - who works his way up through the ranks in West German politics until he's the right hand man of the chancellor. Frayn fills the first forty minutes of his otherwise fascinating script with an excess of exposition for those who need a primer on east-west relations. Kronzer's set almost makes that primer unnecessary. Almost - but not quite.

Storyline: The true story of East German spy Günter Guillaume, who finagled himself onto the fast track of West Germany's Social Democratic Party organization just as they came to power under the leadership of Willy Brandt in 1969. He ingratiates himself into the intimate circle of the Chancellor himself, achieving access to information of great interest to his handlers from the East.  When Guillaume is finally exposed after 18 years undercover, Brandt's career is destroyed, partially due to revelations that he failed to take action on the first warnings of infiltration into his office's operation.

Two of Frayn's previous plays seem the products of very different talents. Noises Off is a superb example of farce, a comedy that has kept audiences in stitches in productions ranging from scholastic to professional. It has been produced constantly since it first opened in 1982. Nothing could be much further away from that laugh-a-minute extravaganza than his 1998 intellectual puzzle play based on an obscure incident in World War II, the meeting of  physicists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg in Denmark. Copenhagen has been performed in the Potomac Region a number of times, often with satisfying results as was the case with the 2004 production staged here by Jim Petosa on another superb set by James Kronzer. Democracy is of the Copenhagen school. Indeed, the two Olney productions under Petosa could have made a fascinating pair in repertory.

Thaiss' Guillaume is a giddy lightweight in a world populated by serious, self-absorbed men. He practically giggles with each stroke of good fortune and bounces while they plod around the stage. But he manages to keep his wits about him and avoid drawing the attention that might threaten his success. The serious westerners include dour Vincent Clark, acerbic Hugh Nees and distracted James Konicek. The avuncular single easterner, Guillaume's handler from the East German Ministry for State Security, is played with a smooth polish by James Slaughter. He's always present, hovering on the edge (always the eastern or right hand edge, at that) until that moment when Guillaume's cover is blown and he is arrested. Then, suddenly, Slaughter's character is no where to be seen.

As performed with Thaiss as Guillaume and Andrew Long as Willy Brandt, this is a play about the hopes, dreams and fears of Guillaume as he gets closer and closer to Brandt, whose government he is spying upon. Thaiss shows us more than just Guillaume's charm, he touches on the internal conflicts that test him as his relationship with Brandt evolves. Long, always a pleasure to watch for his consistently well thought out approach to his own character's inner thoughts, seems to float through the play as a strong presence but not as the real subject of the drama. Indeed, as portrayed, it appears that Willy Brandt is a strong personal presence floating through his four and a half years as Chancellor as the beneficiary - but not necessarily a shaper - of the forces of history. How valid a point of history this might be, others will have to judge. It certainly is a valid point of drama and provides an intriguing and satisfying examination of human frailties.

Written by Michael Frayn. Directed by Jim Petosa. Design: James Kronzer (set) Pei Lee (costumes) Daniel MacLean Wagner (lights) Jarett C. Pisani (sound) Stan Barouh (photography) Renee E. Yancey (stage manager). Cast: Clinton Brandhagen, Vincent Clark, Nick DePinto, James Konicek, Andrew Long, Eric Messner, Hugh Nees, Richard Pilcher, James Slaughter, Jeffries Thaiss.

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June 20 - August 12, 2007
Brooklyn Boy
Reviewed by Brad Hathaway

Running time 2:25 - one intermission
t Potomac Stages Pick for a well designed, well acted production of Donald Margulies' fictionalized look back at the Brooklyn he left behind to pursue playwriting
Click here to buy the script

As directed by Jim Petosa, this smoothly flowing production of Pulitzer Prize winner Donald Margulies supposedly fictional portrait of the self image of a Brooklyn Boy feels so honestly auto-biographical that the leading character should be named Margulies. It's not the personal lives of the characters that feel more real than reality, however. It is the sense of place that connects with a Brooklyn that exists in our collective self consciousness - the Brooklyn of the Dodgers - and the pride of place that Brooklynites exuded in the years surrounding World War II. As Margulies points out in the comments reprinted in the program, his nostalgia is for a Brooklyn that "may never have truly existed in my lifetime." But it is most definitely a Brooklyn that exists in our minds whenever we hear that peculiar accent that sets it apart, not just from the rest of greater New York city, but from any other place. With Paul Morella bringing the fictional alter-ego to believable life and with a fine supporting cast, Olney has a winner in this warmly affectionate comic drama.

Storyline: A Brooklyn born and raised novelist deals with his first best seller, his first movie contract, the death of his father and the demise of his marriage - all at the same time.

Margulies has had great success writing plays under commission for the South Coast Repertory Theatre in Orange County, California and the Actors' Theatre in Louisville, Kentucky. Three of his plays have made the short list for the Pulitzer Prize, and Dinner With Friends won it in 2000. This six-scene two-act play is fairly formally structured. Each of the first five scenes are emotionally important encounters this Brooklyn Boy has with a single character who is important at a crucial moment in his life. Each gives Morella a great deal to react to, and he avoids overdoing those reactions in a finely tuned performance that feels natural and human.

First it is the hero's dying father, played by Howard Elfman, who has a marvelous ability to communicate attitude through body language while reclined in a hospital bed with most of his body covered by a blanket. Then Ethan T. Bowen plays a former buddy from childhood. Bowen tends to spit out his lines a bit too abruptly, but perhaps that is a Brooklynism with which non-Brooklynites are not familiar. The most touching scene of the play, and the one that is best played, has Lee Mikeska Gardner as his estranged wife bringing an end to their marriage as gently but firmly as she possibly can. After intermission, things get a bit lighter for a while as two young actors make their Olney debuts with panache. Emerie Snyder is sharp as a groupie this newly-famous author takes back to his hotel for a night, and Paul Cereghino gives a nifty take on a teen-magazine coverboy of an actor who wants to star in the hero's movie. Halo Wines makes the most of a somewhat miswritten scene as his movie producer.  No successful producer would have used the negative pitch she does to get a new writer to change an element of his first script instead of stroking his ego with suggestions for increased "universality" in his "wonderful story."

The Mulitz-Gudeslky Theatre Lab has been decked out with a revolving stage which rotates to reveal rooms in a hospital, a hotel, a home, a cafeteria and a Hollywood producer's office. Each is distinctive but each seems very much part of the same world. As fine as those rooms are for each of the scenes they contain, it is the space between them that provides the visual connecting tissue to match the dramatic ties between the scenes in Margulies' tightly woven plot. Morella is seen walking "the space between" the sets in his evolution from scene to scene. The device avoids what might otherwise seem an excessively mechanical structure of the play as the story progresses. As it is, the play doesn't jump from scene to scene, it flows.

Written by Donald Margulies. Directed by Jim Petosa. Design: James Kronzer (set) Howard Vincent Kurtz (costumes) Daniel MacLean Wagner (lights) Jarett C. Pisani (sound) Stan Barouh (photography) Tim Burt (stage manager). Cast: Ethan T. Bowen, Paul Cereghino, Howard Elfman, Lee Mikeska Gardner, Paul Morella, Emerie Snyder, Halo Wines.

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May 15 - June 10, 2007
13 Rue de L'Amour
Reviewed by Brad Hathaway

Running time 1:55 - one intermission
A rollicking farce performed in high style
v brief partial nudity
Click here to buy the script

This typically convoluted tale of mistaken identity and deception by Georges Feydeau, France's greatest writer of farce during the Belle Époque which preceded World War I, is highly stylized silliness acted out in a slightly mechanical style on two absolutely gorgeous sets by actors in colorful costumes to match. (Well, most of them are. It seems almost silly to mention that one character looses his clothes on stage and has to get his laughs without the benefit of the colorful costumes.) Following the performance fashions of its day with a wink and a nod directly to the audience and revving up the comic engine for the quick-hide-in-the-closet sequence, the cast throw themselves into the spirit of the evening with panache. The fact that they are working hard is well hidden by the obvious fun they are having.

Storyline: A wife who is certain of her husband's philandering ways wants vengeance and engineers her own dalliance with a younger man. Things go awry, however, when their paths cross at the younger man's apartment house at number 13 on the Rue de L'Amour.

Farce, like soufflé, rises only when tremendous skill is combined with exact measures of specific ingredients. Georges Feydeu made a study of the structure of farce and mastered its peculiarities. In fact, it was the structure of the style that fascinated him and he polished his craft as perhaps no other French playwright of his time. Certainly, none was close to being as successful at it as he was during the two decades surrounding the year 1900. This example of his output comes from early in his career (1892, the same year as his first big hit, Champignol in Spite of Himself) and displays a certain excitement over the possibilities of the genre that he has obviously just begun to believe he can master.

The central triangle here is the fine trio of Ashely West and her two men, Lawrence Redmond as her husband and Jeffries Thaiss as the young doctor who so wants to help her wreck revenge by cheating on her cheating husband. West goes through the paces without ever seeming to loose either her dignity or her self control, which provides the comic contrast to both lustful suitor Thaiss and pompous husband Redmond. The support is strong as well, particularly with Halo Wines as a Countess who looks like a sticky clump of cotton candy, and Vincent Clark who sputters with a delightful sense of confusion.

Dennis Parichy's bright lighting design is probably brighter than gaslight really was in the 1890s, but its warmth is a perfect compliment to James Wolk's confections, the two one-room sets with the squiggly art nouveau style of an Alphonse Mucha print in more shades of pink than you would think possible. The lip of the stage is lined with footlights which are used to exaggerate the effect. The atmosphere of the piece is nicely enhanced by the playing of up-tempo, cheerful music hall music in the lobby and the auditorium before the show and during intermission.

Written by Georges Feydeau. Translated by Mawby Green and Ed Feilbert. Directed by John Going. Design: James Wolk (set) Liz Covey (costumes)  Nicole Paul (wigs) Dennis Parichy (lights) Jarett C. Pisani (sound) Erin Feliciano (photography) Renee E. Yancey (stage manager). Cast: Ethan T. Bowen, Vincent Clark, Nick DePinto, Patricia Hurley, Brandon McCoy, Christopher Poverman, Lawrence Redmond, Jeffries Thaiss, Ashely West, Halo Wines.

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March 27 - April 29, 2007
Reviewed by Brad Hathaway

Running time 1:45 - one intermission
t A Potomac Stages Pick for simple, joyful
 musical entertainment

The art of the revue has come a long way over the years and audience expectations may well have changed. If you are looking for a revue of a single artist's output to be something of an educational experience with some of the qualities of a good biography, you will be disappointed in this revival of the 1978 assemblage of the songs of Eubie Blake. If, on the other hand, you are looking for a bright, rhythmic and tuneful evening of song and dance with no purpose other than to entertain, this is your show. In 1978 that was enough to earn a few awards and a run of a year - of course, it helped that it then had both Gregory and Maurice Hines to heat up the floor. Gregory was nominated for a Tony Award for his performance with its big number "Hot Feet" (not to be confused with the dance show using that same title which Maurice took briefly to Broadway last year).

Storyline: None. This is a revue built on the songs composed by Eubie Blake, the jazz musician and composer of the 1921 musical Shuffle Along. Twenty-two of his songs, with lyrics by a wide range of collaborators, are included in the evening.

Director/choreographer Tony Parise has restructured the 1978 format, saying that "The stamp of the 70s was all over the show." He wanted something more authentically of the ragtime era, rather than something that looks like one era viewed through the lens of another. He altered the running order of the songs, dropped a few to make the show shorter and tighter and created a nicely varied pair of song sets separated by an intermission. Each builds its own excitement, although the first one is the more impressive of the two. This is because it is in the first set that a series of numbers by various women in the cast builds one on top of the other. The second has some more of this but has more of the men, and they aren't quite as strong as the women when it comes to selling a torch song or landing a comic number.

Among the real strengths of the cast are Fredena J. Williams who sells "I'm A Great Big Baby," " Roz White Gonsalves, who delivers a winning "My Handyman Ain't Handy Anymore," and Kara-Tameika Watkins whose "Daddy" gives the audience a look at just why so many New Yorkers drove up to Harlem in the 20s to hear the fresh sounds of the day. There's considerable talent among the men as well. D. William Hughes gets low and down with a soulful blues number "Low Down Blues" (which turns into a duet with Gonsalves' "Gee, I Wish I Had Someone To Rock Me In The Cradle of Love") in the second set's highpoint. Randy Aaron gets a strong audience reaction from his well executed tap routine on "Hot Feet."

Visually, the show offers a bright, warm, colorful feeling given the pinks and reds of Charlie Morrison's lighting plot with just a dash of blue highlights on Nanzi Adzima's period costumes. Daniel Conway's set consist primarily of an elevated platform roughly in the shape of a piano on which Christopher Youstra's small jazz band sits. That band goes uncredited in the program, but mention should be made of the sharp tuba work in the orchestral number in the first act, "Baltimore Buzz." Spiral staircases down to the stage and slide-on set pieces complete the structural side of things while projections of pictures of Eubie Blake or covers of sheet music form the backdrop.

Music by Eubie Blake. Conceived by Julianne Boyd. Directed and choreographed by Tony Parise. Conducted by Christopher Youstra. Design: Daniel Conway (set) Nanzi Adzima (costumes) Charlie Morrison (lights) Jarett C. Pisani (sound) Stan Barouh (photography) Carey Stipe (stage manager). Cast: Randy Aaron, Loretta Giles, Roz White Gonsalves, L C Harden, Jr., D. William Hughes, Carole Denise Jones, Kara-Tameika Watkiins, Fredena J. Williams, Devron T. Young.

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February 13 - March 11, 2007
The Constant Wife
Reviewed by Brad Hathaway

Running time 2:30 - two intermissions
t A Potomac Stages Pick for bright and lively comedy
Click here to buy the script

Director John Going goes for the pleasantry of charm and literate repartee rather than the "cheap laugh" in this revival of W. Somerset Maugham's drawing room comedy. As a result, while there are quite a few really good laughs during the show, the laughs don't interrupt the process of the audience getting to know and care about the characters. It is a fine approach, especially since the subject matter of this apparently light comedy is really much more important and deserving of serious consideration than many other "mere" comedies. In 1926 Maugham was raising issues in a highly civil way that would be treated with a crass touch forty years later when bras were burned and language was much coarser. In Maugham's day, however, the issue of a wife's right to equality within the marriage partnership, with all that signifies when male philandering draws just a wink but female infidelity is shocking, was serious business. His humor was not intended to mask the issues of the play, just spice it up a bit and make the evening fun for audience members of both genders.

Storyline: In 1920s London, a society woman deals with her husband's infidelity not by seeking either divorce or revenge but, rather, setting her sights on achieving economic independence so that she can declare sexual independence. She has no desire to end a highly satisfying partnership with her husband, she just wants to take control of her own life so she can enjoy both the pleasures of the home and the adventures of the world - just as men want to do.

Julie-Ann Elliot's fluid movements, erect posture and sharp enunciation sets a standard for high-society British comedy. Her performance as the wronged wife who refuses to see her husband's behavior as either despicable or damaging to her personally is rock-solid. A number of her colleagues match her for their sense of belonging in the drawing room world of London in the 20s. Ashley West is even brighter and a touch flightier, as befits her role, while Nancy Robinette makes her usual hay with an aside or a direct comment.  Allyson Currin as the sister who can't wait to break the bad news is properly acidic. Both Michael McKenzie, as the philandering husband, and John Wojda, as a returned former suitor, manage to avoid seeming too much like weak ninnies, while Maugham's stronger women plot and plan and generally move the story along.

It should be noted that James Slaughter was out for the performance we reviewed. Olney's Producing Director Brad Watkins made the announcement before the show that there would be a replacement in the smaller role of West's husband and that the replacement would be himself. The audience was won over by the self-depreciating humor of the announcement and went along for the ride when he played his one scene with script in hand. It was one of those moments in live theater that makes you so very glad you weren't home stuck in front of a television.

On the design side, the overall impression is marvelous and the concepts delightful, but in both set and costumes, something just misses being fabulous. James Wolk's set is everything you would want for this woman's drawing room - elegant, color coordinated and oozing both wealth and charm. But outside the window it appears to be night time while all three acts take place in the afternoon. Liz Covey's costumes for all the women are a delightful and colorful survey of the highest of high fashion from the flapper era. For the men, on the other hand, the designs seem marvelous but the fit a bit off and the construction a bit crude. Michael McKenzie's suits look like they should hang just as Cary Grant's do in Hollywood's finest representation of a gentleman's wardrobe, but a bulging half lining and a drooping cuff break the spell.

Written by W. Somerset Maugham. Directed by John Going. Design: James Wolk (set) Liz Covey (costumes) Anne Nesmith (wigs) Dennis Parichy (lights) Jarett C. Pisani (sound) Stan Barouh (photography) Renee E. Yancey (stage manager). Cast: Bob Barr, Allyson Currin, Julie-Ann Elliott, Helen Hedman, Michael McKenzie, Nancy Robinette, James Slaughter, Ashley West, John Wojda.

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November 15 , 2006 - January 7, 2007
Reviewed by Brad Hathaway

Running time 2:00 - one intermission
A family show with some charm

Click here to buy the CD

Making a family-friendly stage version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s family-friendly television musical was a great idea. After all, Rodgers and Hammerstein had crafted a piece that had enough charm, enough humor and enough beauty to draw over sixty percent of the entire population of the United States, adults and children, to their televisions back in 1957 (although not every home had multiple televisions and there were far fewer channels to chose between). The show has had a number of different attempts to craft a satisfying stage script, some better than others. For this effort, director Mark Waldrop has pulled material from a number of different attempts, refining it and punching up the humor a bit, but retaining the essential charm of Hammerstein's original concept. Waldrop gets kudos for a fine piece of work on the script, but a few missteps in casting, staging and budgeting keep the show from being as good as it might otherwise have been.

Storyline: This is a fairly simple re-telling of the fairy tale of "the girl of the cinders," ill-treated by a selfish stepmother and victimized by her two stepsisters. With the help of her Fairy Godmother, she goes to the ball where she and the prince meet and fall in love. She flees as the clock strikes midnight but he tracks her down through the clue of the glass slipper she lost as she fled.

There are more delights than disappointments in the show so lets begin with them. Erin Driscoll is as pert and pretty as you could wish in the title role and delivers a nice rendition of "In My Own Little Corner." As the Fairy Godmother, Deb G. Girdler uses a refreshing openness starting with a take-the-audience-into-her-confidence opening speech about turning off cell phones and continuing right on through the delightful comic song "Impossible" in which she comes to the conclusion that "impossible things are happening every day." Also notable are Chris Sizemore as the Herald and Christopher Flint as the King who is concerned over the cost of the ball. Best of all, however, are Jenna Sokolowski and Michele Tauber, who are very funny as the step sisters. Their "Stepsisters Lament" is a gem.

The strengths in these performances, and in Waldrop's version of Hammerstein's charming script, combine with the songs that Rodgers and Hammerstein composed that range from "Ten Minutes Ago," "A Lovely Night" and "Do I Love Your Because You’re Beautiful?" as well as a waltz for the ball as fine as any Rodgers ever wrote. But, that waltz is played here by a five piece orchestra that doesn't even include a violin. The keyboard synthesized violin setting is no substitute for the lushness the music demands.

There are serious disappointments on the stage as well. First among them is the performance of Will Ray as the Prince. Perhaps he was directed to adopt an ungainly manner that seems awkward, but he certainly never seems charming. The character isn't called "Prince Charming" but he should be charming anyway to motivate the love that springs to instant life when he and Cinderella meet at the ball. Vocally, Ray is just not strong enough for great love songs like "Do I Love You Because You're Beautiful?" The inconsistent sound amplification does considerable damage to some of the songs and scenes as well. For example, Chris Sizemore's booming voice fills the theater with the announcement that "The Prince Is Giving A Ball" but the reactions of the citizens disappear as some seem left without an operating microphone. The resulting irregularity gives the show an amateur feel from the very beginning which it is rarely able to overcome.

Music by Richard Rodgers. Book and Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. Book adapted by Mark Waldrop. Directed by Mark Waldrop. Music direction by Christopher Youstra. Choreographed by Michele Mossay-Cuevas. Design: Michael Anania (set) Sekula Sinadinovski (costumes) Karlah Hamilton (wigs) F. Mitchell Dana (lights) Mark Anduss (sound) Stan Barouh (photography) Renee E. Yancey (stage manager). Cast: Sara Brunow, Erin Driscoll, Christopher Flint, Deb G. Girdler, Karlah Hamilton, Patricia Hurley, Laura Kelley, Michael Kenny, Timothy Dale Lewis, Monica Lijewski, Matthew McGloin, Will Ray, Michael Vitaly Sazonov, Margo Seibert, Chris Sizemore, Jenna Sokolowski, Michele Tauber.

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September 27 - October 22, 2006
The Foreigner

Running time 2:40 - one intermission
t A Potomac Stages Pick for second act laughs

Click here to buy the script

Larry Shue's most successful play, this comedy where good defeats evil with comic flair, has been produced almost constantly in professional, community and school theaters since 1983 when its premiere in Milwaukee managed a transfer to Off-Broadway. It even had an Off-Broadway revival just last year with none other than Matthew Broderick in the title roll. The show took on a life of its own because audiences loved it. They had a fine time. Of course, the better the production, the finer the time the audience has, and Olney throws everything they have at this one to make it as audience pleasing as possible. There's a detailed rustic set, costumes that look just as the characters should look, real rain with flashes of lightning synchronized with the sound of thunder. It is a fine use for Olney's new mainstage with all of its size and equipment. It would all go for naught, however, if they didn't have the right "foreigner." So they got JJ Kaczynski. The result? He goes from amusing to engaging to funny to inspired, building to a finale that audiences just love. Put it all together and the show is as much fun as it is supposed to be.

Storyline: When a loud and extroverted Englishman brings his quiet, introverted countryman for a quiet weekend in a Georgia fishing lodge, he tells the locals not to try to talk with him because his friend knows no English. As a result, however, they discuss their secrets with each other in the quiet man's presence and he learns more than he bargained for, discovering a deep dark plot to take over the lodge for use as a headquarters for the Ku Klux Klan. He comes out of his shell as he engineers a fabulously funny way to thwart the plans of the bigots.

