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Recalling ‘storyback’ writers & Broadway flops

;Let Me Hear You Smile'
By JAMIE JOBB
Special to the Tribune

“Oh very young, what will you leave us this time
You’re only dancin’ on this Earth for a short while
And though your dreams may toss and turn you now
They will vanish away like your dad’s best jeans
Denim blue, faded up to the sky
And though you want them to last forever
You know they never will
(you know they never will)
And the patches make the goodbye harder still.”
– Cat Stevens (aka Yusuf Islam)

More than a few writers have supposed fictions based on reverse aging – as if authors, hurling thunderbolts like Zeus, can magically reroute The Arrow of Time. Instead of “backstory,” they tell “storyback.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote of a man whose life ran backward in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” T.H. White imagined Merlin the Magician turning forever young in “The Once and Future King.” W. P. Kinsella’s novel “The Iowa Baseball Confederacy,” fantasized a backwards plague of 40-day extra innings of Biblical proportions, as if baseball weren’t plagued enough!

Beyond printed pages, life-on-rewind stories may be plotted on screen as well. “Slaughterhouse Five” offers a supreme example of time-shifted filmmaking, that picture itself based on Kurt Vonnegut’s classic novel wherein “Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.”

But what about crafting counterclockwise fiction in an actual play performed on stage? With actual actors living actual moments of their own lives actually becoming someone else up there; obeying unbreakable laws of physics, not to mention those ever-sinking sands of time? Holy Psamathe! (Google her, if you dare.)

Playwrights Leonora Thuna and Harry Cauley greatly simplified production demands for their 1973 play “Let Me Hear You Smile,” by limiting their purposely backdated three-act storyline to only three characters. Sandy Dennis, James Broderick and Paul B. Price filled those roles for eight previews at New York’s 650-seat Biltmore Theater before opening night on Jan. 9, 1973. The play closed the next day.

That ill-fated Broadway production split the regressing age difference for the characters by casting youthful middle-aged actors ranging 33-42. It flopped. When OnStage Repertory’s Artistic Director Helen Means resurrected the play to reopen the 99-seat Martinez Campbell Theater, she chose to cast more seasoned players, “retired people,” not only to challenge the performers but also to stay within the confines of the play’s reverse chronology. They end up three very young oldsters in the final act.

A virtual theatrical archaeologist, Means is known for digging up long lost nuggets. This one is a particularly tough nut to crack from the inside out. By the third act we know she’s onto something with her casting to extremes. Resurrecting this obscure, failed play makes sense as it can resonate to Baby Boomers now old enough to provide an appreciative audience for it four decades later.

“Let Me Hear You Smile” begins with the three characters battling retirement and forgetfulness as they turn 70, then it progresses to their 40s when they’re more memorable but almost menopausal, before ending with the trio entering grade school at the turn of the century – the 20th Century. None of them speaks as an adult in the final stanza. Sound vaguely familiar?

Means has cast three very gifted OnStage veterans clearly capable of physically time-shifting themselves right before our very eyes. Sheilah Morrison plays forever kindergartner Hannah Heywood, who fears her “gray skin.” Wayne McRice is Hannah’s goofball third-wheel brother Willy Farmer, a fountain of National Geographic facts with all the ambition of Peter Pan. Sal Russo is her never-retiring hardware husband Neil Heywood who heeds the advice of his grandad’s watch: “We mustn’t look at the time … just listen.”

It’s an oddly funny yet cryptically moving dramatic work with lines like that resonating across these acts run in reverse, as each character takes a turn trying to run away from home. Perhaps the play, set in the same parlor room, was too ahead of its time to make sense in 1973? Certainly, it’s a tough absurdist text tanned by its own age, and straddled as it is somewhere between Eugene Ionesco and Neil Simon. But this cast seems up to the facelift this show requires for the 21st Century.

Morrison, locally known as a Vagabond Player, appeared in that company’s “Steel Magnolias” as well as “Tough Love” at Center Rep. She has also performed in Chicago, Miami and New York, most recently joining Means in “Ladies Quintet” which ran Off Broadway this summer after playing the Bay Area for many years. Knowing how to toe the fine edge between funny and poignant, Sheilah is a delight here in this very demanding and physical role.

McRice has worked with Diablo Actors Ensemble and has appeared in past OnStage productions of “Smoke and Mirrors,” “Modern Wooly Mammoth” and “Weekend Comedy.” An OnStage regular, Russo was last seen as Player Two in last year’s hilarious hit sleeper “Shipwrecked,” as well as “They Knew What They Wanted” and “Motor Trade,” where he worked with McRice.

Solid acting can’t mask every progression in a flashback ensemble show like this. It also takes a talented team designing, building and dressing the stage, along with someone in the booth systematically scattering sound and light. At its former venue, the Old Schoolhouse in a Pleasant Hill residential neighborhood, OnStage Repertory crews were often cramped for space, particularly on those works with large casts and tough tech demands.

Seasoned patrons of the venerable community theater company, now in its 38th season, have come to appreciate what it can accomplish in a storefront theater downtown. Odd, because the building previously was an auto parts store located across the creek from a functioning vaudeville house with a fully rigged fly system, that 1922 architecturally-designed theater recast in 1998 as an office building for public defenders. And Dionysus be hanged!

For their first production under its new sublease with City of Martinez, OnStage also relies on a trio of backstage stalwarts with lots of experience running the Campbell. Each member of that crew has won Shellie Outstanding Contribution Awards in the past: C.C. Cardin (honored in 2012), scenic designer Diane McRice (2002) and tech wizard Randall Nott (1994). Those annual “Shellies” have recognized talented Diablo Valley community theater volunteers since 1980.

NOTE: Jamie Jobb wrote “reviews at large” for Florida newspapers in the 1970s, covering a swath of screened and performance arts which were experiencing much experimentation at that time. He went on to write and produce his own screened productions before attempting to bring one of his fictional characters on stage at the Marsh in San Francisco. That character lasted nine performances, just like the Broadway run of “Let Me Hear You Smile”! He said that experience on the boards “made me learn how to be a better audience.”

His “review” is rushed into publication this week based on tech rehearsals and not any actual performance before an audience, the first of which is tomorrow night. The irony of reviewing a time-reversal play from a rehearsal is not lost on him. As such, our critic-at-large presently cannot assign an actual “beaver count” (Jobb’s Backstage Pass rating system) for this show. But he does recommend this ticket wholeheartedly, based on the enthusiasm he’s seen in the house from cast and crew. The performance runs only two weeks, so he hopes to report back with an accurate beaver count next week. And as you can expect, this play needs to be seen with a certain hindsight to be believed.

“Let Me Hear You Smile” opens its two-week run Saturday at 8 p.m. and continues through Sept. 5 at Martinez Campbell Theater, 636 Ward St., Martinez. Sunday matinées are planned for 2:30 p.m. on Aug. 23 and 30. Tickets are $15 general and $12 s enior. More information: (925) 957-2500 or (925) 518-3277. Also see: https://www.facebook.com/ONSTAGETHEATRE

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