Back in the ’60s, Robert Anderson wrote a one-act called I’m Herbert. Depending on how old you are, it could be a comedy or a tragedy. In the play, a man and a woman, senior citizens, try to communicate. But senility warps their words into an Abbott and Costello “Who’s on first?” routine. If you’re young, the old geezers’ inability to connect makes for hilarious theater of the absurd. If you’re beyond a certain age, however, they become chilling previews of coming attractions.
Gerald Sibleyras’s Heroes at North Coast Rep uses a similar device. Henri, Philippe, and Gustave, veterans of World War I, were heroes 41 years ago. Now it’s 1959 and they’re patients at an old-soldiers’ home in rural France. And they’re stuck. Henri lost a leg in battle; Philippe has a piece of shrapnel in his head and passes out every ten minutes; and the aristocratic Gustave — who won medals in both World Wars — finds safety inside the walls and doesn’t dare venture out.
The play combines traces of I’m Herbert with Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit (where “hell is other people”). Because most days are identical and ruled by devastating boredom, the trio does, and does not, get along. The walled-in terrace where they spend their days (nicely replicated by Marty Burnett for NCRT) feels more and more like a prison, from which they plan an unlikely escape.
It’s actually a campaign: they want to climb to a stand of poplar trees on a far-off hill. They strategize like young soldiers, all the while forgetting that they’re almost immobile. The gap between the two — fading memories of youth, diminishment of old age — creates both humor and pathos.
Tom Stoppard’s impressionistic translation leaves out basic information. We learn snippets about the trio, but concrete explanations are few. We’re never told why Gustave is agoraphobic (or even that he is; we deduce it from his behavior) or how Henri lost his leg. Or when Philippe is having a spell or just faking one for laughs. The play’s more a painting by Claude Monet than, say, Cezanne.
In effect, Heroes frames the story through the lens of an octogenarian. It’s probably not unique, but the point of view is striking. The playwright doesn’t have all the facts. His characters exist in a wavering now, four decades from their battlefield heroics. Our sense of their pasts is as vague as theirs. The script has “senior moments” by design.
The North Coast Repertory Theatre has cast three heroes of regional theater: Ken Ruta (Gustave) is cofounder of the Guthrie Theatre and associate artist at the Old Globe; Ray Reinhardt (Henri) is cofounder of ACT in San Francisco; and San Diego’s own Jonathan McMurtry (Philippe) won a Craig Noel Lifetime Achievement Award. It’s a dream cast, but the night I caught the show, the performances felt under-rehearsed with many line troubles. As a result, their rhythms were off and the pace lagged. One often had the sense that each was waiting on the others.
Directed by David Ellenstein, the overall production felt heavy-handed, while the play calls for the lightest of touches. Some scenes struck chords, as when the trio practiced roping themselves for the climb with a fire hose. Their frustrated entanglement was both farcical and sad. But too often lulls intruded and momentum was lost.
When Ion Theatre announced it would stage Gypsy, one of the greatest musicals of all time, in its small space, I said, “Huh?” When I saw the results, all I could say was, “Oh, my!” Ion has shrunk the piece to fit a two-car garage. If you’re expecting production numbers with a cast of thousands, steer clear. But on its own terms, the Ion downsizing works — even works wonders — on a human scale.
In Cygnet Theatre’s Glass Menagerie, Amanda Sitton plays fragile Laura Wingfield as if born for the role. At Ion, Linda Libby exudes the same aura as Mama Rose, the stage mother from Hell. The librettist Arthur Laurents wrote about Rose: “If you try to live your childrens’ lives, you’ll destroy yourself.”
“You’ll be swell,” Libby/Rose sings to daughter Louise, “you’ll be GREAT!” In no time the words evolve from Broadway dream to a formal, military command, and then to Rose trying to will success in her daughter, practically shoving it down her throat. Libby commands the stage throughout, but her unfettered desperation gains magnitude from the intimate Ion Theatre space. Rose will not be defeated again.
Gypsy is a backstage musical. Designer Karin Filijan’s somber, “worklight” effects give the songs a personal, behind-the-scenes touch: the characters sing just to each other, not past the footlights to the back of the house (when Libby does sing out, in the dynamite “Rose’s Turn,” it’s to an imaginary audience, and Rose almost loses her mind). Another unexpected bonus: the singers aren’t miked! These are actual voices — for once.
Backed by Wendy Thompson’s precise, indefatigable piano, the cast obviously relishes this enterprise. Katie Whalley (remember the name) gives young Louise a sweeping arc from pageboy shyness to bombastic Gypsy Rose Lee. Andy Collins is just right as Herbie, the husband drained of devotion. As June, the daughter meant to be the star, Helena Marie Woods has a horse laugh that’s priceless.
Gypsy broke a lot of ground when first produced in 1959. Along with a difficult central character, Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics favored the vernacular. Sondheim also summed up the theme: “Gypsy says something fairly hard to take: that every child eventually has to become responsible for his parents.” ■
Heroes, by Gerald Sibleyras, adapted by Tom Stoppard
North Coast Repertory Theatre, 987-D Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Solana Beach
Directed by David Ellenstein: cast: Jonathan McMurtry, Ray Reinhardt, Ken Ruta; scenic design, Marty Burnett; costumes, Renetta Lloyd; lighting, Matt Novotny; sound, Chris Luessmann
Playing through November 13; Sunday and Wednesday at 7:00 Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 858-481-1055
Gypsy, music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Arthur Laurents
Ion Theatre, 3704 Sixth Avenue, Hillcrest
Co-directed by Claudio Raygoza and Kim Strassburger; cast: Linda Libby, Katie Whalley, Helena Marie Woods, Eric Hellmers, Gracie Lee Brown, Jordan Bunshaft, Gigi Coddington, Andy Collins, Betsy Dunbar, Emily Gordon, Ralph Johnson, Justin Warren Martin, Ben Shaffer; scenic and sound design, Raygoza; costumes, Joan Hanselman-Wong; lighting, Karin Filijan; choreographer, Ali Whitman
Playing through November 27; Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 619-600-5020