Two factors combine to make this a good production. Yes, Kaczynski is one of them, but there's something else going on here that may escape your attention until you sit down to think about the evening. Then you may realize that the first act is so jam packed with plot and character explanations that it shouldn't be as easy to swallow as it is. The credit for the pleasure goes chiefly to director Stewart F. Lane, who manages to keep the first hour from seeming like a lecture. The material here isn't really that funny, but he lets his talented cast play it to the edges of tomfoolery without crossing over into territory that could be a turnoff.

Surrounding this foreigner with the likes of blustery Field Blauvelt, sweet Rusty Clauss, lovely Lindsay Haynes, smooth Clinton Brandhagen and lumbering Delaney Williams, and placing a concerted focus on the very funny Ben Shovlin works like a charm. Shovlin is particularly good as the somewhat dimwitted young man with an innocence that is matched by goodness. This comes as no surprise to those who still treasure the moment he played "Lady of Spain" on a tuba for the Washington Stage Guild's An Empty Plate in the Café du Grand Boeuf earlier this year. The man seems to have a genius for earnest silliness.

It would all come to naught, however, were Kaczynski unable to escalate the comedy in the second act. Here, he gets to play a comic riff of major proportions as he makes up a story in his own nonsense language before proceeding on to the marvelously staged confrontation where his character becomes the prime mover in a superbly funny finale. Never fear, Kaczynski's got the chops to pull it off. Go, and enjoy.

Written by Larry Shue. Directed by Stewart F. Lane. Design: James Kronzer (set) Anne Kennedy (costumes) Charlie Morrison (lights) Jarett Pisani (sound) Stan Barouh (photography) Jess W. Speaker III (stage manager). Cast: Field Blauvelt, JJ Kaczynski, Rusty Clauss, Clinton Brandhagen, Lindsay Haynes, Delaney Williams, Ben Shovlin.

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September 6 - 24, 2006
In The Mood

Running time 2:30 - one intermission
An affecting look at a family torn by bipolar disorder
Performances in the Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab

Throughout the Potomac Region, this season seems rich with world premieres, both already open and announced. Olney adds to the riches with the premiere of a play exploring depression and what has come to be referred to generally as "bipolar disorder" or manic depressive illness. The play deals with the worlds of art and diplomacy which gives its author, former Arena Stage and current Theater J board member Irene Wurtzel, the pressure points to bring her themes into stark relief. She stretches beyond the topic of mental illness to create an examination of a marriage under stress. With dramatically impressive performances, especially those of Christopher Lane and Marybeth Wise as the couple at the center of her story, the strains high pressure positions can place on a marriage are complicated and compounded by a condition often hidden and frequently misunderstood. Director Jim Petosa increases the tempo and intensity in measured steps to heighten the sense of the pressure that strain this marriage.

Storyline: A high ranking official of the Department of State who has controlled his manic depressive illness through medication abandons the treatment just as he has the chance to lead the US effort to arrange peace in the middle east. The reemergence of the symptoms has serious consequences on his performance and on his marriage to an artist whose work is just beginning to earn her nationwide recognition.

Wurtzel creates a pair of independent, highly stressed people for this examination of a marriage under pressure. Bipolar disorder may be the trigger for the troubles of the moment, but she avoids making this a play about a disease. It is, instead, a play about relationships and about people with individual strengths and weaknesses. Wurtzel's knowledge of the symptoms of the disorder may be thorough, and her exploration of the havoc they can wreak on the lives of the people it affects may be highly accurate. She may even have the art world of major exhibit galleries well in hand. But she doesn't get the realities of government service quite right, which is a problem in a production here in the nation's capital. Indeed, a second complete play could be devised on the topic of how the State Department would deal with the situation of an Undersecretary acting for the Secretary in a high-visibility negotiation exhibiting the manic behavior seen here. Wurtzel sets up the situation but leaves it unexamined and unresolved as she maintains her concentration on the private lives of the couple.

The very dramatic swings of mania and depression that are the symptoms of the disorder give Christopher Lane the opportunity to reach for very different extremes in his portrayal. He is a very commanding presence in any part, and to his credit, he avoids excesses that would take this performance to extremes. Marybeth Wise is a fine counterpart to his swings, working her way methodically through the increased concern that her character feels for her husband and their marriage right through to the final confrontation. Leo Erickson is smooth and polished as the Secretary of State and Halo Wines strikes a number of nice notes, especially in one of her two supporting roles, that of Lane's mother. Petosa has brought one of the graduates of the Boston University School of Theatre which he chairs for his first role on a full Olney production. Tim Spears is impressive as the couple's stressed-out son.

Milogros Ponce de León's striking set gives the entire project a sense of serious heft. Since the events of the play are primarily presented through the viewpoint of the wife, her workshop area is the central feature of the set. Large windows at the back and tall towers of brick walls connected by industrial scaffolding makes an eye-filling locale although the Secretary of State commenting on it being such a lovely home seemed a bit strange. The image of an abstract sculpture, a work-in-progress, dominates the artist's studio through many of the scenes, but it is the image of Christopher Lane hovering over the area on the scaffolding that remains in the mind - especially as lit so dramatically by Donald Edmund Thomas.

Written by Irene Wurtzel. Directed by Jim Petosa. Design: Milagros Ponce de León (set) Kathleen Geldard (costumes) Donald Edmund Thomas (lights) Jarett Pisani (sound) Stan Barouh (photography) Renee E. Yancey (stage manager). Cast: Therese Barbato, Leo Erickson, Christopher Lane, Tim Spears, Halo Wines, Marybeth Wise.

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July 20 - August 27, 2006
An Enemy of the People

Running time 2:35 - one intermission
A portrait of political polarization driven by self interest

Click here to buy the script

There are really three reasons to catch this production. One is that it is the last in a twenty-year tradition of presenting quality productions of plays with a strong political outlook in the Potomac Region, as the Potomac Theatre Festival has announced its relocation to New York after this season. The festival will be missed here in the region from which it has drawn both its name and its topic for two decades. The second reason is the performance of James Slaughter, who manages to inject a touch of subtlety in what would be just another in the collection of one-dimensional characters in this rather stolid but nonetheless solid production directed by Jim Petosa. Finally, there is the fact that this same play, in a different translation with a new adaptation, will be opening next month at the Shakespeare Theatre Company. It will be fascinating to be able to compare and contrast the two productions. You needn't think of this merely as doing your homework for the later production, however, because there are pleasures to be had here, even if most of Ibsen's characters seem somewhat simplistic as they face a conflict of interest this time out.

Storyline: A respected medical doctor who serves on the staff of a Norwegian health spa discovers the presence of contaminating bacteria in the spa's water supply, and tries to get the town officials, including his brother the Mayor, to undertake the necessary corrective actions. They, on the other hand, see the discovery more as a threat to their economic well being than to the health of their patrons, and conspire to silence him.

You can't escape the comparison to Peter Benchley's novel Jaws, which Steven Spielberg made into such a compelling movie. Of course, here the threat to public health and safety on the one hand and to the economic fortunes of a small town on the other is something considerably smaller and harder to detect than a shark. Indeed, the play dates to 1882, a time when not everyone understood or accepted the germ theory of illness which Louis Pasteur had proposed just a decade before. Thus, the doctor's father-in-law can't quite comprehend that there are "invisible animals" coming from his slaughter house to threaten the health of tourists "taking the waters" at the town's new spa. What Benchley and Spielberg made amazingly taut, nail bitingly tense and scary enough to keep a generation of beach goers out of the surf, however, is tame and stale here. There's no suspense at all, although it may reinforce some people's reluctance to venture into a town meeting.

It is left to the actors to make the evening watchable, and there are a host of fine actors in this cast who draw your eye and give you reason to sit up and take notice. The aforementioned James  Slaughter, for one, adds to his rather impressive list of fine performances at Olney. Christopher Lane builds to moments of high dudgeon with skill and when he lets loose, he really lets loose. Jeffries Thaiss may not find any opportunities for subtlety, but he is marvelously smarmy as the newspaper editor who believes you print moral stories in the back pages so your readers will believe the lies you print in the front. On the other end of the spectrum lies Kip Pierson, whose portrayal of the editor's assistant goes too far in its intensity, reminiscent of Strother Martin at his most orgasmic, and Julie-Ann Elliot, who, despite considerable charm and dignity, still can't quite overcome a script that calls for her to respond with alacrity to to an instruction from her husband "Katherine. Have the floor scrubbed where he spat!"

Whoever is responsible for the design decision to place lights under the floor surrounding the stage should get a special mention, for it lends such an ominous feel to so many superbly appropriate moments as Petosa blocks the scenes to place his actors standing over them at just the right times. It may have been James Kronzer who designed the set in such a way as to have the lights ring the playing space, even at the rear of the stage under the thresholds of the four huge doors that are the principal feature of the design. Or it may have been the suggestion of lighting designer Daniel MacLean Wagner. Of course, it may have been Petosa's idea all along. Whichever, it is a fine example of the effectiveness that results when all the members of a design team are working together in concert.

Written by Henrik Ibsen. Translated by Rolf Fjelde. Directed by Jim Petosa. Design: James Kronzer (set) Howard Vincent Kurtz (costumes) Daniel MacLean Wagner (lights) Jarett Pisani (sound) Stan Barouh (photography) Jess W. Speaker, III (stage manager). Cast: Bradley Bowers, Julie-Ann Elliott, Tim Getman, Lindsey Haynes, Carter Jahncke, Christopher Lane, Sean McCoy, Kip Pierson, Richard Pilcher, James Slaughter, Jeffries Thaiss.

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June 27 - July 23, 2006
No End of Blame

Running time 2:30 - one intermission
Scenes from the life of a political cartoonist who refuses to compromise his view of truth

Click here to buy the script

Olney's Potomac Theatre Project returns to a work that was featured in the inaugural season in 1987, a forceful, episodic drama by Howard Barker that spans sixty years. They mount the production on the stage of the old "Historic Mainstage" theater with the audience not in the seats out front but in folding chairs backstage, creating a very intimate space for an intense performance. The house curtain has been drawn and replaced by a screen allowing rear projection of the disturbing political cartoons of its main character so the audience knows exactly what the fuss is all about as the cartoonist refuses to moderate his world-view over a career that spans two world wars and a cold war working in Hungary, Russia and England.

Storyline: The career of a political cartoonist is sketched through vignettes ranging from his battlefield experience in World War I, his resistance to the control of the political watchdogs of the Soviet union, and, after his emigration to England, similar efforts to censor his work for a London paper. Late in his career, he summarizes it all in the line "Look for truth and, when you find it, shout it. That's my politics."

Barker is said to have based his character of the cartoonist on Victor Weisz, born in Berlin to a Hungarian-Jewish family. Weisz was too young to have been on the battlefields of World War I, however, and he didn't emigrate to the Soviet Union when he fled Germany, he headed for Britain. Still, his left-leaning, anti-autocratic views and his acidic brush are in keeping with the portrait painted here. Barker gives him some biting lines, none more important than those spoken about is own work. "The cartoon is the lowest form of art, and therefore, the most important form" and "I feel it, therefore it is (art)." The border between audience and play is blurred in this production with the cartoonist actually taking a seat in the front row in a scene or two. This results in blocked sightlines more than a merger of observer and observed, however.

Usually, the test of a fine performance by an actor is "the arc," the way the character grows, or at least changes, over the span of time of the play. Here, it is just the opposite as Paul Morella builds a portrait of a man who steadfastly refuses to change. Normally, of course, "change" is equated with "growth" and a man who is no wiser at age 80 than he was at age 20 could be said to have been a failure. In Barker's conception, however, the artist Morella portrays is a paragon of intellectual integrity holding out against all pressures to compromise, to betray "truth." Change wouldn't be an improvement, it would be a betrayal, and Morella's artist simply will have none of it. The steadfastness of his character is captured in Pei Lee's costume design for the show - all the other performer have multiple costumes for their multiple parts, but Morella stays in his stained and threadbare outfit for all the scenes from the battlefield in World War I to the offices of a London newspaper in the 1980s.

The supporting cast is comprised of local professionals and students from Middlebury College in Vermont where the co-founder of the Potomac Theatre Project and director of this production, Richard Romagnoli, is the Chair of Theater. As might be expected, the professionals are the most impressive, creating strong sketches of the characters who come in and out of the story. Richard Pilcher, Helen Hedman and Nigel Reed are each a pleasure to watch as they do their work. Among the students, Rishabh Kashyap stands out, especially in the opening scene when he's Morella's battlefield buddy in the Carpathian Mountains on the Eastern Front at the end of World War I. He and Morella work exceptionally well together in that opening blast of words and emotions that kick things off.

Written by Howard Barker. Directed by Richard Romagnoli. Design: Alexander Cooper (set) Pei Lee (costumes) Justin Thomas (lights) Matthew M. Nielson (sound) Stan Barouh (photography) Keri Schultz (stage manager). Cast: Jonathan Ellis, Helen Hedman, Rebecca Kanengiser, Rishabh Kashyap, Jeanne LaSala, Paul Morella, Richard Pilcher, Nigel Reed, Alec Strum.

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May 24 - June 18, 2006
The Elephant Man

Reviewed May 27
Running time 2:25 - one intermission
Winner of the Ushers Favorite Show Award for May
t A Potomac Stages pick for superb design,
 direction and acting
v Includes brief nudity
Click here to buy the script

Two years ago, Olney's Artistic Director Jim Petosa directed this challenging play at the small Catalyst Theatre Company on Capitol Hill with its Artistic Director, Scott Fortier playing the title character. Petosa's vision was a finely tuned, highly atmospheric presentation that took as its central feature a line from the play about its historically-based character being highly polished "like a mirror that reflects each of us." Played out amid mirrors and reflective panels, the story of physically deformed but mentally and artistically gifted John Merrick, and the people who populated his world at the end of his short life, was given more than a surface shine, it is presented in all its multiple facets. Both Fortier and Olney's frequent featured actress, Valerie Leonard, were nominated for Helen Hayes Awards for their work in that production. Now, Petosa remounts the piece for the larger new Mainstage at his home company, and again he has the services of Fortier and Leonard. Again Fortier's performance is superb and Leonard is, if anything, even better than she was before. Christopher Lane has joined the cast, lending his intense stage presence to a role played before by Peter Finnegan.

Storyline:  History records that the deformed John Merrick was plucked from a Victorian freak show to be protected and studied in a hospital in 1884. He became a mover in London’s high society before his death in 1890. Bernard Pomerance’s Tony Award winning play explores serious issues of social values and human worth.

It was the playwright's fortuitous choice to have the horribly deformed "elephant man" portrayed by an actor without any help from makeup or special prosthetic devices. Because the concentration on Merrick's humanity is achieved through this lack of artifice, it requires an actor of inordinate talent, skill and taste. Some chose to play it with only a hint of deformity, usually with a limp and a twisted arm. Here Scott Fortier twists much more than an arm. In the early scene where his discoverer, Dr. Treves, presents his case at the London hospital where he practices, Fortier's posture and facial muscles take on the characteristics described. While none of the "grotesque protuberances" actually grow on Fortier's slight frame, his arm appears to shrivel up into his chest, his head seems to fall of its own weight over onto one shoulder and his face contorts to the extent that he is only barely able to speak. Yet speak he does, delivering with apparent difficulty but great dignity - and not a little humor - the lines Pomerance gives Merrick to reveal the intellect, the poise and the innate humor of the man. It is the mark of Fortier's own intellect, poise and humor, that, having saddled his performance with the weight of its own version of elephantiasis, he manages to let the humanity of his subject shine through.

Valerie Leonard has polished the humor as well as the compassion in her performance of the first woman capable of seeing beyond the surface deformity to treat Merrick as a human being with charms, strengths, weaknesses and needs. Christopher Lane returns to the Olney stage to assume the role of Dr. Treves and he gives it a dignified if less fully rounded interpretation than Finnegan brought to Catalyst's version. The rest of the cast double or even triple on smaller roles. (Even Leonard does a bit of doubling, appearing as one of the two "pinheads" in the freak show.) James Konicek creates both a marvelously pompous Bishop and a superbly selfish handler of freaks at the freak show. John Dow and James Slaughter give rather mechanical performances as, among others, the hospital director and a financier, which results in the opening sequence of the second act being a bit confusing as to just how it relates to the case of John Merrick. Leonard and Fortier promptly get the show back on track, however.

A new design team handles their duties no less satisfyingly than did the Catalyst team. One key feature of the production that has changed but remains extremely effective is the use of an oboist as accompanist. At Catalyst the small playing space necessitated placing the oboist directly on stage. Here, a different oboist, Martha Goldstein, is placed below and to the side but still very visible. She's playing music she has improvised around a few evocative classical pieces (one by Shumann) rather than playing the original score composed for the Catalyst production by Jesse Terrill. Music has always been a feature of the play. The original Broadway production had a cellist playing works of Bach, Saint-Saëns, Elgar and others, while the revival had incidental music composed by Philip Glass. Goldstein's improvisations give a period-proper feeling to this story of Victorian London and adds to the allure of the production.

Written by Bernard Pomerance. Directed by Jim Petosa. Design: Jon Savage (set) Kathleen Geldard (costumes) Stacey Wilson (wigs) Charlie Morrison (lights) Jarett Pisani (sound) James Slaughter (dialect coach) Stan Barouh (photography) Tim Burt (stage manager). Cast: John Dow,  Scott Fortier, James Konicek, Christopher Lane, Valerie Leonard, Barbara Pinolini, James Slaughter. Musician: Martha Goldstein.

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March 29 - April 30, 2006
Anything Goes

Reviewed April 15
Running time 2:35 - one intermission
A bright and tuneful '30s musical

Click here to buy the CD

Cole Porter's bright and cheerful musical floats nicely along for most of the time with a solid pair of young lovers and an even better top-banana comic. With a score that includes Porter gems such as “I Get a Kick Out of You,” “All Through The Night, ” “You’re the Top” and the classic title tune, the score has been the strength of the piece since its 1934 debut, while various re-writes have interpolated other Porter tunes such as "It's De-Lovely" and "Friendship" to strengthen even this treasure trove of tunes. Christopher Youstra's small pit band supports it all with a solid swinging sound much stronger and fuller than could be expected from just six players, perhaps in part because the reed player doesn't double or triple up on instruments but quadruples, switching tones and timbres at will. The real pleasure of the show is the work of Ray Ficca as a gangster insulted by being only Public Enemy #13, who disguises himself as a priest to avoid the FBI - it's that kind of plot!

Storyline: Cole Porter’s 1934 musical comedy is set at sea as the SS America sails out of Manhattan. The hero has stowed away in order to be with the girl he loves who is sailing to England to fulfill her mother's dream - she's to marry an English Lord. A runaway gangster, who is embarrassed to be only public enemy #13, helps the hero impersonate public enemy #1 who has missed the boat. In this way, our hero hopes to avoid being discovered as a stowaway and locked in the brig where he can't woo his sweetheart. Everyone on board falls under the spell of this "celebrity" except for one - the girl he loves.

The show itself has an interesting history, one of those Broadway legends of a show saved at the last minute. When it began rehearsals in 1934 it was a light musical comedy about a ship wreck with a book by Guy Bolton and P. G. Wodehouse. Before it opened, however, the passenger liner S.S. Morro Castle caught fire off the coast of New Jersey with the loss over 100 lives. With newsreel footage filling the new movie houses with pictures of the beached and burned out hulk, this was no time for jokes about a ship wreck. Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse (young men who went on to write such big hits as The Sound of Music) were called in to re-write. This production uses a 1962 script prepared for an off-Broadway revival that starred Hal Linden which added a few lesser known Porter songs like "Heaven Hop" and "Let's Misbehave" (both from 1928's Paris) and "Friendship" (from 1939's Du Barry Was a Lady.)

Director Brad Watkins keeps things moving at a fair pace but avoids skipping over the skimpy plot-setting material, That is a good thing since the convoluted twists and turns need to be clear in order to be easy to dismiss. If you are spending your time trying to figure out just why the nightclub singer is perfect for a revival gospel number, you won't have time to enjoy just how well she belts out "Blow, Gabriel Blow." It appears that sound designer Matt Nielson struggles mightily with the inherent brittleness of Olney's new theater, and, despite a few glitches with the wireless microphones, does a commendable job. Still, the show has a sharpness that makes many of the sequences seem like tap numbers even when they aren't meant that way. Watkins does make a few missteps, however, as he tries to zip up that which is already zippy enough. The big tap number "Heaven Hop" is staged, for example, using stage fog. The idea must have been to simulate having the chorus tap dancing on clouds, but the effect is simply to obscure their feet, and, as Gower Champion found out, the sight of tapping feet is a crowd pleaser.

Kevin Bernard makes a smooth leading man who can croon and swing a dance partner across the stage with style. Laura Schutter is his partner in this, and while she has a good voice and can dance nicely, she lacks some of the youthful vivacity that would make the part a delight. Strangely, there is one in the cast who seems just perfect for the role but is, instead, playing the second-banana comic role - Erin Driscoll. At the performance we attended the starring role of the night club singer which was written specifically for a young Ethel Merman, and, therefore, has fabulous songs to belt out to the balcony, was handled by understudy Kristen Jepperson. We can't report on how good Karlah Hamilton is in the role - but we can say that Jepperson is fully up to the task and sells her numbers with all the energy they require.

Music and Lyrics by Cole Porter. Book by Guy Bolton, P.G. Wodehouse, Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse. Directed by Brad Watkins. Musical direction by Christopher Youstra. Choreography by Ilona Kessell. Design: James Wolk (set) Howard Vincent Kurtz (costumes) Larry Munsey (wigs) Charlie Morrison (lights) Matt Nielson (sound) Stan Barouh (photography) Renee E. Yancey (stage manager). Cast: Kevin Bernard, Michael Bunce, Debra Buonaccorsi, William Cortez-Statham, John Dow, Erin Driscoll, Ray Ficca, Erica Hamilton, Karlah Hamilton, Evan Hoffmann, David Jennings, Kristen Jepperson, Karl Kippola, Eva Kolig, Rachel Kopf, Rachel Lee, Jonathan Owen, Ernie Pruneda, Mishi Schueller, Laura Schutter, Steve Tipton.

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February 14 - March 12, 2006
The Heiress

Reviewed February 18
Running time 2:45 - one intermission
t A  Potomac Stages Pick for superb staging of an absorbing story
Click here to buy the script
Click here to buy the novella

Henry James' novella, Washington Square, comes to life on Olney's new mainstage with performances that ring true in a solid staging by John Going. He rightly places the emphasis on the story, for James' story, as adapted for the stage by Augustus and Ruth Goetz, is strong enough to keep the play in constant revivals  for decades. It also made a highly successful movie in 1949 with Olivia de Haviland and Montgomery Clift. That the story is clearly told, however, is not half as important as that Ted van Griethuysen plays the imperious Dr. Sloper. What a pleasure to watch the man blend his own stage persona with the requirements of this role with such seamlessness.

Storyline: In 1850 the daughter of a wealthy doctor in New York's fashionable Washington Square is courted by a charming young man. Her father believes the young man is only interested in the fortune she inherited from her mother, who died in childbirth, and the additional fortune she will receive upon his death. She draws $10,000 a year from her mother's estate and will have an additional $20,000 a year upon her father's death for a total annual income that would equal two thirds of a million dollars today. She is, her father insists, plain and shy, and the only thing that could attract a charming suitor would be money.

Van Griethuysen's portrayal of the doctor is rich, smooth, dignified, detailed and full of touches that reveal a complex core under a polished exterior. It is a challenging role for an actor, for the doctor tries his best to maintain his privacy and not reveal his inner self even to the members of his family, yet the psychic scars that mar his character must be clear to the audience. Van Griethuysen lets you see and even feel those scars without violating Victorian decorum for a moment.

It helps, of course, to have the rest of the cast delivering high quality performances as well. In this, the production is very fortunate. Effie Johnson, as the daughter, makes the transition  from shy and retiring girl with no hope of believing anyone could find her attractive to giddy fiancée, and then from devastated victim to mature, commanding adult. Her posture changes with each transition as she almost literally develops a backbone. Jeffries Thaiss is almost too smooth as the suitor but turns that to his benefit as his character reaps what he sowed. Halo Wines is fun to watch as she twitters in the role of the elderly aunt and Julie-Ann Elliott is impressive in her one scene with Van Griethuysen as the suitor's sister who defends him and her family without violating her own principles of honesty and dignity.

This handsome production features costumes which capture both time and social standing and an impressive set that represents the pinnacle of upper class society in the finest neighborhood of the nation's largest city. The set stretches across the wide playing space of Olney's new mainstage to such an extent that it is almost too spacious, but the use of semi-transparent scrim to reveal not only the entrance hall behind one wall but then the city's skyline beyond the next, gives it an ethereal feel that allows such an expanse even if the real town houses along Washington Square would have drawing rooms something less than forty feet in width. The scrim also allows the lighting to create some of the most memorable of the stage pictures of Going's staging, the candle-lit disappearance up the main staircase of, first, the doctor and, later, the daughter. Both linger in the mind's eye.

Written by Augustus and Ruth Goetz. Adapted from the novella by Henry James. Directed by John Going. Design: James Wolk (set) Liz Covey (costumes) Anne Nesmith (wigs) Nancy Schertler (lights) Jarett Pisani (sound) Stan Barouh (photography) Jenna Henderson (stage manager). Cast: Julie-Ann Elliott, Patricia Hurley, Beth Hylton, Effie Johnson, Jesse Mays, Faith Potts, Jeffries Thaiss, Ted van Griethuysen, Halo Wines.

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November 16 - December 31, 2005

Reviewed November 26
Running time 2:15 - one intermission
t A Potomac Stages Pick for a solid production of a well known musical
v Brief moments of violence
Click here to buy the CD

Lionel Bart's musical based on the tale by Charles Dickens is a unique combination of the dark seriousness of Dickens' tale of the rotten underbelly of London society at the height of the terrors of the industrial revolution, and the humor and optimism the denizens of those slums use to keep despair at a distance. Brad Watkins' staging captures both extremes, and as a result, there is a richness to his production that should satisfy entire families. With a bright performance by Andrew Long as a likable Fagan, the master of the band of young thieves, and the clear voice of Peggy Yates as the barmaid who has the great songs "It's A Fine Life" and "As Long As He Needs Me," the evening offers many pleasures.

Storyline: The basic tale of Charles Dickens' "Oliver Twist" is compressed into two and a half hours with sixteen songs. In a London orphanage, young Oliver has the temerity to beg for a second helping of gruel and is summarily sold off to an undertaker who needs a child mourner for his funerals. He escapes that fate only to be taken into a gang of pickpockets run by Mr. Fagan. He's wrongly arrested for picking a pocket when he was only observing the technique of his tutor, the Artful Dodger. In the meantime, barmaid Nancy has difficulties with her abusive lover Bill Sikes. When Oliver's accuser turns out to be a wealthy gentleman who, finding that he wrongly accused the lad, takes him under his protection, Bill Sikes sees a way to profit but Nancy comes to the boy's rescue with fatal results.

Dickens' sprawling story with dozens of major characters had to be compressed and streamlined in order to fit within the confines of a single evening. Bart used the techniques of British music halls with their broad characterizations, simple humor and energetic musical numbers to move the story along briskly. He kept Dickens' horde of urchins, giving a youthful vigor and charm to the piece, with Oliver himself singing the lovely "Where is Love?" and the Artful Dodger participating in the merriment with "I'd Do Anything."

The role of Fagan is the adult backbone of the story and any successful production requires a strong performance in the role. Andrew Long brings a positive attitude and a glimmer of humor to the part. His take on the second act big number for the character, "Reviewing the Situation," is refreshingly new. Supporting singers are very good as well with notable work by Stephen Carter-Hicks and Monica Lijewski who team up for "I Shall Scream" and Eleasha Gamble who adds her rich voice to the four-part "Who Will Buy?" two pairs of young performers alternate in the title role and the counterpart "Artful Dodger." The disappointment of the night is Brian Sgambati who seems completely wrong for the supposedly terrifying Bill Sikes. He should be horrifyingly threatening from the first notes of "My Name!" Instead, he is a slight presence. His voice doesn't boom. Indeed, if often doesn't even find the note.

Among the joys of this solid production are the playing of the quintet in the orchestra pit and the excellent reduction of the original orchestrations for just five players. Musical Director Christopher Youstra took the charts provided with the script which called for four reeds, four horns, two percussionists and a full string section and created parts for just one woodwind, one violin, a bass, a percussionist and a piano. His reduced charts enhance the color and lilt of the originals while providing every bit as much of the atmospheric support the score demands. It helps, of course, that he had Carolyn Agria who can handle flute, clarinet and bass clarinet with aplomb (her playing on "I'd Do Anything" is a joy) and Karen Galvin on violin who can do great underscoring when called upon, but can also duplicate the unique klezmer-style sound required for Long's marvelous solo on "Reviewing the Situation."

Music, lyrics and book by Lionel Bart. Directed by Brad Watkins. Choreography by Ilona Kessell. Music direction by Christopher Youstra. Fight choreography by Robb Hunter. Design: James Kronzer (set) Howard Vincent Kurtz (costumes) Anne Nesmith (wigs and hair) Charlie Morrison (lights) Stan Barouh (photography) Tim Burt (stage manager). Cast: Gregory Atkin, Jimmy Bellinger, J. Bradley Bowers or Ethan Langsdorf-Willoughby, A.K. Brink, Stephen Carter-Hicks, William Cortez-Stratham, Adam Donovan or Zack Phillips, Charlie Eichler, Helena Farhi, Eleasha Gamble, Katherine E. Hill, Wendell Jordan, Karl Kippola, Dana Krueger, Monica Lijewski, Andrew Long, Kelsey Mac, Mike Mainwaring, Madeline McCabe, Christopher "CJ" Rager, Brian Sgambati, Jordan Silver, Thomas A. Simpson, Lynn Sharp Spears, Andy Tonken, Meghan Touey, Zack Vaz, Bryan Williams, Peggy Yates.

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October 5 - 30, 2005
Morning's at Seven

Reviewed October 7
Running time 2:40 - two intermissions
A handsome presentation of a  sentimental piece of nostalgia

Click here to buy the script

An impeccable recreation of small-town Americana sits lovingly on Olney's "historic mainstage." It is populated by a quartet of sisters and their immediate family in Paul Osborn's play which may well have felt nostalgic the day it premiered on Broadway in 1939. Each of the sisters has individual traits that make her interesting and they share a basic civility that makes it a pleasure to spend time with them. The plot of this gentle drama seems a bit strained, but it progresses easily toward fully understandable resolution that feels right for each of the four women. The performances range from just right, in the case of Halo Wines and Anne Stone, to strangely over-mannered in the case of Andrew Polk as the only offspring of any of the sibling quartet.

Storyline: In a small town in middle-America in the 1930's four sisters live out their lives in close proximity. One lives with her husband and one sister in a home sharing a backyard with the home another sister shares with her husband and her grown son. The fourth lives a few blocks away but walks over for a visit much more often than her husband would like. After nine years of courtship, the one offspring brings his fiancée home to meet his parents, setting off a string of reactions.

The program says the play takes place "some 80 years ago," which would make it 1935. However, the world it portrays is the emotional landscape of the sisters, who, being in their sixties, have lived in the same town with each other since the 1880s. It was written during the heyday of well-constructed human comedy/dramas, premiering in the same year as William Saroyan's The Time of Your Life, Lindsay and Crouse's Life With Father, and only a year after Thornton Wilders' Our Town. (Is it coincidence that these sisters family name is Gibbs?) It was much less successful than any of those, and less successful than Osborn's biggest hit, On Borrowed Time. Its sentimental feeling of nostalgia, however, gives it staying power without seeming out of date just because it is dated.

John Going directs with an emphasis on the distinctiveness of each of the characters. That is the kind way of saying that there seems to be a premium on quirkiness. It is interesting to note that the less quirkiness each performer gives his or her character, the easier it is to accept them as real people. In addition to the warmly human work of Halo Wines and Anne Stone, John Dow and James Slaughter come across as quite believable as the husbands of two of the sisters, while Dane Knell is harder to accept as the other husband and Andrew Polk the hardest of all as the forty year old mamma's boy of a son. Polk unnecessarily incorporates physical mannerisms that suggest retardation or a mental condition, and not just a case of arrested development attached to his mothers apron strings. Paula Gruskiewicz, on the other hand, gives her character of the long-waiting fiancée a whiney sound that is very effective at explaining just why she would have held on year after year to the hope that the boy would finally marry her.

Set designer James Wolk deserves great credit for the attraction of this show, for his highly detailed set of the two neighboring Victorian back porches draws the audience into the world of the show even before the play begins. Going uses the fact that interior rooms are visible through screen doors and windows. He has life go right on inside while the drama is playing out outside. Neil McFadden's sound effects are subtler than his musical selections between the three acts. The sounds of crickets, dogs barking, birds chirping and such help make the world seem real while Tom Sturge's twilighting is highly effective as are Liz Covey's period-specific costumes which seem as lived in as real clothing.

Written by Paul Osborn. Directed by John Going. Design: James Wolk (set) Liz Covey (costumes) Anne Nesmith (wigs) Tom Sturge (lights) Neil McFadden (sound) Stan Barouh (photography) Jess W. Speaker III (stage manager). Cast: John Dow, Paula Gruskiewicz, Sally Kemp, Dane Knell, Nancy McDoniel, Andrew Polk, James Slaughter, Anne Stone, Halo Wines.

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August 10 - September 11, 2005
The Miracle Worker

Reviewed August 12
Running time 2:30 - one intermission
t A Potomac Stages pick for dramatic intensity and two fabulous performances
Click here to buy the script

A marvelous production is offered for your first visit to Olney's 429-seat "New Mainstage," a welcomed addition to the Potomac Region's growing stock of new quality theater spaces. The theater has a nicely raked nine-row main floor with a four-row balcony overhanging only two and a half rows of orchestra seating. Its fairly plain, functional appearance (wooden wall panels that aid acoustics, exposed lighting poles, etc.) and very comfortable seats with good leg room, each with a clear view of the playing space, gives the house a feel that is a mixture of the strengths of other new spaces - sort of Round House's plusher similar space in Bethesda executed with a touch of Woolly Mammoth's more industrial aesthetic.

Storyline: In 1887 the parents of deaf and blind Helen Keller appeal to a school for the blind in Massachusetts to send a governess for their daughter. Annie Sullivan, nearly blind herself, comes to be more than a governess. She becomes a teacher, reaching her intelligent charge and opening the world to her through a system of hand spelling and her own determination to do more than simply taking care of her physical needs.

This play is often remembered as the play about Helen Keller, but, as this sensitive production proves, it is really about two remarkable people, Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan. It is also about their symbiotic relationship - how each met a need in the other - and about parental love and duty. But mostly, its about Helen and Annie. In Jim Petosa's sensitive realization, the two are evenly matched with superb performances by Carolyn Pasquantonio and MaryBeth Wise. It may come as some surprise that the Helen here is Pasquantonio who played the six and a half year old Helen over a dozen years ago, earning a Helen Hayes Award nomination for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a play in 1993 opposite the same MaryBeth Wise as Annie. The question for most is going to be "how can an adult play a child?" The answer is: "Very well, indeed."  It isn't often played with age accuracy anyway - even Patty Duke, who won acclaim in the original production on Broadway and subsequent movie version, was a teenager when she first tackled the role. Pasquantonio, who is no teenager, let alone a six year old, makes you accept her as Helen completely in just her first few moments on stage. You probably won't think of the issue again until you are in your car on the way home. During the play you will be too involved to be wondering such things.

The team of Pasquantonio and Wise establishes a balance between the two characters that makes the play work superbly. This Annie Sullivan is every bit as fascinating a character as is Helen Keller, and her reaction to the challenge presented by her determination to reach Helen is compelling. The physical intensity of their battles is fully realized, but it is the smaller touches - the gestures and fleeting facial expressions - which communicate inner thoughts that make these performances so impressive. Also notable are Helen Hedman as Keller's young mother and James Slaughter as her older father. As her brother, Max Rosenak manages to lay the groundwork for his climactic confrontation over the treatment for Helen so that it works very nicely. It is also nice to see Halo Wines included in the inaugural production of the new house for the theater company at which she has been so active for so long, even if she doesn't do much with her role as Keller's aunt.

As the first set to grace the stage of Olney's New Mainstage, James Kronzer's creation establishes a high standard for future productions. It features a raked platform representing first the home of the Kellers and then, after sliding portions aside to make it an even smaller space, the cottage where Sullivan made so much progress with Keller. Hovering in Daniel MacLean Wagner's dimly lit background is a giant door which leads to and from the rest of the world. It is a striking world hemmed in by a somewhat superfluous structure of shards. One aspect of note is that he suspended his platform just inches above the stage floor which created a reverberation chamber similar to the sound box of a guitar. Whether a result of this technique or of the work of sound designer David McKeever, the effect of stomping, pounding and flailing about on that floor in these violently physical scenes added to their impact.

Written by William Gibson. Directed by Jim Petosa. Design: James Kronzer (set) Pei Lee (costumes) Daniel MacLean Wagner (lights) David McKeever (sound) Stan Barouh (photography) Eileen Kelly (stage manager). Cast: Jermaine Crawford, Ashly Ruth Fishell, Helen Hedman, Carolyn Pasquantonio, James Slaughter, Max Rosenak, Chinasa Ogbuagu, Halo Wines, MaryBeth Wise, Christopher Yates.

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July 15 - August 7, 2005
Lovesong Of The Electric Bear

Reviewed July 17
Part of the Potomac Theatre Festival
Running time 2:20 - one intermission
t A Potomac Stages Pick for one great performance and one superb one

Imagine, if you will, the famous movie scene of ET and Elliot taking flight on a bicycle, but rather than flying off out of danger, the flight leads to an entire life of struggle and accomplishment. Playwright Snoo Wilson imagined such an event and Cheryl Faraone, in simple but effective pieces of staging, uses it to create the right atmosphere for this intriguing bio-play. It helps that the un-human member of this pair, a teddy bear with a combination of intelligence and command of time and space, happens to be played by Tara Giordano in her most incandescent performance to date, and that the boy with problems is the splendid Aubrey Deeker. Together, they make this rather peculiar play the one to see in this year's satisfying troika of shows in Olney's Mulitz-Gudelski Theatre Lab.

Storyline: The short but spectacular life of Englishman Alan Turing is re-enacted as seen through the eyes of the teddy bear he clung to in times of stress. That life included major advances in mathematical theory at Cambridge before World War II, important breakthroughs  in cryptography as part of the code breaking efforts during the war, and key concepts in the development of the digital computer after the war. Then his world came crashing down after his arrest for homosexual activity. The bear's abilities can't prevent his success at suicide at age forty two.

Giordano finds the point between the cute juvenile fantasy embodied in the image of a teddy bear and the intellectually challenging maturity of a grown life-long friend to create a character that is the heart of the piece. Her performance is so strong that the small black box theater seems tighter, smaller and more immediate when she's on stage, which fortunately, is a good deal of the time. She's just as cute as you would expect a teddy bear to be, but this is no silly Pooh Bear nor a super cuddly Paddington Bear. Instead, she really is the intellect of Turing trying to make sense of his world, and his life.

Deeker proved what a marvelously physical performer he is in the dance-like magic of Mary's Wedding at the Theater Alliance last year. Again here, he makes the physical mannerisms of his character tell a great deal about his inner thoughts and his attitudes. From small touches like his constant nail biting to great big effects such as his leap from a bicycle, the performance is quite a ride.

The first act of the script is the stronger of the two. It is filled with events and observations that capture and keep the attention. Wilson throws in a few less developed scenes in the second act, especially for the segments covering Turing's visit to New York. There's a drag cabaret (titled in a predictable piece of time warping "The J Edgar Hoover Follies") and a Central Park encounter that tend to slow things down a bit even given the good work of cast members as fine as Andrew Zox and James O' Dunn. Things get back on track, however, in plenty of time to leave you with the feeling that your time with this particular bear has been very well spent.

Written by Snoo Wilson. Directed by Cheryl Faraone. Design: Alexander Cooper (production design) Brandon R. McWilliams (costumes) Jarett Pisani (sound) Stan Barouh (photographer) Kate Mielke and Corinne J. Slagle (stage managers). Cast: Aubrey Deeker, James O. Dunn, Tara Giordano, Lucas Kavner, Valerie Leonard, Meghan Nesmith, Julia Proctor, Andrew Zox.

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July 14 - August 7, 2005
Press Conference, The American Dream and One For The Road

Reviewed July 17
Part of the Potomac Theatre Festival
Running time 2:15 - one intermission
Strong performances deliver notable wordplay

Click here to buy Albee's script
Click here to buy Pinter's script

The announcement was of three short pieces for this one installment of the Potomac Theatre Festival in Olney's Mulitz-Gudelski Theatre Lab. It turns out that one, the American premiere of Harold Pinter's short sketch, Press Conference, is more prologue to his One for the Road than a stand-alone piece. It plays like an introduction, with typical Pinter language that hints at so much more than it actually reveals. Director Richard Romagnoli segues directly into Pinter's full one-act exercise in visible human anguish. All this takes place after a spirited mounting of Edward Albee's more abstract piece which fits a classic definition of "theater of the absurd" - using ridiculous situations to illustrate the essential irrationality of the human condition. Being Albee, of course, it is a dark and threatening condition that is being indicted while the language is bright, crystalline and frequently acerbic.

Storyline: Two short sessions with two playwrights whose work seems addressed to the same audience. Albee's exercise finds an unconventional family of a "Mommy" a "Daddy" and "Grandma" awaiting some unspecified fate, while Pinter's man, wife and daughter have already found their dreaded fate as they undergo interrogation in a particularly malevolent version of good-cop/bad-cop.

Opening with Albee's family of dreamers who don't share the same dream, the pairing finds Valerie Leonard, Nigel Reed and Vivienne Shub trading zingers and arguing over nothing and everything as they wait for whoever it is that the dialogue lets us know is late. Each is distinctive with clearly etched characteristics - Leonard in confident control, Reed henpecked, Shub cantankerous. Shub is particularly delightful as she breaks the fourth wall to address the audience with her views of her children's foibles and the fate of the elderly. Things are clarified only a bit by the arrival of Rebecca Martin, the one they have been waiting for. After all, how much clarity can come from an entrance where the hosts ask her not "can we take your coat" but "would you like to take off your dress" . . . and she does? No, sense is not what this about.

After intermission Richard Pilcher, who will be the smarmy interrogator of the unfortunate family that has come under his control, appears in a Press Conference where he fields questions as the former minister of national security, now the new minister of culture. He sees no conflict between running the secret police and supporting culture ("We believe in dissent. It should be kept under the bed where it belongs.") His views of children ("We abducted them and brought them up properly. Or we killed them.") and women ("We raped the women. It was part of an educational process.") Pilcher's delivery is chillingly unctuous and sets up his character for the longer piece to follow.

In One For The Road Pilcher keeps pouring himself one more drink ("don't worry, I can handle my liquor") as he interrogates first a stoic but internally terrified Nigel Reed, then his confused little daughter and finally his wife, a dazed Julia Proctor. None of the physical violence of the interrogation process takes place on stage. The off-stage violence obviously involves beatings and multiple rapes and the physical scars are plain to see. It is the on-stage mental cruelty which is most horrifying, however. While Pilcher's performance is commanding in the most appropriate meaning of the term, it is Reed's that is most impressive, for he manages to convey in posture and gesture so much that is there in the incident but not in the text. He has only a very few lines in his first scene, but a great deal of what spins through his character's mind is made painfully clear.

Written by Edward Albee and Harold Pinter. Directed by Richard Romagnoli. Design: Alexander Cooper (production design) Brandon R. McWilliams (costumes) Jarett Pisani (sound) Stan Barouh (photographer) Kate Mielke and Corinne J. Slagle (stage managers). Cast: Daniel di Tomasso, Rachel Dunlap, Valerie Leonard, Rebecca Martin, Richard Pilcher, Julia Proctor, Nigel Reed, Vivienne Shub.

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July 13 - August 7, 2005
Somewhere In The Pacific

Reviewed July 17
Part of the Potomac Theatre Festival
Running time 1:15 - no intermission
Capable performances can't overcome weaknesses in the material

Mr. Roberts was never like this! Neal Bell, who provided the satisfying scripts for Therese Raquin and Monster, has written a message drama that is more message than drama which Jim Petosa directs with a flair for visuals. However, even the swinging sailors attempting a dalliance in the rigging can't distract from the fact that Bell seems more interested in a theatrical lecture on the issue of homophobia than even the randy Marines are interested in sexual release. Petosa's flair comes to the rescue from time to time, but then even he falters with a visual cliché about the enemy that feels even more offensive in the twenty-first century than some of the homophobia of the mid-twentieth that is Bell's ostensive subject.

Storyline: On a troop ship somewhere in the Pacific late in the Second World War the sailors and marines bake in the heat, sweat in anticipation of the horrors of combat and struggle with the twin forces of sexual need and homophobia either felt or feared. Into the mix comes notice of the death of the skipper's son in combat and a story that some of the marines on board served with him and may have known him to succumb to sexual temptation with at least one man.

Lets deal with the prurience first. Petosa avoids nudity completely and simulated sex acts almost completely. This is not a voyeuristic voyage. Costume designer Brandon R. McWilliams' skivvies displays the male physique without excess. Still, there's plenty of heat apparent and the sweat appears real and well earned.

The Marines being carried from one battle to the next are a grimy, sweaty bunch with well defined characters ranging from James Konicek's mature Marine more terrified of the enemy than of anyone's sexuality, to John Stokvis, whose younger character may find temptations among the Navy crew of the vessel. Representing that Navy contingent is Bill Army as a sailor definitely interested in getting together with any Marine seeking some relief.

While the enlisted men on deck resist or succumb, the officers above deal with the news of the death of the Captain's son. The captain is Paul Morella who is not given much opportunity to be anything but overly distraught.  Tim Getman gets a bit more variety into his portrayal of his executive officer. They all provide competent presentation and the play does cover a subject rarely portrayed. It would have been better had it dealt with it with a bit more subtlety and a bit less sanctimony.

Written by Neal Bell. Directed by Jim Petosa. Design: Alexander Cooper (production design) Brandon R. McWilliams (costumes) Jarett Pisani (sound) Stan Barouh (photography) Kate Mielke and Corinne J. Slagle (stage managers). Cast: MacLeod Andrews, Bill Army, James O. Dunn, Tim Getman, James Konicek, Paul Morella, John Stokvis.

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May 11 - June 12, 2005
Lend Me A Tenor

Reviewed May 13
Running time 2:20 - one intermission
t A Potomac Stages Pick for an elegant production of a riotous farce

Click here to buy the script

Ken Ludwig's first, and still most successful stage comedy, gets an elegant production on the newly renamed "Historic Mainstage" at Olney where the finishing touches are just being placed on the "New Mainstage" which will open in August. The play has become a staple of regional, community, collegiate and high school theaters ever since its 1989 Tony-Award nominated run came to an end. So why do a revival at professional standards now? Because it is well constructed with a plot that moves smoothly from set up to complication to resolution and it is filled with both funny situations and funny dialogue. In short, because it is funny and fun.  In the hands of the excellent cast and designers of director John Going's team, the vast majority of the gags land with the intended comic effect and the evening is, as Ludwig intended it to be, a hoot.

Storyline: On the night of its crucial fund raising performance of Verdi's Otello, the Cleveland Opera's guest soloist accidentally takes an overdose of medication. Thinking he is dead, an assistant dons his costume and goes on in his stead, but the tenor revives, dons a backup costume and heads off to the theater. Confusion escalates to farcical proportions as the wife of the real opera star discovers the girlfriend of the substitute in the arms of a man in Otello's costume and makeup.

James Kronzer's cream, crimson and chrome set which greats the audience as they enter the theater promises a classy presentation of a well known piece. Well detailed, the two-room/six-door hotel suite holds up to the energetic comings and goings of this door-slamming farce, contributing a solid thunk for each slam. Kronzer's work is then matched by Howard Vincent Kurtz' crisp 1930's costumes as the evening progresses.

The team of John Scherer and Paul Jackel as the would-be tenor and the real thing match their timing tremendously, hitting many of the simultaneous marks required of the physical farce. Jackel teams well with Julie-Ann Elliot as his wife while Scherer builds a nice rapport with Liz Mamana as his fiancée as well. The real engine that gets things moving is Allen Fitzpatrick as the manager of the Cleveland Opera. He's a nervous wreck at the start and escalates to panic with all the appropriate comic touches.

Valerie Leonard, resplendent in one of Kurtz' finer creations, an elegant purple evening gown, carries the lunacy further as the leading lady who thinks seducing the star will advance her career. Also a kick is Halo Wines appearing to have just as much fun playing the role of the opera's board member who dresses for the fund raiser in a gown which Kurtz designs to work with its description ("How do I look?" "Like the Chrysler Building.") Evan Casey makes a bit less of the role of the star-struck bell hop than could be expected. The entire cast is put through their paces twice during the evening - once for the approximately two and a quarter hours it takes to perform the piece as written, and then again in the famous choreographed curtain call which repeats or references many of the sight gags at which the audience laughs again.

Written by Ken Ludwig. Directed by John Going. Musical consultant, Christopher Youstra. Dialect/Vocal Coach, Nancy Krebs. Design: James Kronzer (set) Howard Vincent Kurtz (costumes) Anne Nesmith (wigs)  Robert Jared (lights) Matthew Nielson (sound) Stan Barouh (photography) Shari Silberglitt (stage manager). Cast: Evan Casey, Julie-Ann Elliott, Allen Fitzpatrick, Paul Jackel, Valerie Leonard, Liz Mamana, John Scherer, Halo Wines.

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March 30 - April 24, 2005
Omnium Gatherum

Reviewed April 9
Running time 1:40 - no intermission
General admission seating
An intellectual discussion play airing divergent and occasionally disturbing views on world affairs

"A dinner party at the end of the world" is how one of the co-authors of Omnium Gatherum describes their intellectual discussion play which takes place around a revolving dinner table in the intimate space of the Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab. The title, literally "an all-inclusive gathering" refers both to the guest list at the dinner party being thrown by a hostess with an uncanny resemblance to the public persona of Martha Stewart, and to the range of opinions voiced around the table. The authors create seven archetypes who give voice to many sides of the current debates over the social and political state of the world today. While the authors assemble a fairly limited sample of opinions, those that would be found among the movers and shakers of higher society in New York, they have presented each of the sides with notable honesty. The result is that some of the views will be difficult to hear given earnest and honest expression.

Storyline: Sometime after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, a high society hostess serves a haute cuisine meal to a gathering of unique personalities - a famous novelist, a feminist who is a confirmed "vegan" - a vegetarian who won't eat anything with a face - an Islamic scholar, a British journalist, the author of a book on spirituality and a fireman who was in the World Trade Center.

The setting may seem like a slice of the real world of the wealthy literati of New York society, but there are early clues that this particular dinner party isn't firmly rooted in reality. There's the hellish red light and smoke emerging from the door to the cellar which seems to automatically open and close. There's the chime that accompanies the mysterious appearance of each of the five courses ranging from mini sweet potato scotch bonnett to lemon poppy seed madelines with salmon, lamb and, of course, a mélange of microgreens. There's the comment by the hostess that smoking isn't permitted because the air is imported - there's just smoke outside. Amidst these clues of something unidentifiably unorthodox about the gathering, the seven guests, including one surprise guest held to the last as sort of an intellectual desert, give vibrant voice not only to socially acceptable, politically correct views but also some that are less attractive but none the less emphatically held.

This cast is quite good. Helen Hedman presides with a brittle polish that brooks no challenge. James Slaughter turns on the charm and then slowly comes under the influence of the wine he so gallantly offers to open and pour until he is spouting some of the crudest of politically incorrect utterances. Richard Pelzman needs no alcoholic inducements to his boorishness, establishing as much with a darted glance as some can with an entire speech. Peggy Yates adds detail after detail to her portrayal of the guest that is the ultimate challenge for a hostess, a guest with philosophical or biological objections to everything on the menu (except the charred corn salsa side dish), and Michael Anthony Williams brings his impressive ability to focus on another actor during dialogue, an ability that pays great dividends in this play which is all about listening to each other. Only Ida Elrod Eustis fails to clarify her character during the debate-filled evening, but she does have one memorable moment when she is called upon to sing even though her character obviously has absolutely no talent as a vocalist. Eric M. Messner builds his visiting fireman role slowly but effectively while Jared Swanson, as the last minute surprise guest, doesn't have the luxury of slow development and, so, bursts onto the scene to great effect.

This, the Potomac Region premiere of the play, gets a solid production. Jon Savage's rotating set gives everyone in the theater a perfect seat as the seven-seat dinner table slowly revolves like a lazy susan. Interestingly, he sets the table off-center as it rotates while even further offset is the chandelier of three glowing globes of varying sizes. Frank Labovityz' costumes are precise reflections of the self-image of each character. Both lighting and sound add polish. Altogether, the package adds up to a challenging evening.

Written by Theresa Rebeck and Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros. Directed by Halo Wines. Design: Jon Savage (set) Frank Labovitz (costumes) Alexander Cooper (lights) Karin Graybash (sound) Stan Barouh (photograpy) Tim Burt (stage manager). Cast: Ida Elrod Eustis, Helen Hedman, Eric M. Messner, Richard Pelzman, James Slaughter, Jared Swanson, Michael Anthony Williams, Peggy Yates.

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February 23 - March 20, 2005
Saint Joan

Reviewed February 25
Running time 2: 25 - one intermission

Click here to buy the script

Historical fiction on stage has the same imperative as in a novel: the play must make the events, attitudes and motivations of the characters clear to an audience who may not bring to the theater enough knowledge of the story's period to approach it as they would one set in their contemporary world. In this production, the inimitable George Bernard Shaw turns his considerable intellect to the logical, ethical and rational aspects of the story of the rise and fall Joan of Arc. However, too little of the historical forces motivating the principals is made clear to those whose knowledge of the 100 years war between England and France with the pivotal role of the Bergundians may be a bit spotty. A helpful write-up for those who would like to enter the theater better prepared to understand the production can be found at http://www.theotherside.co.uk/tm-heritage/background/100yearswar.htm. It would be worth reviewing, for there is a great deal to be enjoyed here including Shaw's intellectually honest portrayal of the views of competing sides, a number of very good performances and a tremendous physical design including set, lights, costumes and sound.

Storyline: A shepherd girl of 17 leads the army of the heir to the throne of France against the English invaders in 1429/1431 under the instructions she hears from voices of saints. She's incredibly successful and secures the crown for Charles VII, but is taken captive and tried for heresy. She is burned at the stake when her king refuses to come to her aid but later exonerated and even later canonized as Saint Joan, Maid of Orleans.

The script being used here is director Chris Hayes' adaptation drawing from an abridgement Shaw himself wrote for a movie version of the play which was never produced. It reduces the original play's nearly four hour length to about half that playing time, but it provides too little explanation of the military, governmental, religious and social forces at work. Hayes has a keen eye for stage pictures, moving his large cast about the large open space of James Wolk's magnificent set and he draws focus to the most important, most interesting and most thought provoking speeches, but he directs the cast in a style that seems hyper-dramatic at times.

The strength of the cast is at the top: Joan herself and the primary roles that support her. Jennie Eisenhower makes a very attractive Joan, one whose unique charms could well let her lead both court officials and the army. Her facial expressions, line readings, posture and energy are all quite good, but she spends too much of her time on stage with her hands held out in that supplication gesture actors use when imploring God's intervention or earnestly arguing a point. Such gestures should be used sparingly to keep from seeming forced. Most important and most satisfying among the other primary roles are Josh Lefkowitz as the flighty young claimant to the throne who becomes Joan's cause, and ultimately Charles VII, Lawrence Redmond as the Bishop under whom Joan was condemned to the fire, an imperious mouthpiece for the status quo tormented by the results of his actions, and Peter Kybart as the inquisitor who had no such qualms and to whom Shaw gave the strongest pro-burning arguments. Robert Leembruggen makes an imposing presence hovering over the events as the executioner, while Chris Davenport gives the panic the defense counsel feels full weight and the release of that tension in the brief moment of Joan's recantation is very well done. Also notable are Stephen F. Schmidt as the English Earl who won't permit an acquittal and Vincent Clark who can't stomach a conviction.

The action takes place on a set of rough hewn wooden steps which, with the drop of a drape, can be a throne room, with a projection on the rear wall can become a cathedral or with a lighting effect from within can become a pyre. There is no separate credit for projections so one must assume they are the work of scenic and lighting designer James Wolk. There are many projection effects used which are both subtle and effective, changing the feel of a scene without drawing attention to the effect. The costumes are rich in texture and color with great use of leather to evoke not just historical time but the station, profession and nationality of the characters. These garments provide clues the audience desperately needs to figure out who is who and why they say what they say. The sound designed by Karin Graybash uses man made sounds like chimes, natural sounds like wind and modern technologies like reverberation to compliment the feeling of time and place so important to historical drama.

Written by George Bernard Shaw. Script abridged by Chris Hayes. Directed by Chris Hayes. Design: James Wolk (set and lights) Sekula Sinadinovski (costumes) Karin Graybash (sound) Stan Barouh (photography) Shari Silberglitt (stage manager). Cast: Vincent Clark, Chris Davenport, Steven Douglas-Craig, Jennie Eisenhower, Jim Gagne, Peter Kybart, Robert Leembruggen, Josh Lefkowitz, Tim Lewis, Alex Major, Eric M. Messner, Richard Pilcher, Lawrence Redmond, Stephen F. Schmidt, Jeffries Thaiss.

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November 17 - December 31, 2004

Reviewed November 21
Running time 2:45 - one intermission

Click here to buy the CD

This solid staging gets most things right in a terribly difficult piece to pull off. The look is great, the sound fine, the singing and acting very good, the orchestrations interesting, and the staging is well thought out and effective. It has a delightful pair playing the secondary couple and there are fine things about the couple playing the leads. The production is only missing two elements, but their absence keeps it from being all that it can be and that is a shame. The two missing elements are a sexual chemistry between the leads and the lack of an elusive something beneath the surface of the leading male character that must be there to make the central romance,  romantic. Without a glimmer of potential in Billy Bigelow, the charming but fatally immature carnival barker, the attraction felt by the virginal Julie Jordan who has to be careful of her character because she's "never gonna marry" can't ring true. Without that, their story seems trite - and this is not meant to be a trite show.

Storyline: At the end of the nineteenth century a carnival barker beguiles a young mill worker in a village on the coast of Maine. They marry and she becomes pregnant but he looses his job with the carnival, and desperate to support his wife and baby, he turns to crime. Things turn even worse as he is trapped during the commission of a crime. He kills himself rather than face prison, but when he gets to the (back) gate of heaven he is granted one last chance to do something positive for his wife and daughter.

This was Rodgers and Hammerstein's second collaboration, following the phenomenon Oklahoma! by some two years. Rodgers' score is certainly one of his finest and is said to have been his own favorite. It is rich, full, complex and, most of all, gorgeous. The radical idea of dispensing with an overture in favor of an opening ballet ("The Carousel Waltz") has often been imitated but hardly ever with such success. Hammerstein's book was based on a Hungarian play that had such a depressing ending that he had to come up with an entirely new last scene with the folk-tale equivalent of a supernatural twist. Part of that change was presented in dance, recreated here by Ilona Kessell with attention to its plot functions but without some of the emotional richness of other choreographers' work. Hammerstein's book has long been criticized for taking spouse abuse lightly. ("Can someone hit you, hit you hard, and have it not hurt?" asks the daughter - "If you love them, they can" replies the mother!) This rankles more and more in an age of increased awareness of the prevalence of the problem in the real world. This production doesn't overcome that difficulty in part because of the lack of a hint of worth in Billy that Julie alone sees. Still, the script has well-told interlocking stories and serves up such marvelous songs as "If I Loved You," "This Was A Real Nice Clambake," "June is Busting Out All Over," "You'll Never Walk Alone" and the famous "Soliloquy."

That "Soliloquy" is delivered with dramatic as well as musical honesty by Caesar Samayoa who manages to capture some of the angst and the shallowness of Billy Bigelow but never gives a glimmer of the potential that Erin Davie as his Julie must recognize. Davie sings her role well and manages to establish a charming camaraderie with Tracy Lynn Olivera who plays her best friend. Olivera gives a fine comic performance and sings beautifully while Nehal Joshi is superb as her beaux, the fisherman who wants to get rich on herring by canning them as sardines. Also good are Monica Lijewski who soars with "You'll Never Walk Alone," Jeffries Thaiss as the thug Jigger Craigin and Christopher Block in multiple roles including that of the "starkeeper" who sends Billy back for his second chance.

Music director Christopher Youstra provides a lovely delicate accompaniment for the rousing vocals and a satisfyingly full sound for the ballets using a two-piano reduction of the score augmented by a cello and wind instruments. Milagros Ponce de León's set has a lovely etherealness, with luminous projections of the distant view on the rear screen. The opening to "The Carousel Waltz" is a marvelous introduction to this make-believe world and choreographer Kessell continues to provide effective movements throughout.

Music by Richard Rodgers. Book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. Directed by Brad Watkins. Musical direction by Christopher Youstra. Choreography by Ilona Kessell. Design: Milagros Ponce de León (set) Pei Lee (costumes) Anne Nesmith (wigs) Alex Cooper (lights) Tony Angelini (sound) Stan Barouh (photography) Shari Silberglitt (stage manager). Cast: Liza Amling, Adrienne Athanas, Christopher Block, Lawrence Brimmer, Debra Buonaccorsi, Miles Butler, Laura Cohen, Jermaine Crawford, Erin Davie, Andi Everly, Nehal Joshi, Monica Lijewski, Tim Lewis, Madeline McCabe, Khalid Moultrie, Tracy Lynn Olivera, Amy Pierson, Ryan Michael Reynolds, Caesar Samayoa, Jenn Segawa, Jeffries Thaiss, Gabriel Veneziano.

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October 6 - November 7, 2004
Blithe Spirit

Reviewed October 26
Running time 2:45 - one intermission

Click here to buy the script

In one production of this, one of the two most successful and famous comedies by Noel Coward, the first act martinis were prepared by spraying vermouth on the ice cubes. That production went on to be as wonderful as that tiny detail was droll. This production, on the other hand, has Paul DeBoy pouring ounces of vermouth into the Tanqueray. The resulting martinis must have been way too sweet. So, too, this production. It would have benefited from a sense of restraint, letting the acerbic Mr. Coward's wit and charm work its magic without exclamation points. Still, there are delights to be savored bit by bit even if the concoction never combines to make more than the sum of its parts. Among the delights are the stylish work of Halo Wines as the eccentric mystic, an impressive set by James Wolk, James Fitzpatrick's delectable arrangements of the show's theme song "Always" and, most notable of all, a superb lighting design by Robert Jared.

Storyline: A successful novelist and his second wife invite a neighboring mystic to conduct a séance in their home because the plot of the husband’s next book is to include mysticism. She conjures up the spirit of the novelist’s late first wife who refuses to leave and plots to regain her position as his companion.

By reputation Coward’s plays are full of fluff. In actuality that fluff – bright and funny as it is – covers a rock solid structure of a tightly plotted comedy about fully developed characters in intriguing situations. Yes, his dialogue is full of eminently quotable retorts and, yes, he makes it look so polished and perfect that the upper class life seems a thing of elegance, charm, intelligence and style and not necessarily a thing of wealth, birth or social position. But it all works because he worked so hard and so well at its foundation and only then added a posh patina. This, one of his most successful plays, is a sterling example of both the solid story and the polished storytelling.

Halo Wines gives the most memorable performance of the bunch as the unorthodox mystic who approaches the request of her host for a séance with a certain businesslike sense of routine, but who becomes almost unbearably excited when it appears to result in her first ectoplasmic realization. She seems to be having the time of her life making hay out of Coward's creation. The trio of Paul DeBoy as the host and Julie-Ann Elliott as his current wife exude no such sense of fun. Instead, there is a more pro-forma feel to their exchanges. Kate Goehring does get a bit giddy over the excesses she gets to commit as late wife #1, but it emerges later in the evening.

If the cast seems only to meld into an ensemble toward the end, the design team does so from the start. The highly detailed set captures the feel of a wealthy couple's home in rural England in the 1940s, especially the dining room which becomes visible through sliding pocket doors. Howard Tsvi Kaplan's costumes are fine throughout but start with a bang with Wines' séance dress that makes her appear an animated Faberge egg. The lighting design takes the action of the play through different times of day and weather. Night gets progressively darker out the window in one scene, the setting sun shines directly on a wall in another and the dramatic impact of lightning flashes (emphasized by Chas Marsh's eloquent thunder) relieve the gloom of a storm for a third. 

Written by Noel Coward. Directed by John Going. Music arrangement by James Fitzpatrick. Design: James Wolk (set) Howard Tsvi Kaplan (costumes) Anne Nesmith (wigs) Robert Jared (lights) Chas Marsh (sound) Stan Barouh (photography) Lauren V. Hickman (stage manager). Cast: Rena Cherry Brown, Paul DeBoy, Julie-Ann Elliott, Tara Giordano, Kate Goehring, James Slaughter, Halo Wines.

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August 24 - September 26, 2004

Reviewed August 27
Running time 2:40 - one intermission
No nudity but Mature themes and material

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Before Suzan-Lori Parks wrote her emotionally affecting Pulitzer Prize winning Topdog/Underdog she wrote this less effective play, which, while it shares some of the techniques which were to serve her well in her later work, fails to find a way to make its central character sufficiently human to garner the empathy, let alone the sympathy of the audience. As a result, despite an energetic performance and a physical design that seems to match the playwright's requirements quite well, the piece fails to capture the imagination or transport the audience to a world where events history records actually transpired, could have taken place in the glaring light of public awareness without outcry or controversy. Director Eve Muson has certainly not been deprived of resources in her attempt to bring the piece to life, but the final product fails to live up to the potential of either its intriguing historical subject or its playwright's well known abilities.

Storyline: Parks uses a combination of vaudeville, side show, comedia del'arte, music hall and musicals as well as traditional narrative theater to tell the story of Saartje Baartman.  She was a South African of Khoisan descent (a term the European's twisted into "Hottentot" but which came to be more accepted in South Africa as "bushmen") who was brought to England in 1810 and exhibited in a number of venues including a freak show. The attraction? Her outsized buttocks and genitalia. After years of exploitation, the real Baartman died at the age of 26, still half a world away from her native land. Her body was dissected "in the interests of science" and portions placed on public display.

The remarkable similarity between the cases behind this play and Bernard Pomerance's The Elephant Man and the decision of both playwrights to adopt unorthodox theatrical techniques makes comparison unavoidable. Pomerance chose a technique that left the deformity around which his play revolves completely to the skill of the actor playing the part and the imagination of the audience. The result, in the right hands, would be a heightened impact. Parks, on the other hand, attempts to divert attention from the curioso aspects of the story by throwing up multiple distractions in a variety of styles. It makes a hodge-podge of a piece without allowing the humanity of the pitiable central character to shine through, even given the energetic and very capable performance of Chinasa Ogbuagu in the role.

Ogbuagu isn't alone in giving an energetic performance. This entire cast appears to believe passionately in the project they have undertaken, and no one seems to stint in performing it with vigor. Perhaps this is a problem, however, since the result is that some of the characters who commit outrages upon or about the woman from a foreign land seem too, well, good to do what they do and Parks' script gives very little explanation other than the simple "it actually happened." One yearns to know how it could have happened and what, if any progress Parks believes has been made in public sensitivities toward human beings who happen to be different. KenYatta Rogers actually imbues the character of a doctor who could lust after a dissection with an impressive human dignity. Barbara Pinolini gives striking energy to the side-show manager.

Mike Wells' musical score straddles the line between incidental music and show tunes. His jaunty tune makes the opening sequence almost an opening number titled "The Venus Hottentot is Dead." James Kronzer has designed a multi-level set that is part show tent, part stage and part projection screen. Unfortunately, some of the projections are wide enough for the posts surrounding the screen area to cast shadows within the projections, but apart from this the effect of the entire playing space is admirably suited to the show and is well lit by Colin K. Bills, who is well known for his work elsewhere in the Potomac Region and makes his first outing at Olney a successful one. Vasilija Zivanic's costumes range from proper Victorian garb to inventive circus-like pieces, and his leotard for Ogbuagu's exposure works well within the theatrical concept of the script.

Written by Suzan-Lori Parks. Directed by Eve Muson. Design: James Kronzer (set) Vasilija Zivanic (costumes) Colin K. Bills (lights) Mike Wells (music) Karin Graybash (sound) Stan Barouh (photography) Shari Silberglitt (stage manager). Cast: Erik Andrews, Denise Diggs, James O. Dunn, Kimberly Parker Green, Nehal Joshi, Chinasa Ogbuagu, Barbara Pinolini, KenYatta Rogers, Michael Anthony Williams, MaryBeth Wise.

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July 6 - August 15, 2004

Reviewed July 9
Running time: 2:45 with one intermission
t A Potomac Stages Pick for intellectual challenge,
rich performances and a superb setting

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This play has appeared on local stages enough times now to allow assessments of the strengths of both the play itself and of a given production. There is a theatrical equivalent of the famous "uncertainty principle" which, in physics, holds that the more precisely you measure a particle's position the less precisely you can measure its momentum, and vice versa. In reviewing a play in its first production, the more credit you give to the play the less certain you are of the quality of the performance, and vice versa. Previous productions, including the Broadway production's national tour which visited the Kennedy Center, and the superb effort of the reliably high-quality community theater, Elden Street Players, revealed the potential of the play, but this smashing version jumps to the next energy level (to use another physics metaphor), exceeding even the quality of those that preceded it.

Storyline: In 1941 two great physicists, long-time friends and colleagues, met privately in Copenhagen. One was active in the German effort to develop a nuclear bomb. The other was soon to become active in the Manhattan Project to develop a nuclear bomb. What did they talk about? Why did they meet? In Copenhagen playwright Michael Frayn explores many answers to these questions by having the two, joined by one’s wife, share their own memories not only of the meeting but of their careers and relationships before, during and after the war.

Frayan, previously best known as the author of the nonsense farce Noises Off, brings his skill at theatrical structure to the unusual theme. Actually, there are multiple themes, all interconnected and all relevant to the question of what happened that fall day in 1941. What is the role of the scientist in moral issues? Can the pursuit of scientific truth ignore the consequences of discovery? Does the bond of friendship between colleagues transcend external loyalties? He views it all through the triple prism of memory – three different memories, each imperfect but each willing to try to recall and to re-assess in the light of each new revelation. Frayan places the action in some atomic afterlife where the three reunite to explore their past through multiple flashbacks, each a version of truth as remembered by one of the trio and each revisted again and again in light of details remembered and added by the others.

Alan Wade is Niels Bohr, the physicist who first explained the process of nuclear fission, who shortly after the meeting in Copenhagen, escaped the Nazis and joined the Los Alamos team working on the atomic bomb. Wade brings a refreshingly vibrant excitement over intellectual exercise and the search for truth to the part. Valerie Leonard is his wife, a keen observer of events and of human nature who keeps their exploration of memory true to known facts. But her intellectual honesty doesn't cloud her affection for her mate. At one point she looks at Wade with such aching love in her eyes it is impossible not to believe in that moment that they are indeed man and wife and that they have shared a full and satisfying life together.  Chris Lane is the younger scientist, Werner Heisenberg, the physicist who won the Nobel Prize for stating the uncertainty principal, and whose role in the Nazi effort to develop the bomb is at issue in the play. Lane makes the effort to explain and justify his actions seem suitably strained and contrived in the early going, but shows the internal intellectual struggle which makes his arguments fascinating and even compelling.

Director Jim Petosa places the three performers in a starkly reflective world that is the combined impact of a set of brushed chromium and mirrored surfaces, costumes in a subtly varied palette of off-white, lights that go from cobalt blue to the warm ambers of pleasant memory and the orange heat of fission, and sounds ranging from the other-worldly amplified effect for voices remembering from beyond to subtle bass beats reminiscent of a heartbeat in the dark. This theatrical world isolates and highlights the trio of characters as if they were a three element atom, circling each other verbally and physically in the grip of an intellectual attraction, but separated by a force which is alternately the difference of memory and the difference of history. Among the conundrums explored is the emotionally charged issue of the use of the bomb – did Bohr have any guilt over the deaths of thousands in Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Was Heisenberg less guilty because the German bomb effort did not succeed in time to destroy London? There are no simple answers and no superfluous issues raised in this supremely satisfying cerebral evening of theater.

Written by Michael Frayn. Directed by Jim Petosa. Design: James Kronzer (set) Pei Lee (costumes) Daniel MacLean Wagner (lights) Tony Angelini (sound) Stan Barouh (photography) Tim Burt (stage manager). Cast: Chris Lane, Valerie Leonard, Alan Wade.

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August 11 - 14, 2004
When Jennie Goes Marching

Reviewed August 12
Running time 1:20 - no intermission

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A performance group calling itself The Gypsy Mamas has taken a fascinating morsel of history which has high potential to make interesting theater and created, instead, a performance piece lacking in the dramatic progression, cogent plotting or character development that make "performance" into "theater." The basic concept seems sound: stage the stories of a little known historical phenomenon that among the millions of men who wore the blue or the grey uniforms during the American Civil War were at least 250 women passing as men. Why and how they did what they did would make an intriguing evening of theater or an interesting television documentary. Here, however, the documentary element nearly cancels out the theatrical. That is a shame, for the performances of the three women on stage are credible and could, in service to a serviceable script, bring the phenomenon to life in a memorable way.

Storyline: According to the book They Fought Like Demons by De Anne Blanton and Lauren M. Cook, at least 250 women disguised themselves as men in order to join the military forces on either side of the American Civil War. The facts surrounding a large number of these cases are recited, frequently in the first person, to the accompaniment of period music on violin and songs sung by the cast.

The Gypsy Mamas Artistic Group defines itself as "an installation and performance group ... giving voice to female creativity and nurturing a female aesthetic." They premiered in Boston two years ago and have mounted three projects in Massachusetts. Two of the three performers in this production are the group's co-artistic directors. There is no individual credit for writing, directing, or choreographing the piece.

Structurally, the piece follows the chronology of the war as it links the cases of women serving as men on both sides of the four year conflict that cost half a million lives. Each of the cases presented might well be the basis for an interesting vignette, and a selection of the cases could well be used to explore specific themes such as how women's reactions to the carnage might differ from men's, what drove these women to do what they did, and how they managed to successfully pass themselves as men in such a male-dominated environment.

As it is, however, none of these, or any of the other themes that might be explored, is given sufficient attention or time to develop. Not every one of the 240+ cases which have been documented is given a moment. With but 80 minutes in the piece, that would only allow 20 seconds each. However, so many individual cases are given a sentence or two starting with "Union" or "Confederate" plus name (if known), dates, battles fought in and wounds received, that it becomes a mere recitation. Then, too, time is devoted to a well staged recitation of the entire Gettysburg Address, to particular quotes from Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural, and introductory explanations all of which adds context but none of which provides the dramatic glue that could have held the pieces together dramatically.

Developed and performed by The Gypsy Mamas. Costumes by C&C Sutlery. Sarah Brown, stage manager. Photography by Jaya Prasad. Cast: Lee Sunday Evans, Laura Lafranchi, Elaine Vaan Hogue. Musician: Beverly Ramstrom-Manning.

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July 14 - August 8, 2004
Perfect Pie
Part of the Potomac Theater Festival

Reviewed July 18
Running time: 2:15 - one intermission
t A Potomac Stages Pick for marvelous acting in a story very well told.

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Rather than save the best for last, lets start with the best of the three productions of this year's Festival of Political Theater mounted by the Potomac Theatre Project in Olney's Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab. Perfect Pie may not be absolutely perfect - - few works of art ever are - - but there is a balance of substantial script, intelligent direction, superb performances and satisfying design. Three pairs of actresses representing three points in the lives of two women deliver superb performances in a production that just feels right. It grabs your attention from the opening image and holds it with a sure grasp as what could be an overly simple story is explored from many angles in a script that takes advantage of the  theatrical possibilities of the topic.

Storyline: Two women who were childhood friends reunite after decades apart. Patsy is still in the small Canadian farming community where they grew up while the other fled the town, changed her name from Marie to Francesca and  had a successful career as an actress. As they reminisce they share their different memories of the difficult times they had as children when one was rejected by most kids in town because she came from a home too poor to afford good clothes or even provide rudimentary hygiene. The memories of one augment those of the other as they discover new details about the event that changed their lives on the night Patsy sewed a pretty dress for Marie to wear to her first dance.

The play's structure gives director Cheryl Faraone a lot to work with since it presents three different pairs of Patsy and Marie/Francesca who can be on stage at the same time or exposed alone, depending on where the playwright and the director want the focus. It also presents a great challenge, for it would be so simple to create confusion and diffusion by moving the three pairs around too much and at the wrong times. Faraone's touch is sure, bringing the younger pairs onstage in measured doses, rarely drawing the attention away from the mature pair for too long.

Six strong performances are also in balance. The strongest come from the adult pair, MaryBeth Wise and Helen Hedman. Wise is earthy and matter of fact in her plain farm wife dress, hair pulled back austerely and peppering her flat Canadian accent with frequent interjections of "you know" while Hedman is informally elegant, displaying the charm of a public performer who can deflect attention with a quip. As different from each other as these two women have become, Wise and Hendman get the bond of their shared memories across with subtle but telling small glances, gestures and pauses.

The memory trip these women take starts with the younger pair, Jennifer Driscol and Laura Rocklyn who avoid the trap of overdoing the childlike gestures. Yes, they are supposed to be just children, but they represent the adult's memories of childhood and not all of those are carefree. As the adults explore their memories further, the teenage pair emerge in the persons of Tara Girodano and Lily Balsen who are entrusted with revealing the important secret that has been hidden by time, but first they establish a strong sense of the bonding these two girls shared, becoming more than just good friends but the kind of soul mates that is unique to girls in their early teens. That bond, which carries over into Wise and Hedman's portrayal, is the reason the play is so satisfying.

Written by Judith Thompson. Directed by Cheryl Faraone. Design: Hallie Zieselman (set) Jule Emerson with Franklin Labovitz (costumes) Alex Cooper (lights) Allison Rimmer (sound) Stan Barouh (photography)Valerie Bijur Carlson (stage manager). Cast: Lily Balsen, Jennifer Driscoll, Tara Giordano, Helen Hedman, Laura Rocklyn, MaryBeth Wise.

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July 14 - August 8, 2004
The Best Man
Part of the Potomac Theater Festival

Reviewed July 18
Running time: 2:15 - one intermission
t A Potomac Stages Pick for a faithful production of a fascinating and relevant play
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Two out of three ain't bad! The second of the three shows being staged in Olney's Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab for this year's festival of political theater is almost as good as the first, Perfect Pie. This revival of Gore Vidal's back-room political play seems such a logical piece for a festival of political theater in a Presidential election year that it is surprising they didn't mount it in 2000. The play required practically no updating to be just as compatible with current events circa 2004 as it was when it premiered in that other convention year - the one when Jack Kennedy won one presidential nod and Richard Nixon the other. Director Richard Romagnoli captures Gore Vidal's view of the American body politic quite well even though the cynicism of that view threatens at times to unbalance the dramatic integrity of the piece.

Storyline: As a political convention approaches its first ballot to nominate a candidate for the Presidency of the United States, two candidates square off in search of the endorsement of their party's former President. One has uncovered private information about the other which he threatens to reveal in order to offset what appears to be a substantial lead. The other can counter with some scandalous information of his own but struggles with the morality of fighting that type of battle.

While the play requires no up-dating, an inspired piece of casting makes it feel completely up to date. The part of the former President is played by the venerable Vivienne Shub whose distaff-side former chief executive is a curmudgeon of considerable charm. In a red suit and pearls with her shock of white hair and spouting some of the down-home homilies Vidal wrote for the part makes her a perfect blend of Barbara Bush and Ann Richards. She does just about as much as can be done with the part, and that is a whole lot indeed. Then, too, there is her marvelous delivery of the line "The worst thing we ever did in this country . . . giving the men the vote."

Shub isn't the only reason to catch the show, however. The two would-be Presidential pairs - both candidates and both candidates' wives - are presented with verve, energy and a clear sense of class. Paul Morella and Nigel Reed display two different but oh-so-familiar kinds of charm. Morella's character has a reserve and a seriousness under his pasted-on political smile, and exudes a patrician's confidence in his own superiority, while Reed's down-home country-boy charm is every bit as reminiscent of candidates we all know and see on our television screens. Reed gives some depth to a part that could be played one dimensionally, and it is his depth that adds texture to Vidal's occasionally one-sided view. Julie-Ann Elliott is superb as the wife of one candidate returning to her estranged husband out of duty but feeling the twinges of the bonds that led them to marriage in the first place, while Liz Myers moves seamlessly from the limelight of a press conference to the backroom maneuvering as the wife of the other.

Franklin Labovitz gets credit for some wonderful costume designs. Vivienne Shub's wardrobe is a visual metaphor for the character she's creating. So to a lesser extent are Julie-Ann Elliott's more austere, less flamboyant but tellingly elegant suits. Both Morella and Reed appear in suits that could well be what a well dressed Presidential candidate would wear in 1960. There is a satisfyingly functional simple set for the action in two hotel rooms, and a lighting design that only draws attention to itself for the perfectly appropriate and very telling isolation of Morella in a spotlight at the end of the first act. There is no sound design credit and the production suffers from it briefly but repeatedly as the only sound cues really required are telephone bells which here sound like a buzzer set off in the back of the hall.

Written by Gore Vidal. Directed by Richard Romagnoli. Design: Hallie Zieselman (set) Franklin Labovitz (costumes) Alex Cooper (lights) Stan Barouh (photography)Cary Louise Gillett (stage manager). Cast: Julie-Ann Elliott, Ben Fainstein, Lucas Kavner, Amanda Knappman, Katherine Miles, Paul Morella, Liz Myers, Barbara Pinolini, Nigel Reed, Vivienne Shub, Erin Sullivan. 

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July 14 - August 8, 2004
Measure for Measure
Part of the Potomac Theater Festival

Reviewed July 18
Running time: 1:30 - no intermission

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There is very little that is funny in this, the darkest of Shakespeare's comedies, when performed faithfully through its five acts. This one-act condensation manages to convey most of the important elements of its longer source, and in the process, saves the audience from a string of events that don't really fit in what we think of as a comedy these days. Chris Hayes' adaptation, however, still has to deal with threats of undeserving death penalties, presumed attempted rape by coercion (of a postulant about to take her vows, no less), venal and political corruption, and a clumsy plot point of a ruler who can disguise himself as a friar and go about without being recognized. Hayes solution is to condense the story and then, just in case someone misses the point that corruption is a bad thing, he adds a few deaths and a twist ending to try to make the message relevant to today's political scene.

Storyline: The Duke of Vienna turns over the reigns of government to a regent, trusting him to bring order to the city that has become too open under his own lenient approach. But the Duke remains in the area disguised as a friar in order to see how things are going. When he finds that the regent has succumbed to the temptation to misuse the power given him, the Duke plots to right some of the wrongs before retaking power. He finds it isn't as easy to undo mistakes as it might have seemed.

If you ever thought that Shakespeare can drag on and on, notwithstanding his oft-quoted goal of "two hours' traffic of our stage" (Romeo and Juliet, Prologue,) here's a chance to sample some rushing iambic pentameter and a fairly typically convoluted plot in just about an hour and a half. The plot may be a real stretch (how often have you seen a ruler turn over his power to a subordinate voluntarily) but, in director/adaptor Chris Hayes hands, the story hangs together fairly well until very near the end when too many threads have to be resolved in too little time. He even pulls a memorable theatrical trick to distract attention from this problem, but it would be giving away too much to detail it here.

Four performances are key to what success is achieved. The valuable four are: Leo Erickson, who is very human as the Duke who is loath to dirty his own hands with the execution of the laws - at least until the final moments; James Slaughter, who is marvelously conniving as his wily compatriot in the effort to oversee without actual oversight; Lawrence C. Daly, as the regent promoted to a position of more power than he can handle, and; Cassidy Breeman, who manages to display about as many different emotions as there are minutes in the brief stage time she gets as the postulant who comes to her sister's rescue. Neither Daniel Eichner nor Eliza Hulme make much of an impression as the lovers whose premature consummation of their marriage sparks the regent's ill-advised actions.

The text says the events take place in Vienna, but the modern dress (except for the friars robes) and the use of a voice recorder as a prop say "today." Putting this truncated treatment of one of Shakespeare's "problem plays" in this festival of political theater may give audiences a chance to at least sample one of his rarely produced plays, but it won't result in too many calls for a full production of the five act version. 

Written by William Shakespeare. Adapted and directed by Chris Hayes. Design: Hallie Zieselman (set) Tara Fenstermacher (costumes) Alex Cooper (lights) Stan Barouh (photography) Rachael A. Homan (stage manager). Cast: Cassidy Breeman,  Lawrence C. Daly, Daniel Eichner, Leo Erickson, Eliza Hulme, James Slaughter.

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May 26 - June 27, 2004
Necessary Targets

Reviewed May 28
Running time 1 hour 40 minutes

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There is always a feeling of dread when you walk into a theater knowing that the evening's "entertainment" is intended to force you to face unpalatable realities. Knowing that Eve Ensler, the playwright behind The Vagina Monologues, had turned her attention to the plight of women who were victims of the horrible indignities of the Bosnian war, one either expected or feared an evening of shared pain. But remember that The Vagina Monologues proved to be entertaining, often funny and decidedly balanced -- not a screed at all. Like the Monologues, this latest piece from Ensler is based, at least in part, on interviews with a number of women. These happen to be women who lived through the violence of the civil war in the former Yugoslavia. Their experiences may be gut-wrenching but their strength, resilience and essential goodness is life affirming and inspiring. As a result, so is the evening.

Storyline: A society psycho-therapist recruits a trauma counselor who specializes in victims of wars and rebellions to join her in a trip to Bosnia to help women refugees cope with the legacy of war. When they arrive they find the women suspicious of their motives and less than grateful for their efforts. But, over time, they come to understand each other.

Ensler's script is peopled with real characters and this cast brings them to life with subtle touches as well as broad ones. The Americans headed into the aftermath of war are super-confident, poised and mature Julie-Ann Elliott and earthy, youthful and driven Jen Plantz. Each avoids excessive stereotyping as they develop their characters, an effort aided immensely by Ensler who gives each character depth as they react to and are changed by their experiences. Neither ends the evening the way you might expect at the start.

Surrounding them is a quintet of women who, while each is undeniably a victim, are not simply defined by their victim status. They are refugees, yes. But in their varying reactions to their circumstances and their different abilities to deal with the experiences, they illustrate more than the horror of war or the bestiality of such things as "ethnic cleansing" and subjugation. They illustrate the resilience of the human spirit, especially those qualities of that spirit which seem to be more prominent among the female of the species. While Ensler and these ladies are making that point, however, they introduce enough variation in the reactions to be something more than propaganda posters for one view. These are real people with different thresholds of emotional pain, different coping mechanisms and different world views. There are searing scenes, of course. But there are moments of humor, touches of tenderness and warm memories as well. 

Milagros Ponce de Leon again impresses with a set that is both memorable and functional. She begins the evening with the elegant image of the psycho-therapist's Park Avenue apartment, all white and sparkling and clean. She transitions to a more earthy refugee camp and finally takes the audience all the way into the dirt of one woman's remembrance of horror.

Written by Eve Ensler. Directed by Cornelia Pleasants. Design: Milagros Ponce de Leon (set) Vasilija Zivanic (costumes) Jeff Carnevale (lights) Karin Graybash (sound) Stan Barouh (photography) Lauren V. Hickman (stage manager). Cast: Scarlett Black, Julie-Ann Elliott, Helen Hedman, Rana Kay, Barbara Pinolini, Jen Plants, Halo Wines.

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April 14 - May 16, 2004
Oh, Coward!

Reviewed April 16
Running time 1 hour 50 minutes

If you are already fairly familiar with the stylish output of Noel Coward over his incredibly lengthy time in the public eye (the nineteen twenties through the nineteen sixties) you will approach this revue of his musical works with high expectations,  and you won't be disappointed. If you are coming to the material for the first time, you are in for some delights. Coward's public image was of the epitome of style, grace and wit which he summed up with the phrase "a talent to amuse." The revue will give you a sampling of Coward's musical delights and perhaps whet your appetite for the second half of Olney's "Coward Celebration" when they mount his elegant comedy Blithe Spirit in the fall.

Storyline: This musical revue is also a musical review - a survey of the output of Noel Coward who, at his peak, had at least three different aspects of a theatrical career - playwright, performer and writer of songs both lively and lovely. The three were not easily separated. Many of the songs were written for his own plays and certainly the best vocal interpreter of his comic patter songs was himself. Oh, Coward assembles over forty of his songs in about a dozen scenes to sample the brightest of his lyrics (such as "Don't Put Your Daughter on the Stage Mrs. Worthington") the loveliest of his ballads ("If Love Were All") and a smattering of recitations of his inimitable patter.

Coward set the tone for a decade - England between the world wars. Then he became something of an icon as the Western World looked back with longing on an elegance thought lost. For the record, he was the author of Hay Fever, Private Lives, Design for Living, Blithe Spirit and Present Laughter - all frequently still produced in professional and community theaters throughout the English speaking world. This revue marvelously captures the tone that was his trademark with a physical production of elegance and a trio of performers backed by a jazz combo led by Christopher Youstra at the piano. There is no credit offered for choreography so one assumes that director Dallett Norris is responsible for the smooth way the show utilizes the multiple levels of the set, and for lovely individual elements such as way the three dance a romantic waltz without actually touching for the Design for Dancing segment.

Headlining are the droll John Leslie Wolfe, the dapper Thomas Adrian Simpson and the elegant Valerie Leonard. Simpson demonstrates his versatility by making the transition from the antithesis of sophistication in Signature Theatre's 110 In The Shade where he played the older brother on a drought-stricken American farm, to this light hearted sampling of urban English charm. Wolfe is particularly enjoyable in his delivery of the patter material, especially the recitative-styled "A Marvelous Party." Leonard is simply smashing in a solo piece, "Mad About the Boy." Collectively, the three work very well together and their enunciation is precise, clear and clean.

The design team deserves kudos for their work. The combination of set, lights, costumes and sound creates a splendid environment in which the performances are displayed to advantage. James Fouchard provides a graceful multiple platformed set with the combo at center stage surrounded by sheer fabric. Nanzi Adzima designed formal wear appropriate for time and style, especially the blue gown for Ms. Leonard in the second act. Jeff Carnevale's subtle lighting design underscores each song's feeling with lighting that moves from a bright stage for music-hall songs to blue-hued moonlight for Leonard's rendition of "Mad About the Boy." Tony Angelini's sound system assures that all the charming lyrics and lovely melodies can be heard without creating a markedly artificial sound.

Words and Music by Noel Coward. Conceived by Roderick Cook. Directed by Dallett Norris. Musical Direction by Christopher Youstra. Design: James Fouchard (set) Nanzi Adzima (costumes) Jeff Carnevale (lights) Tony Angelini (sound) Stan Barouh (photography) Shari Silberglitt (stage manager). Cast: Valerie Leonard, Thomas Adrian Simpson, John Leslie Wolfe.

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February 18 - March 21, 2004
Having Our Say

Reviewed February 24
Running time 2 hours

Theater can cast so many different spells. In this particular piece of theater magic there is no big dramatic catharsis, no gut wrenching tragedy, no escalating parade of comic explosions - just a pleasant evening in the presence of two lovely ladies whose acquaintance it is a pleasure to make - a visit that will linger in the memory if not necessarily in the heart. "The Delany Sisters? Yes, I remember them" you may say years from now, only to remember that you met them through the magic of theater and that you weren't really invited into their home. Such is the work of two gifted actresses, a director with a warm spot in her heart and a playwright who seems to have captured the personalities of two gentle ladies rather than attempted to analyze their places in the world. Their own words seem good enough, thank you.

Storyline: The 100+-year-old siblings, the Delaney Sisters, invite you in to their home as they prepare dinner on the birthday of their late father, a man who had been born a slave and sired ten children, all of whom went on to college. The sisters regale you with stories from their century including their experiences under the infamous Jim Crow laws, their pioneering efforts to gain college educations and establish careers for themselves and the strong family ties that survived a tumultuous century.

Not a thing happens during this show. Oh, a meal gets prepared and a table gets set, but all the events of these ladies lives are simply told, not shown. While the stories they tell are usually amusing or interesting or both, the material would be static and dull if not for the ability of Claudia Robinson and Gloria Sauvé to bring character to life. The play is based on a book which is an expansion of a newspaper article written for the New York Times on the occasion of the younger sister's 100th birthday in 1991.

The stories may be fine - these ladies lives covered a wide variety of places and events - but it is the charm of the characterizations that makes the evening memorable. Claudia Robinson creates a gentle soul as the older sister, the one who had been a school teacher in a New York City high school for white children. (She got the job by missing the in-person interview and then just showing up on opening day - imagine the shock to the students and staff in 1926!) Gloria Sauvé gives a bit more spice and sharpness to her character, the younger sister who established a practice as a dentist in Harlem after graduating from Columbia University.

Both actresses capture the mannerisms of extreme but healthy age. They are exceptionally precise in their movements, a precision no doubt developed over years of increasing fragility. They gingerly step up and down the steps of the finely detailed set Harry Feiner designed to give them a home in which to entertain. It comes as a surprise when, at the curtain call, the two actresses resume their normal posture and come forward with a spring in their step to acknowledge the applause. But before that curtain call, they capture the closeness of the relationship between these two unmarried ladies who spent their entire lives together, moving north with so many other blacks in search of economic and social freedom. Their view of the world is unique but their affection and reliance on each other is universal. It is good to know them.

Written by Emily Mann based on the book by Sara Delany, A. Elizabeth Delany and Amy Hill Hearth. Directed by Halo Wines. Design: Harry Feiner (set) Kathleen Geldard (costumes) Pam Peach (wigs) Harold Burgess (lights) Karin Graybash (sound) Stan Barouh (photography)  Lauren V. Hickman (stage manager). Cast: Claudia Robinson, Gloria Sauvé.

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November 19 – December 28, 2003
The Gifts of the Magi

Reviewed November 23
Running time 1 hour 45 minutes

It must be difficult to come up with a new or different holiday-themed show every year. That may be why some theaters (like Ford’s, for instance) keep one show in their repertoire for the December slot of their season. This year Olney takes a crack at a chamber musical on a holiday theme that was a staple of the season for about a decade at the tiny Lamb’s Theatre in New York. It is pleasant and has a number of charming elements but it is frustrating to note how far it misses the mark its creators Randy Courts and Mark St. Germain obviously set for themselves. The program says it will be performed without an intermission, and it plays as if it was intended that way, but there actually is a fifteen minute intermission which stretches what would have been a show of just under an hour and a half just a bit longer.

Storyline: While a subplot from O. Henry’s short story “The Cop and the Anthem” is used to expand the scope of the show slightly, the main thread of the narrative comes from his most famous story, “The Gift of the Magi,” the story of nearly penniless newlyweds facing the dilemma of not being able to afford Christmas presents. The husband loves his wife so much that he sells his most prized material good, the pocket watch handed down to him through generations, in order to buy his wife a pair of combs for her long golden hair,  while she has sold that very hair in order to buy him a fob for the watch.

O. Henry’s famous story is a charmer and this musical concentrates on the charm of the setting, an idealized vision of New York City in 1905. Snow would make the scene even more charming but the characters lament the lack of a holiday snowfall until the final scene when the infusion of the Christmas spirit is signified by a lovely snowfall effect in Milagros Ponce de Leon’s sliding panel set which is lit nicely by Jason Arnold. Kathleen Geldard’s period costumes spread that charm between the poverty stricken and the city’s wealthier citizens - including two characters who represent the entire population of the city. They are introduced by a newsboy saying there are too many people in the city to tell everyone’s story and the audience wouldn’t be able to remember them all anyway, so their roles in the story will be portrayed by “The City - Him” and “The City - Her.” It is a cute and effective way to stretch a cast of six to cover the story.

The songs range from light vaudevillish “song and dance” pieces reminiscent of the music halls of the period to modern musical theater duets and character songs. Courts and St. Germain made some strange choices about which portions of the story to set to music and, indeed, some strange choices about which points to present at all. Key story points are dispensed with through a sentence or two. Nowhere in the show is there a song or a scene about how much the watch means to the husband. Nowhere in the show is there a song or a scene about how much the beautiful hair means to the wife. Also missing from the story is any real treatment of the anguishing each does over the sacrifice they finally decide to make. Without these, the show relies not so much on what is portrayed on stage but on how familiar the audience is with the story before the lights go down.

The cast handles the light demands of the piece with aplomb. Benjamin Eakeley and Trinity Baker make an attractive couple of newlyweds and they sing very nicely separately and their duet “Once More” is quite strong. Sal Mistretta turns in a strong comic role as the bum (as in “Bum Luck” - his big number) who just wants to be arrested so he can spend Christmas inside a warm jail with real food. Darrel Blackburn as “The City - Him” and especially Lisa Howard as “The City - Her” are effective filling all the roles from policeman to cook to shop clerk to wealthy customers. The strongest presence in the show is that of Anthony Manough as the newsboy who acts as the narrator. 

Book by Mark St. Germain from the stories of O. Henry. Music by Randy Courts. Lyrics by Randy Courts and Mark St. Germain. Directed by Bradford Watkins. Musical direction by Chris Youstra. Musical staging by Doug Yeuell. Design: Milagros Ponce de Leon (set) Kathleen Geldard (costumes) Jeffrey Frank (wigs) Jason Arnold (lights) Tony Angelini (sound) Kara-Beth Oliver Dambaugh (photography) Michael Domue (stage manager). Cast: Trinity Baker, Darrel Blackburn, Benjamin Eakely, Lisa Howard, Anthony Manough, Sal Mistretta.

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October 1 – November 2, 2003
Charley’s Aunt

Reviewed October 14
Running time 2 hours 35 minutes
t Potomac Stages Pick

You can enjoy this production on so many levels. You can enjoy the bright and lively performances of its talented and well chosen cast. You can appreciate the clarity of the direction by John Going or the sharp designs in set, costume, lights and sound. You can concentrate on how solidly constructed the plot is in Brandon Thomas’ one hundred and ten year old script and how it doesn’t seem dated at all or you can ponder just how such a frilly piece of froth has remained prominent enough to be constantly and consistently produced over such a long time when so many other plays are being written and compete for productions. But mostly, you can just sit back and be entertained.

Storyline: Two undergrads at Oxford in 1892 get caught up in a series of farcical situations as they pursue the girls of their hearts’ desires. Seems the ladies won’t join them for lunch in their rooms unless chaperoned. The aunt of one of the boys is due to visit, providing a solution to their dilemma. But when her arrival is cancelled, they talk a chum into dressing as a woman and acting as a chaperone. Of course, the real aunt shows up at just the wrong time and the complications mount as the guardian of one of the girls is attracted to the faux-aunt.

Going and his team take a stylish, sophisticated approach to a play that isn’t exactly sophistication incarnate -- after all, it is about a man dressing up as a woman for purely sophomoric reasons. Some productions try for high energy, in-your-face comedy and others try to find social significance here. Going, on the other hand, follows a good time route which delivers pleasures and chuckles but doesn’t overdo the physical comedy. One key to his approach is the emphasis he gives to the asides addressed to the audience and another is the bemused image of Ian LeValley as the butler who sees his employers as pampered but not necessarily spoiled.

Erik Steele is our cross-dressing gentleman of the evening. His performance is refreshingly devoid of drag humor. He’s always a young gentleman caught up in an embarrassing situation and he does just enough falsetto and flutter shtick to let the audience believe he is trying to fool the girls and the adults. But his masculinity is never really in question. Jon Cohn and Peter Wylie are a bit old for the immaturity of the two college kids but they are certainly not as old as many who have tackled the roles. If Ray Bolger can pull it off in the musical version Where’s Charley for decades after debuting in the role at age 44, Cohn, Wylie and Steele certainly can since they are much closer to the appropriate age. They are matched very nicely by the girls of their fancies, especially Colleen Delany as Cohn’s chosen one.

Two of the “adults” in the play are of note, in addition to Ian LeValley’s delightfully droll work as the butler. Alan Wade is sly and smooth with his material as Cohn’s father and, as the real Donna Lucia, Halo Wines takes over the stage as if she owned it -- which is only right and proper given her long history of superb performances in this house. That she and Wade work so well together should not be surprising either since they are co-directors of the Onley’s acting workshops.

Written by Brandon Thomas. Directed by John Going. Design: James Wolk (set) Vickie Rita Esposito (costumes) Jeffrey Frank (wigs) Jonathan Blandin (lighting) Tony Angelini (sound) Stan Barouh (photography) Elaine M. Randolph (stage manager.) Cast: Charles Antalosky, Briana Lynn Banks, Jon Cohn, Colleen Delany, Ian LeValley, Erik Steele, Alan Wade, Ashley West, Halo Wines, Peter Wylie.

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August 20 – September 21, 2003
Anna Karenina

Reviewed August 28
Running time 2 hours 40 minutes
Potomac Stages Pick

At the heart of Leo Tolstoy’s novel of life and love in pre-revolutionary Russia are two characters, a man and a woman whose passions are extraordinary. At the heart of Helen Edmundson’s success at adapting the novel for the stage is the fact that she focuses on those same two characters - and they aren’t Anna and her lover, the fascinating Count Vronsky but, rather, Anna and the equally fascinating Constantine. It took Tolstoy 239 chapters to tell these stories and so much more in his sprawling novel. Edmonson only has one evening to cover the essentials. With the aid of talented designers and performers, she creates Tolstoy’s world and the central story with theatrically effective broad strokes.

Storyline: Two separate love stories play out in counterpart. Wife and mother, Anna, thinks she has found the key to happiness in an adulterous relationship with Count Vronsky, but it is not to be and her life is destroyed in the process. On the other hand, Constantine Levin thinks he has been denied all possibility of happiness by  rejection at the hands of his intended, but fate intervenes.

Edmundson’s play uses these two stories, Anna and Constantine, as opposing arcs of drama, one descending into the depths of despair, driven by guilt and unfulfilled desires, and the other ascending from the nadir of rejection through redemption and a kinder fortune. With Valerie Leonard’s highly mannered performance setting the tone for Anna’s half of the story and Jeffries Thaiss’s more natural, open and ultimately joyful Constantine, the contrast is starkly effective. Lawrence Redmond builds his portrayal of Anna’s husband slowly but surely to an emotional pitch that peaks just at the right point.

Milagros Ponce de Leon has designed a handsome brick archway set that serves nicely as train station, dacha, village and church as Hallie Zieselman’s lights create different moods for different locales and Lonie Fullerton has come up with a number of costumes that are right for time, place and status without looking terribly affected. These seem to be just the kind of clothes the characters would be wearing as opposed to the kind of clothes actors would be wearing when playing these characters. The exception is Leonard as the titular Anna who, as the centerpiece, is properly emphasized in stark black.

Two visual effects underline the theatricality of the presentation. Constantine’s chance sighting of his beloved as she passes in her coach is mimed with Tara Giordano as his Kitty on the shoulders of the ensemble drawn across the stage by prancing actors. No image could be less realistic or more effective in its context. Then there is the famous death scene of Anna committing suicide by throwing herself under a moving train. Death has been a presence throughout the play, a costumed apparition that enfolds his victims in an unmistakable gesture. Anna meets her moment in the midst of a crowd that creates just such an enfolding effect in a stunning dramatic moment.

Written by Helen Edmundson. Based on the novel by Leo Tolstoy. Directed by Cheryl Faraone. Design: Milagros Ponce de Leon (set) Lonie Fullerton (costumes) Amy Chavasse (movement) Hallie Zieselman (lights) Jarett Pisani and Allison Rimmer (sound) Stan Barough (photography) Che Wernsman (stage manager). Cast: Clinton Brandhagen, Julie-Ann Elliott, Tara Giordano, Helen Hedman, Valerie Leonard, Lawrence Redmond, Nigel Reed, Jeffreis Thaiss.

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August 12 - 24, 2003
Translations of Xhosa

Reviewed August 14
Ticket price $10
Performed in the Theatre Lab
Running time 1 hour 35 minutes

Kira Lallas, then a student at Boston University, traveled to South Africa and lived with the local black population. She returned with stories to tell. Instead of a term paper or a book or a diary, she created a performance piece which, while it may have some of the feeling of a student work, is marked by a notable simplicity of expression, a maturity of observation and a generosity of outlook. She performs it herself with support from a vocalist and guitarist/drummer but it remains an intensely personal view of the world of the women of a village in the emerging democracy of the Republic of South Africa in the post-apartheid era.

Storyline: An American college student shares with the audience her observations and experiences from her stay in a South African village as part of an international study project. The stories she relates and the lessons she has learned reveal an affectionate bond that built up between her and the residents. As she learns from the women of the village, she gets to know herself as a woman as well.

 Xhosa is the language the people speak in the Transkei territory of South Africa. (The “xh” sounds as a “click” so it comes out as “click-ooh-sha”). Lallas learned to speak Xhosa and managed what was apparently an acceptable “click,” leading to a line in this performance piece when she has one of the locals say “I never thought I’d hear a white woman speaking Xhosa” with a combination of wonder, admiration and affection.

The audience comes to share the affection for this young woman because her delivery is so open and unmannered while her text is so honest and at the same time eloquently observant. She speaks with a touch of the jargon of Americans of her age (superfluous uses of “this” and “that,” and an occasional mixed tense as you might hear in a late night gab session in a dorm) but has true poetry in her descriptions. Lines like “there are no mirrors in my house, there are enough people staring at me” and “I’ve been trying to be a South African, I’ve been trying to be a woman, not knowing they are the same thing” give beauty to her narrative.

Lallas’ work is a solo-performance piece, not a play. But she’s not alone on the stage. She is supported by the singer Uzo Aduba whose body language and intense facial expressions contribute almost as much as her lovely voice to the atmosphere and impact of the piece. The work was developed during Lallas’ senior year at Boston University where Olney’s Artistic Director Jim Petosa doubles as Director of the School of Theatre Arts. Lest one suspect that her appearance here at Olney is some sort of favoritism, consider this - it was a winner of the American College Theatre Festival at the Kennedy Center over a thousand productions entered. From what is on display at Olney this month, it was an honor well deserved.

Written and performed by Kira Lallas. Directed by Karen Michelle Stanley. Music by Scotty Conant. Cast: Uzo Aduba, Scotty Conant, Kira Lallas.

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July 16 – August 10, 2003
The Potomac Theatre Project

Reviewed July 20
Running time 50 minutes
Performed in the Theatre Lab
Price $10

Extremely well acted, intriguingly staged and intellectually stimulating, this four character intersecting-monologue theater piece has about 45 minutes of fascination power and, since it only runs 50 minutes, that is enough to make it worth a quick visit to Olney’s Theater Lab. Since it is one third of a three-play package, you can catch it with one of the others on a weekend afternoon with enough time between it at 1 o’clock and either Piaf or No Man’s Land at 4 for a meal at the Olney Ale House, the Stained Glass Pub II or any of the other local spots within easy reach. For the fanatic, there is also the option of adding the evening performance of the third in the set or Monster over on the main stage. At $10, this show is an inexpensive add-on that has much to offer.

Storyline: A mature man, a mature woman, a young man and a young woman sit facing the audience delivering soul-searing statements, stories, comments and confessions in brief snippets that combine to reveal some, but not all of their interrelationships. The young man is the callow youth the mature woman chose to impregnate her. The young woman is the victim of the mature man’s pedophilia. The mature man is the woman’s tormented husband. Or are they something else? Are these statements confessions? Therapy? Perhaps they are the final thoughts of four suicides. You decide.

The intrigue doesn’t so much die at the end as it seems to wane at about the two-thirds point just before the enigmatic conclusion kicks in to come to the rescue. But through it all, there is a seemingly endless supply of verbal fireworks, vivid imagery and deft word play. This was young playwright Sarah Kane’s next to last effort before her self inflicted death in 1999 at the age of 30. Here the Potomac Theater Project, the alternative theater project at Olney, presents the play's area premiere as part of its 6th season of summer offerings.

Director Cheryl Faraone has approached the outpouring of verbiage as a good musical director approaches a choral work, with attention to the rhythms of the piece, the balance of voices, the clarity of duets, attack for entrances and the tempo, meter and rhythms of the work. It may be text, but it was as surely composed as any piece of theater music. This is most obvious in the mature man’s extended description of his longings for the things he misses in the relationship with his wife which his pedophiliac compulsions has killed. As delivered by the passionately pained Stephen F. Schmidt, all this soliloquy needs to be a show-stopping song like Gypsy’s “Roses Turn” or La Cage Aux Folles’ “I Am What I Am” is a melody and a big orchestra.

As good as Schmidt is, and that is very good indeed, it is the ensemble effect achieved among the four performers that is most impressive. Each individual brings something unique to the mix -- Julie-Ann Elliott’s cool sophistication, Tricia Erdmann’s youthful torment, Ben Correale’s facade crumbling to reveal a palpable core of angst. Together they present a compelling portrait of troubled souls.

Written by Sarah Kane. Directed by Cheryl Faraone. Design: Alex Cooper (set) Franklin Labovitz (costumes) Nick Olson (sound) Adam Magazine (lights) Stan Barouh (photography) Cary Louise Gillett and Rachael A. Homan (stage managers). Cast: Ben Correale, Julie-Ann Elliott, Tricia Erdmann, Stephen F. Schmidt.

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July 16 – August 10, 2003
The Potomac Theatre Project

No Man's Land

Reviewed July 20
Running time 2 hours 10 minutes
Performed in the Theatre Lab
Price $10

Richard Romagnoli, the co-director of the Potomac Theatre Project, Olney’s alternative theatre group, has a touch with Harold Pinter’s extremely literate and highly symbolic plays. Here he directs Pinter’s 1975 play about the line of demarcation between certainty and confusion, success and failure, hope and resignation. Much of the literature about the play stresses the character of an established author at the end of a successful career who is confronted by the challenge of a strange visitor as undistinguished as he is distinguished. In Romagnoli’s staging, thanks to the compelling performance of Alan Wade, the play is more about the visitor and his view of the world he thinks he might have had a chance to command.

Storyline: An English man of letters has apparently invited a stranger home from a night in a pub, but the stranger may actually turn out to be a figure from his past. Over quantities of scotch they discuss their pasts. The scotch gets the better of the host, however, and his servants take over the evening. The servants aren’t the normal butler and valet but, rather, a strange pair who may have more authority over the host than he has over them.

Wade’s performance compels from the opening moment. In a spectacularly constructed first scene, Pinter’s dialogue gives him every opportunity to shine and he takes full advantage. His talkative, slightly ill at ease stranger tries everything he knows to stimulate conversation with his taciturn host who only responds to every third or fourth query and then with only an unembellished declarative statement. Picture Jay Leno with a guest who only answers “yes” or “no” to every question he can devise. As the scotch lubricates Wade’s tongue it has the exactly opposite effect on Richard Pilcher who plays the host with a drollery that is quite a match for the loquacious Wade.

Word play gives way to a mixture of suspense and confusion as the two younger men, who may be servants or may be something more, take control of the household. As the ratio of normal to peculiar increases, it is Wade who provides the anchor that keeps the play from drifting off into confusion. Seen through his eyes, the layers of peculiarity seem less perplexing.

All of this takes place in the one room setting by Alex Cooper who uses a minimum of furniture and a shelf unit standing before the theater lab’s black curtained corner. Lighting designer Adam Magazine adds the world outside the room through the simple device of the light coming through an unseen window. Such simplicity helps maintain the focus on the language which is always the real strength of a Pinter play.

Written by Harold Pinter. Directed by Richard Romagnoli. Design: Alex Cooper (set) Franklin Labovitz (costumes) Nick Olson (sound) Adam Magazine (lights) Stan Barouh (photography) Cary Louise Gillett and Rachael A. Homan (stage managers). Cast: Jesse Hooker, Richard Pilcher, Alan Wade, Peter Wylie.

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July 16 – August 10, 2003

Reviewed August 5
Running time 2 hours 20 minutes
Performed in the Theatre Lab
Price $10

No bio-play about a well known musical performer can possibly work without a strikingly convincing performance in the lead. Olney and the Potomac Theater Festival are fortunate to have the services of Helen Hedman. Her portrait of a unique performing talent whose persona is so well known to many through her recordings even forty years after her death is both so convincing and so consistent with memory that it is the reason to see the play.

Storyline: The young street urchin heard singing on a street corner is raised up to stardom in the cafe world of Paris, capturing much of the angst of the pre-World War II generation and the pain of occupation once the war breaks out. The post-war euphoria brings a period when her career begins to falter as no one is really interested in the pain about which she sings, but she struggles back to the top, using everyone around her to her own ends. Unsatisfied with the success, however, she turns more and more to drink and drugs. She beats the addictions briefly but is finally drawn back in as a result of treatment after an automobile accident.

Hedman provides the sound and the image of Edith Piaf over a long period, taking her subject from youth to dissipated middle age. She has a consistent spirit underlying the character which makes her Piaf an object of fascination. She is at her best in the early going when she demonstrates the unique features of her subject -- the talent, the drive, the determination to be herself no matter what others expect of her. These are the things that set Piaf apart from other entertainers of her time and place and they are the things that make the first half of the show so mesmerizing.

The second act carries the story forward into her troubled times with somewhat less satisfaction. Perhaps it is the lack of an answer to the question "Why wouldn't the strengths that made Piaf a star on stage be enough to make her a success in her private life?" that is felt here. It isn't Hedman's performance that leaves that question unanswered, it is the script she is working with. It concentrates on the pain of her failure to find fulfillment but never addresses its cause.

Both acts are staged with a pace that keeps you from focusing on what might be missing. Director Chris Hayes gives his design team every opportunity to create the atmosphere the show needs and has assembled a highly competent cast of supporting performers, each of whom tackles multiple roles. MaryBeth Wise is particularly good as a series of Piaf's friends including, briefly, Marlene Deitrich. Music director Alfredo Pulupa as the on-stage pianist provides both subtle incidental musical support and cafe-sounding accompaniment for Hedman's convincing recreations of Piaf's performances.

Written by Pam Gems, Directed by Chris Hayes, Musical Director Alfredo Pulupa. Design: Alex Cooper (set) Franklin Labovitz (costumes) Nick Olson (sound) Adam Magazine (lights) Stan Barouh (photography) Cary Louise Gillett (stage manager). Cast: Zoe Anastassiou, Clinton Brandhagen, Steven Carpenter, James O. Dunn, Helen Hedman, Erin Kunkel, Nick Olson, MaryBeth Wise.

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July 9 – August 10, 2003

Reviewed July 22
Running time 2 hours 15 minutes
Potomac Stages Pick

Equal parts suspenseful horror story and psychological morality tale, this stylish and atmospheric telling of Mary Shelley’s story of Frankenstein’s monster is as much fun as a good beach book for the summer. It delivers chills and thrills combined, as Shelley’s novel was, with cautionary lessons about scientific arrogance and human ambition. With Hollywood having cornered the market on special effects designed to appear real, director Jim Petosa wisely concentrates on live theater’s unique ability to combine suggestion and illusion to draw the audience into the story.

Storyline: Victor Frankenstein, in search of the secret of life and death, assembles all the parts of a man from corpses and then finds a way to bring his construction to life. Once brought to life however, the creature has needs Frankenstein cannot fulfill and becomes violently demanding, eventually bringing tragedy to his world. 

Monster has a great monster in Christopher Lane, another of his remarkable creations of a character that is something other than a human. As the title character in Rep Stage’s Swan, his combination of body language and unhuman sounds began as more bird than person and then evolved. Here again, he begins as just meat and bones energized by electricity and evolves into a threateningly strong being with increasing abilities to desire, reason and demand. His performance is matched by Jeffries Thaiss as he transitions from the arrogant innocence of an experimenter oblivious to the potential consequences of his efforts through fear, remorse and despair.

Lane and Thaiss are surrounded by the efforts of a distinguished design team and a fine supporting cast, many of whom take on dual roles. Paul Morella is both his friend and a ship captain,  James Slaughter his father and a shipmate and Valerie Leonard his mother and a poor girl who is condemned to die for the monster's acts.  Will Gartshore has the most diverse dual role, playing both Frankenstein's brother and a cat. James Kronzer has contributed a set that is half monolith, half cracked ice and all atmosphere and Tony Angelini has composed music and created sound effects that range from the crackling sound of electricity to a nearly “Jaws”-like theme for the monster.

Unless you are inordinately tall you might want to try to get seats in the front row or to the rear of the theater, for this production is a prime example of a problem we have noted in all too many theaters with a mild rake to the audience floor and an only moderately elevated stage. Much of the action takes place on the floor of the stage where a large part of the audience has difficulty seeing it without obstruction. It seems strange that directors and designers who obviously pay a great deal of attention to sight lines from the extreme sides of their theaters and who wouldn’t think of placing a key moment behind a set piece such as a pillar or a partition that blocks the view of a significant portion of their audience, don’t give the same care to vertical sight lines as they do to horizontal ones.

Written by Neal Bell. From the novel by Mary Shelley. Directed by Jim Petosa. Design: James Kronzer (set) Pei Lee (costumes) Harold F. Burgess II (lights) Tony Angelini (sound and music) Stan Barouh (photography) Shari Silberglitt (stage manager). Cast: Anne Bowles, Will Gartshore, Christopher Lane, Valerie Leonard, Paul Morella, James Slaughter, Jeffries Thaiss.

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May 28 – June 29, 2003
Private Lives

Reviewed June 4
Running time 2 hours 10 minutes
Potomac Stages Pick

The success of any production of Noel Coward’s much loved and much imitated drawing room comedy depends on three people -- the actors playing the couple who can’t live without each other but can’t live with each other, and the director. Olney found three who make it all work and then added to the pot a great pair of supporting players and a pair of designers for set and costumes who create just the right environment for the comic goings on. Director Richard Romagnoli keeps all the elements in balance so that it adds up to a delightful evening of sophisticated fun.

Storyline: Five years after their divorce from a marriage that must have been marked by unimaginable fireworks, two members of the upper crust of British society that flourished between the world wars are each on their honeymoon with their new spouses in separate bridal suites that happen to share a balcony. When they discover each other’s presence, the old passion is reignited and they flee for her flat in Paris, leaving behind, for the moment, their respective spouses. Their reunion is marked by all the passion of the earlier marriage and marred by all the incompatibility that destroyed it. They may be older, but are they any wiser?

At first glance Morella, with his slightly Brooklyn or Bronx persona might seem a strange choice for the upper-class marvelously named leading man, Elyot Chase, whose flippancy is exceeded only by his urbanity. But, as he demonstrated so tellingly on this stage in Art and Coffee with Richelieu, he has a way of sliding a retort into a scene with devastating effectiveness. His sense of comic timing is almost too heavy for a part as light and airy as this one, but he balances the elements nicely as he creates a more masculine, even slightly macho Elyot than most - no Noel Coward imitation here. The playwright Coward may have written sublime witticisms for the actor Coward, but they work surprisingly well in Morella’s more muscular approach.

Valerie Leonard’s take on Amanda, the oh-so-female half of the couple, is more traditional but no less satisfying. She is clearly much more than the sexy body inhabiting the costumes of Nanzi Adzima which reveal as much class as they do skin (and that is saying a great deal!) She is a thinking-woman’s libertine who matches Morella’s Elyot line for line, argument for argument and embrace for embrace. Together they have the requisite chemistry bordering on fire and their first embrace is one of the most erotic non-kisses ever. From the marvelously played moment of recognition in Act One to the wonderful exchange of silent communication that ends Act Three, this is a pair that was meant for each other.

James Slaughter and Gillian Shelly as the new spouses deserted on their wedding nights are both fine foils for the main couple’s barbs and they are even funnier when their characters team up later in the play only to have signs of the same combativeness that afflict Elyot and Amanda. They do their sparring on their feet which makes them more visible to the entire audience than are Elyot and Amanda at times in Act Two when Coward has them rolling on the floor in passion. Those moments might have played better had Robin Stapely’s otherwise superb setting included an elevated area where the action on the floor could be seen by those whose view was partially blocked due to the moderate slope of the audience floor and the relatively low elevation of the stage.

Written by Noel Coward. Directed by Richard Romagnoli. Fight choreography by Lorraine Ressegger. Design: Robin Stapley (set) Nanzi Adzima (costumes) Josh Bradford (lights) Stan Barouh (photography) Shari Silberglitt (stage manager). Cast: Valerie Leonard, Paul Morella, Gillian Shelly, James Slaughter, Jeanne LaSala.   

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April 16 – May 18, 2003
The Miser

Reviewed April 23
Running time 2 hours 35 minutes

Potomac Stages Pick

It is always a delight to find a production of one of Molière’s comedies that treats the material as funny rather than as a cultural icon on display in a museum. Halo Wines assembles a fine team of performers and designers and, in essence, says “Lets give the audience a good time.” And they all respond to their director’s directions with style and enthusiasm. The result is a play that starts strong and ends on a string of laughs.

Storyline: The title character is a wealthy cheapskate – a man who has buried a treasure in his garden but won’t spend a sou on his son or his daughter or his house or his wedding. He has arranged to marry but his intended happens to be in love with his son. On the other hand, his daughter is in love with his servant, a gentleman of noble birth who took the lowly position simply to be near her. These storylines all converge in one of Molière’s brightest and funniest climaxes.

Wines, well known as both an actress and a director, stays behind the scenes for this outing. She lets the pace slack a bit in the middle, but she does an outstanding job of both the set up and the finale. The first scene, with all the introductions of characters and concepts is skillfully assembled. She has the personalities of servant/suitor Christopher Yates and his intended, Susan Lynskey, clearly established in about a minute through marvelously efficient blocking, effective acting and costumes that are just right. Then Jon Cohn makes his entrance as the love-struck son in the most outlandishly character-appropriate costume of them all. Cohn struts just enough to seem at home in the outfit without overdoing what could turn his performance into a running gag. MaryBeth Wise gives a fine comic performance as the maid who is also the cook and the coachman of the household.

David Marks is the miser and his rumpled confusion is well established. He introduces an annoying whine as the pressures on his purse begin to mount and this gets overused in his final breakdown scene. But otherwise he is a fine object of Molière’s ridicule. He is at his best when letting you see his mind working on the cost of things. He captures the essence of parsimony in a scene where he instructs his threadbare servants not to offer drinks at the wedding reception and to only refill the guest’s glasses on the second request. As to food for the banquet, dinner for eight would be sufficient for his ten guests – no, make that seven.

James Kronzer’s forced-perspective set of the dilapidated mansion is striking and Kathleen Geldard provides an endlessly inventive parade of costumes to fill the space with color, pomp and a clear indication of the circumstances of each character. Together with good work on lighting and sound, including incidental music that sets just the right tone for the event, an atmosphere is created that sets the comic confusion in its own wonderfully wacky world.

Written by Molière. Translated by Miles Malleson. Directed by Halo Wines. Design: James Kronzer (set) Kathleen Geldard (costumes) Jeffrey Frank/Elsen Associates, Inc. (wigs) Andrea Suchoski (properties) Dan Covey (lights)  Christopher Moscatiello (sound/music) Stan Barouh (photography) C. J. Williams (stage manager). Cast: Eric Bloom, Carlos Bustamante, Jon Cohn, Paula Gruskiewicz, Robert Lesko, Susan Lynskey, David Marks, Eric M. Messner, Meg Taintor, MaryBeth Wise, Christopher Yates.

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February 26 – March 30, 2003
Dames At Sea

Reviewed March 8
Running time 2 hours
Potomac Stages Pick

Once upon a time a major market for musical comedy was the proverbial “tired businessman” who just wanted a diverting, entertaining evening after a long day at the office. There could have been a sign on the marquee “no thinking required.” Welcome back to the past! This light and lively piece of froth is nothing but fun – but it is a lot of fun.

Storyline: This 1968 spoof of the 1930s musicals like 42nd Street where a kid fresh off the bus from middle America lands a spot in a Broadway musical and becomes a star when she goes on for a disabled star on opening night follows a plot about a kid fresh off the bus from middle America who lands a spot in a Broadway musical and becomes a star when she goes on for a disabled star on opening night. Add such silliness as having the show-with-in-a-show loose its theatre only to be staged on the deck of a battleship in New York Harbor and it makes perfect sense that the star’s disabling illness would be seasickness.

The more you know about the movie musicals of the late 1920s and the 1930s the more fun this campy romp is. If you’re the type to sit in front of the Turner Classic Movie channel at odd hours, you will get all the gags and all the references. But it isn’t necessary to bring anything with you but a suspension of disbelief to enjoy Olney’s production. It is bright, colorful, tuneful, well acted and well danced, features two nifty sets by James Fouchard and sharp costumes by Dean Brown all imaginatively lit by Jonathan Blandin.

The score has fifteen songs, none of which you will know unless you’ve seen or heard the show before, but every one of which will sound familiar. That is because every one of them is an affectionate spoof on a song you may know. Even if you don’t pick up on the references, the score is pleasant and the performances of the six member cast backed by two pianos and drums are so energetically enthusiastic that it doesn’t matter. Director Dallett Norris has coached the cast in the essential skill of delivering campy material: do it with great sincerity and avoid any cheap “wink – wink” glances at the audience which say “I know this is silly, don’t you?”

Best of the bunch are Sol Baird and Brad Bradley as a sailor boy who writes show tunes and his shipmate who has an eye for a chorus girl. Baird is enthusiastically innocent and Bradley is a loose limbed dancer with a fine way with a flippant retort. Meghan Touey’s tap dancing is a bit too mechanical and her singing doesn’t really make you see why she would wow the opening night audience on the Battleship. But she’s good in her moments with the boys. Deborah Tranelli is almost too good as the star who can’t go on. If she’s as good as Tranelli is, why is she in a show that is having financial difficulty? Sherri L. Edelen is the wise cracking experienced chorine and she gets to use her extraordinary belting voice. Only Jack Kyrieleison as the producer/director of the show they are putting on is a disappointment, but he makes up for it when he brings a pleasing level of pizzazz to a second character, the captain of the battleship, Captain “Cupie Doll” Courageous – it’s that kind of a show.

Book and Lyrics by George Haimsohn and Robin Miller. Music by Jim Wise. Directed by Dallett Norris. Choreographed by Ilona Kessell. Music Director and conductor, Christopher Youstra. Design: James Fouchard (set) Dean Brown (costumes) Jonathan Blandin (lights) Tony Angelini (sound) Stan Barouh (photos) Shari Silberglitt (stage manager). Cast: Sol Baird, Brad Bradley, Meghan Touey, Deborah Tranelli, Sherri L. Edelen, Jack Kyrieleison.

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November 19 – December 29, 2002
The Secret Garden

Reviewed November 24
Running time 2 hours 30 minutes
t Potomac Stages Pick

The Secret Garden
may have started out as a successful children’s book, but it reaches its greatest success as a musical play which will capture and captivate adults. It would be a shame if the sign outside the Olney Theater touting their production as a "fantastical family musical" kept away adults without kids to bring along. It would be equally regrettable if the families who did attend were those with pre-school or early elementary school kids looking for something akin to a Disney feature about a little mermaid. This production is too grand, too rich and too long for them. But anyone who is old enough to follow a story that hasn’t been dumbed down to Saturday morning television simplicity, but is still young enough to believe in the power of selfless love, will find this Secret Garden a delight.

Storyline: A young girl is orphaned by the cholera epidemic in India where her parents had been part of the British colonial class. She is shipped back to England to live with her uncle, a deformed and miserable widower who has let his dead wife’s garden wither just like his ill son and his heart. The girl brings love back in to his home with marvelous curative effects.

The formula that Marsha Norman and Lucy Simon followed in creating this lovely show sounds simple - take a marvelously satisfying story, tell it with intelligence and grace, people it with characters of depth and distinction and set the most emotionally satisfying or involving plot and character points to music. Sounds simple but it is damnably difficult. They pulled it off so well that the result won the Tony Award for the best book for a musical in 1991 and was nominated for best score. That score is a lushly lovely compilation of nearly thirty songs ranging in a wide variety of forms blending Indian, English music-hall, Broadway and a touch of nearly operatic styles. It is one of the more musical musicals of the last decade or so. Music Director Christopher Youstra brings out its strengths both in the performance of his seven piece orchestra and in the singing of stars and chorus, although Neil McFadden’s sound design seems to overwhelm the theater’s system from time to time.

The cast that director John Going has assembled is very strong in every role but there are a few real standouts. The part of the young girl is played by Rita Glynn, an amazingly talented eleven year old who not only sings well but is able to invest a character with telling traits, as Potomac Region audiences know from her work in To Kill a Mockingbird at Ford’s lat year and which Broadway audiences found out when she appeared in Jane Eyre. Here she is matched by Justin Spencer Pereira as her sickly cousin who responds to the reintroduction of love into his world. They make a great team. The adults are first rate as well. John Scherer is strong voiced and creates much more than a stock character of the father. When he sings to his son of his desire to "Race You to the Top of the Morning" his feeling for the failing son is clear and his big soliloquy "Where in the World" sets up a lovely moment with Peggy Yates whose crystal clear soprano is the very essence of spirituality just right for the part of the spirit of his late wife. Stephen Gregory Smith’s singing blends well with the young Rita Glenn’s for the inspirational paean to the power of life ("Wick"), and Sherri L. Edelen stands out both with her touching and yet comic acting and her singing, especially her big second act "Hold On."

Daniel Conway’s set relies heavily on projections in much the way he did for Olney’s The Laramie Project, while set pieces are rolled on and about. Color and time is enhanced by Howard Tsvi Kaplan’s marvelously varied costumes under Scott Pinkney’s sometimes subtle lighting. Pinkney varies the tone as well as the intensity of the lighting in the garden scenes to strengthen the magic of growth.

Book and lyrics by Marsha Norman. Music by Lucy Simon. Directed by John Going. Music direction by Christopher Youstra. Choreography by Sharon Halley. Design: Daniel Conway (set) Howard Tsvi Kaplan (costumes) Scott Pinkney (lights) Neil McFadden (sound). Cast: Rita Glynn (or Alexis Zavras), Justin Spencer Pereira (or Sam Hulsey), John Scherer, Peggy Yates, Stephen Gregory Smith, Sherri L. Edelen, Christopher Flint, Daniel Felton, Corrie James, Harry A. Winter, Nehal Joshi, Mary Payne, Joe Peck, Stephen F. Schmidt, Joanne Schmoll, Jennifer Timberlake, Steven Tipton, Eileen Ward.

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October 1 – November 3, 2002
Driving Miss Daisy

Reviewed October 9
Running time 1 hour 35 minutes
Potomac Stages Pick

In the right hands this play can cast a gentle spell like no other and at Olney it is definitely in the right hands! It is short – but not a second shorter than it should be. It is simple – but underneath its apparent simplicity it is rich, deep and full. It is sweet – but never veers too far toward treacle and shows not a sign of artificial sweetener. It is, quite simply, a completely satisfying and thoroughly charming production.

Storyline: At 72, a proud widow in post World War II Atlanta is getting too old to safely drive a car. Her grown son employs a none-too-young man to be her chauffer. She is Jewish and he is Black. Over the next twenty-five years, they share many minor experiences together, see the world change around them as the civil rights movement alters race relations in the new South, and develop a strong affection for each other despite their individual foibles.

Alfred Uhry’s Pulitzer Prize winning play, which he adapted into an Oscar winning movie, creates a self-contained world populated by two irresistible characters. To play them, director Thomas W. Jones II has an Olney veteran, Halo Wines, and a Potomac Region veteran but Olney first-timer, Keith N. Johnson. Individually, they are marvelous. Together they make an irresistible team.

Wines takes her character through two transitions with great good humor and an innate sense of grace. She ages from senior to senile at the same time that she softens to admit Johnson’s character into her inner circle of affection. Johnson, too, has a double strain to his character’s aging as he slowly lowers his defenses against the threat of pain from the controlling world of white society. His defenses have been both a self-depreciating humor and a pretense of detachment. Both defenses are overcome by the quarter century of shared experiences.

David Marks makes the most of the part no one ever seems to remember in the play, that of the loving but eminently practical son who hires the chauffer and responds to his mother’s crises as she ages. He resists any temptation to overplay the humor or exaggerate the warmth. Either excess could unbalance the entire piece. But, so could playing it too dryly. The challenge is to stay within those constraints and create a warmly human character that seems to fit into the world of the principals. His performance is an example of the fine sense of balance and proportion that marks the entire production.

Written By Alfred Uhry. Directed by Thomas W. Jones II. Design: Daniel Conway (set) Howard Vincent Kurtz (costumes) Michael Giannitti (lights) Tony Angelini (sound). Cast: Halo Wines, Keith N. Johnson, David Marks.

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August 20 – September 22, 2002
Coffee with Richelieu

Reviewed August 28
Running time 2 hours 20 minutes
Price range $15 - $35

Potomac Stages Pick

Is there a more entertainingly intellectual playwright working in the Potomac Region today than Norman Allen? I don’t think so. His latest mental exercise is a reward for any audience member who likes to use his or her brain precisely because Allen is so visibly having a ball using his. It has wit as well as humor, romance as well as sexuality, adventure as well as intrigue, all wrapped up in a package that draws gorgeous designs from the creative team and spirited performances from a superb cast of nine.

Storyline: The basic plot of Alexandre Dumas’ "The Three Musketeers" is the springboard for Allen. To start, he has the story of D’Artgnan’s introduction into the King’s service through the sponsorship of the swashbuckling trio Aramis, Porthos and Athos told by its villain – the Machiavellian Prime Minister in the court of King Louis XIII, Cardinal Richelieu. But Allen invests the crimson frocked courtier with the ability to commune with historic personages of other ages. He brings the likes of Queen Victoria, Mahatma Gandhi and even Jacqueline Onassis to his table to discuss the different views of morality over a sip of mocha java or espresso.

The cast seems to be having just as much fun playing these roles as Allen had creating them. As D’Artagnan, the apprentice musketeer who is taken under Richeliue’s tutelage, Jerry Richardson’s eyes sparkle with delight and wonder at each new discovery (from his 17th Century perspective the concept of a skim latté made with the watery part of separated milk/cream is a horror). James Slaughter swaggers as Parthos and then swishes as King Louis XIII with mannerisms delightfully matching the gold and white costume Lonie Fullerton designed for him (complete with matching bows in his hair) .

Fullerton’s other costumes are a constant delight including the sparkling dress for Queen Anne, in the lovely person of Shannon Parks, and a gown with a hint of Cruella DeVille for Valerie Leonard who, as the cunning Milady makes the most of both the part and the costumes. Susan Lynskey is nicely attired for her main part – that of a lady in waiting who falls for D’Artagnan in a big way – but it is the capri pants and all the accoutrements for her fabulous scene as Jacqueline Bovier Kennedy Onassis (the name is "almost a complete sentence!") that stands out from the crowd. Lynskey’s droll delivery is so much fun that she got the first of a number of exit ovations that punctuated the opening night.

Paul Morella commands the stage as Richelieu and sets the tone for the evening from the moment he steps on Harry Feiner’s slightly skewed set. He acts as narrator as well as prime mover and delivers some of Allen’s pithier observations on morality, society, religion and human nature. From the very start his cynicism gives reason to ponder – the tag "Every man thinks the universe revolves around him. Some of us are right" is delivered with just enough of a knowing glint and followed by just enough of a pause to let its wisdom as well as its humor to sink in. He spends the rest of the evening as the audience’s guide through a fabulously entertaining exercise for the mind.

Written by Norman Allen. Directed by Jim Petosa. Design: Harry Feiner (set) Lonie Fullerton (costumes) Tom Sturge (lights) Dave White (sound) Charles Conwell (fight coordinator). Cast: Paul Morella, Jerry Richardson, Susan Lynskey, Valerie Leonard, James Slaughter, Shannon Parks, Bill Gillett, Christopher Lane, Scott Graham.

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July 9 – August 11, 2002
The Laramie Project

Reviewed July 24
Running time 2 hours 30 minutes
Price range $15 - $35
t Potomac Stages Pick

In 1998 the members of Moisés Kaufman’s Tectonic Theater Project of New York traveled to Laramie, Wyoming in search of understanding concerning a hate crime that had become a national sensation. The results of their search were presented on stage in Denver and then in New York and eventually in Laramie itself. The production of this docudrama at Olney is stylish, solid and substantial without any of the excess which could draw attention away from the material and put focus on the performances or staging.

Storyline: On a cold, clear night, two men abducted and beat a gay man, Matthew Shepard, leaving him to die tied to a fence on the prairie outside of Laramie. The crime and the community of Laramie drew the attention of the media around the country and around the world and became a cause célèbre among human rights activists and the gay community. The members of the Tectonic Theater Project interviewed over 200 residents of the town, including police, lawyers and witnesses that had been part of the case, and townspeople who attempted to come to grips with the crime and its aftermath and to explain how it could have happened. A cast of nine recreates those interviews.

Under Jim Petosa’s direction, the two-act play is an exercise in intellectual honesty that avoids extraneous emotionalism. After all, the subject is compelling enough in its own right and the treatment devised by Kaufman and his team of eleven credited writers and dramaturgs is so strait forward that theatrical embellishment would diminish the impact. The work casts its own spell although the magic is magnified by small personal details and revealing bits of character in the actors’ performance that match the details included in the text to give life to the speakers.

Paul Morella acts a bit as the narrator to kick things off but the entire ensemble soon is in full swing with neat little touches from Harry A. Winter who channels a local cabbie, Alan Wade who gives such a matter-of-fact description of the events preceding the attack as the bar-tender who served both the victim and his attackers, and Christopher Lane as a local police officer. All members of the cast develop different characteristics to bring different characters to life on James Kronzer’s open set backed by projections that give a face to the people and a sense of place to the prairie and the mountains beyond.

The play is aptly titled "The Laramie Project" rather than the "Matthew Shepard Case." Kaufman and his project members sought and found answers to what the town felt about the crime and its aftermath and the play presents those answers in an intensely personal manner. But they apparently didn’t try to find out just who Shepard or his attackers were. The details of their lives - his death and their arrest and trial - are presented almost as background material to set up the portrait of the town’s reaction. What is there is fascinating but what isn’t there is fodder for many post-theater discussions.

Written by Moisés Kaufman and the members of the Tectonic Theater Project. Directed by Jim Petosa. Design: James Kronzer (set) Susan Chiang (costume) Scott Zink and J. Michael Hishchynsky (visuals) Dan Covery (lights) Dave White (sound). Cast: Paul Morella, Harry A. Winter, Christopher Lane, Allan Wade, Anne Bowles, Helen Hedman, Jesse Hooker, Susan Lynskey, MaryBeth Wise.

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May 21 – June 23, 2002

Reviewed May 29
Running time 2 hours 15 minutes

George Bernard Shaw’s 1898 examination of the difference between love and infatuation is given a serious and sumptuous production on Olney’s main stage. Rather than play it as a drawing room comedy concentrating on the flippant bons mots that flow from Shaw’s pen, director Richard Romagnoli concentrates his cast, especially those playing the three main characters in a triangle of a man and his wife and a would-be suitor, on the themes of marital ties, romantic love, social responsibility and women’s rights that were clearly Shaw’s reason for writing the play in the first place. If the result is less funny, it is also more interesting than in those productions playing it as if it were a subdued sort of "Charlie’s Aunt."

Storyline: A successful cleric in Queen Victoria’s England has given shelter to a poetic young man in the parsonage while his wife has been away. When she returns, the young man develops the kind of supremely romantic crush on her that only an 18 year old English poet could, savoring the exquisite emotions of infatuation. Her husband is at first supremely confident in the love of his wife but begins to question their bond. The wife is at first amused by the attentions of the young man but becomes appalled by the presumption of both men that she must "belong" to one of them.

Valerie Leonard is a delightful Candida (the name of the wife which sounds more like the country to our north than the hero of Voltaire’s novel). She shows both the spirit and beauty that attract both men in the triangle, but also the strength of character and strong sense of self worth that that makes her a prototypical "modern woman." Clearly, in Shaw’s mind, she’s the best and the brightest in this triangle and she’s the character he’s most interested in. Leonard carries herself with such assurance that the contrast to the weakness of the immature poet or the self-important cleric is striking.

The role of the husband is the most complex in the trio and Ross A. Dippel makes much of its twists and turns as the cleric’s supreme confidence in the strength of his position is tested and ultimately cracks. Jeffries Thaiss makes an attractive youth with a deep streak of poetic earnestness. His flowing locks and chiseled features create a picture of a youthful Victorian suitor and his subtle sense of timing makes some of the flowery lines he’s given reek of sincerity. His interchange with Leonard in the chaste seduction scene in Act III is a lovely little set piece all its own.

This production looks and sounds fabulous. Robin Stapley designed a parsonage of stained glass windows and gothic arches softened by the warm glow of a coal grate in the fireplace. Josh Bradford’s lighting design provides deep, warm colors drawing from the stained glass while Ron Ursano’s selection of incidental music transitions from Mozartian intimate chamber sounds to full Beethovian heft to match the progress of the play. Lonie Fullerton’s period costumes, especially the striking wardrobe for Leonard, complete the picture.

Written by George Bernard Shaw. Directed by Richard Romagnoli. Design: Robin Stapley (set) Lonie Fullerton (costumes) Josh Bradford (lights) Ron Ursano/The Chroma Group, Ltd. (sound). Cast: Valerie Leonard, Ross A. Dippel, Jeffries Thaiss, Anna Belknap, Carter Jahncke, Eric Siegel.

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April 9 – May 19, 2002
Collected Stories

Reviewed April 17
Running time 2 hours 40 minutes
In the Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab
t Potomac Stages Pick

Fascinating from start to finish, this two-actress play is the kind of theater that leaves you wanting to sit down and talk about the issues raised, the characters, the performances and the delight of theatergoing. Theater folk frequently refer to a show as a journey – as in "we hope the audience will take this incredible journey with us." Frequently it is hype. This time, however, it is a great word to describe the experience of watching Halo Wines and Carolyn Pasquantonio bring Donald Margulies’ play to vibrant life on James Kronzer’s elegant set.

Storyline: A successful Writer/Teacher in her mid fifties takes on a talented student as an assistant. Over six years the relationship grows to one of mentor and mentee and then to friends and colleagues. But the relationship is torn apart as the younger woman uses not only the lessons and skills passed on by the older one but her life experiences as well.

Margulies’ play premiered in California in 1996 winning the Los Angeles Drama Critics award for best new play. When it was produced in New York it was nominated for the Drama Desk Award for best play. The string of nominations continued when it was produced by this team at Theater J as part of the 2000 Potomac Theatre Festival. That production was nominated for Helen Hayes Awards for outstanding play, actress (Wines) director (Jim Petosa) and set design (Kronzer.)

Both actresses take quite a journey in the course of the evening. Pasquantonio is a flighty, squeaky, shallow youth at the start but a mature, determined, fully formed but not perfect adult by the end. Wines is a confident, slightly quirky but comfortable professional at the start, but an aging, raging, resentful, regretful and fearful old lady at the end. They both make their transitions as gradually as the six scene, six year structure of the play allows. For Pasquantonio the change is signaled at the start of the second act in a single exclamation "OK" when, for the first time, she is comfortable asserting herself in conversation with Wines. For Wines the changes are subtle until they have built up to bursting pressure for the final scene. Both performances are as fascinating to watch as the script’s progression of characters is fascinating to follow.

Director Jim Petosa reassembled most of the design team from the 2000 production. Kronzer’s rendition of the Greenwich Village apartment with text printed on background walls and foreground floor places this examination of writing inside a world of the written word. Mark Anduss’ sound design captures time and place in the Brubeck and Chico Hamilton jazz and subject in the overlaid typewriter clacking. Olney’s Denise Umland adapted Traci Holcombe’s original costumes and they are as impressive as is the rest of the production. The simple black gown for Pasquantonio in the final scene is as perfect a portrait of her character as is the rumpled bathrobe and pajamas for Wines is for hers.

Written by Donald Margulies. Directed by Jim Petosa. Design: James Kronzer (set) Daniel MacLean Wagner (lights) Mark Anduss (sound) Traci Holcombe and Denise Umland (costumes) Stan Barouh (photo). Cast: Halo Wines, Carolyn Pasquantonio.

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February 26 – April 7, 2002

Reviewed March 6
Running time 2 hours 15 minutes

Again this year, Olney kicks off the year with a youthful musical, mixing some of what Artistic Director Jim Petosa calls “early career musical theater actors” with veteran union members. The results are frequently a hit or miss mixture but this year it is more hit than miss as they bring back this much revived high spirited musical in a production that attempts to recapture some of its original energy and jettison the accumulated layers of change imposed by many well known revivals.

Storyline: The 1959 school year is getting underway at Rydell High. Crises abound. Who goes with whom to the hop? Should the new girl go steady with the boy she met over the summer? What would dropping out of beauty school do to a girl’s life? Will having even a junker of a car improve a boy’s social life? The shows 20 songs were written in the style of the 1950s.

Grease was an early example of what became a rage for 50s nostalgia. It opened two years before TV’s “Happy Days” and four years before John Travolta appeared in “Welcome Back Kotter.” Its view of the 1950s was less idealized than that of its sanitized followers. Then, in 1978, Grease was turned into a John Travolta, Olivia Newton-John movie that carried the sanitization even further, filtering the songs through the then-contemporary Bee-Gee’s sound. Yet later the talented director/choreographer Tommy Tune revived the show on Broadway, viewing the ‘50s through rose colored glasses that gave everything a hot pink hue. That revival’s pink toned tour was seen in every city of any size around the country. As a result, productions of Grease these days are usually an exercise in nostalgia for the ‘70s and not for the ‘50s. Olney has tried to take us back to the shows earlier view and it works very well.

Not surprisingly, the professionals with their Actors’ Equity cards are the strengths of the evening. Michael Sharp has but one song in one scene but all but steals the show as the Teen Angel who advises against dropping out of beauty school. JJ Kaczynski might as well be conducting a masters class on how to control a stage in his scenes as the radio disc jockey who acts as master of ceremonies at the hop. John Paul Terrell is smooth and strong in the role most associate with Travolta. But there are standout performances by the “early careerists” as well. Ryan D. Keough as the crooning guitarist and Brad Nacht whose mooning is performed in colorful boxer shorts are both promising but Jennifer Timberlake, who has the biggest role as Terrell’s girl also makes the biggest impact.

A major problem, at least on opening night from the seats we had on the right side of the audience in front of a set of speakers that may or may not have been functioning as intended, was the quality of the sound. Ron Ursano is in his seventh year as the resident sound designer in this house so he must know the strengths and weaknesses of the system. But this show, with its inadequate area miking, the constant amplification of the footsteps of the cast through floor microphones and the imbalance between soloists with their own microphones and the backup groups who were picked up by the area mics was a distraction throughout the entire evening.

Book, music and lyrics by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey. Directed by Roberta Gasbarre. Musical direction by Christopher Youstra. Choreography by Raquis Da’Juan Petree. Design: Thomas F. Donahue (set) Robert L. Scharff III (lights) LeVonne D. Lindsay (costumes) Ron Ursano/The Chroma Group, Ltd. (sound.) Cast: Christine Asero, Kathleen Coons, Erin Graham, JJ Kaczynski, Ryan D. Keough, Meaghan Kyle, Brad Nacht, Drew Niles, Tracy Linn Olivera, Sara Ridbert, Tammy Roberts, Michael Sharp, Jon Paul Terrell, Jennifer Timberlake, Chad Wheeler, Keven Tové Woodson.

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November 20 – December 30
She Loves Me

Reviewed November 29
Running Time 2 hours 40 minutes

A lovely musical gets a lovely production on the Olney’s main stage. One of the gems of the musical theater from the 1960’s, She Loves Me is a simple love story with a superb score for a relatively small cast. It is a delicate piece that could be harmed by trying to make it something bigger than it is and director Jim Petosa avoids any attempt to blow it up out of proportion.

Storyline: The stories of six clerks in a European perfume shop intertwine at Christmas time. One is writing to a woman he never met and falling in love with her. Another is writing to a man she never met and falling in love with him. (Guess how that comes out.) A delivery boy wants to advance to sales clerk while another clerk is having an affair with the boss’ wife.

Two Olney veterans anchor the cast in the leading roles. Peggy Yates brings a clear soprano voice and an elegant presence to the part of lovelorn letter-writer Amanda. She belts out the well remembered "Vanilla Ice Cream" and certainly hits the volume limit with her scream in a restaurant, but it really is her lighter touch on the sales pitch "No More Candy" that is most ingratiating. Steven F. Schmidt has the big hit from the show, the title song which was recorded by just about every pop singer before the Beatles changed the pop-music business forever. He’s a strong, solid presence and together they make the central pair fully believable.

Sherri L. Edelen, Dan Felton and R. Scott Thompson each have moments to shine in their first appearances on Olney’s stage. Edelen has a big number in each act, "I Resolve" and "A Trip to the Library" and she makes the most of them. Felton puts everything into "Perspective" with vigor and Thompson really emerges from his character’s shell to open the second act with "Try Me." In the role of the shop owner, Harry A. Winter gives a well-constructed performance with surprising depth and warmth to his character.

James Kronzer provides another appealing scenic design, creating a pastel world rather than a too-colorful one and Howard Vincent Kurtz provided costumes to match. The original orchestrations have been reduced for a band of six but they would have sounded fine in this relatively small space had they been played with more assurance.

When She Loves Me opened on Broadway in 1963 it was greeted with reviews calling it "a bonbon of a musical." In reviving it, Petosa recognizes the danger of letting it seem too sickly sweet and keeps everything on stage in proper balance. Indeed, he keeps the cast just a little too far from the line that separates charming from saccharine. But the end result is a tasty confection.

Music by Jerry Bock. Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick. Book by Joe Masteroff base on a play by Miklos Laszlo. Directed by Jim Petosa. Choreographer Ilona Kessell. Music director/conductor Chris Youstra. Original Orchestrations by Don Walker adapted by Frank Matosich, Jr. Design: James Kronzer (set) Dan Covey (lights) Howard Vincent Kurtz (costumes) Neil McFadden (sound.) Cast: Peggy Yates, Stephen F. Schmidt, Harry A. Winter, Sherri L. Edelen, Daniel Felton, R. Scott Thompson, Jeffries Thaiss, Michael Sharp, Michael Omohundro, Doug Bowles, Ilona Dulaski, Cindy Huthins, Jan Johns, JJ Kaczynski, Mary Payne, Jennifer Timberlake.

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October 9 - November 11, 2001

Reviewed October 13

One of the better known new plays of the last decade, “Art” gets a superb staging under Olney’s Artistic Director Jim Petosa with three strongly individualistic performances. Since there are only three in the cast, that means they are batting a thousand! Add to that a great scenic design and this is a show to treasure.

Storyline: Three men who have been good friends for years begin to argue over one’s purchase of a painting, but the argument shifts to the nature of their friendship.

This production of the 1998 Tony Award winning “Best Play” – a translation of Yasmina Reza’s three person talkfest – is sharp, bright and wonderfully detailed:

-- Paul Morella uses his character’s sense of humor to keep his acerbic tone from being insufferable. Without that, it would be difficult to understand why the other two characters care about him, but with it he becomes a valued addition to each of their lives.
-- Alan Wade brings out his character’s sense of intellectual curiosity as the basis of his genuine interest in understanding his friend’s opinions and the reasons for them. This gives heft to a part that could be that of a light-weight as so much of the discussion is driven by his questions.
-- Christopher Lane gets all of the humor of his character’s peculiarities across without making him an object of derision. Then he manages to make him a truly sympathetic character who brings a very human and very valuable dimension to the trio of friends.

Petosa’s direction creates a real ensemble among the men. Lane’s explosion of frustration is a fabulous comic moment for the show but the silent, stunned reactions of Morella and Wade are the lenses which magnify the effect. The exchange between the three as Wade’s character offers up the painting as a sacrifice on the alter of friendship is a symphony of exchanged expressions, postures and gestures.

James Kronzer has designed one of the most stylishly fascinating sets of the season with elegant lines and intriguing perspectives just right for the play. Unfortunately, Daniel MacLean Wagner’s lighting design fails to match the simplicity of the set’s elements, creating splotches where clean light would be better. But, to be fair, he has to accommodate the script’s light cues to signal switches from action to internal thought as well as location changes. It wasn’t an easy task.