‘Dancin on this earth for a short while

From left: Willy (Wayne McRice) looks out the window while Neil (Sal Russo) tells recoiling Hannah (Sheilah Morrison) how truly scary The Dark outside is during opening night of "Let Me Hear You Smile" at Campbell Theater in downtown Martinez, Saturday, Aug. 22, 2015. (JAMIE JOBB / Courtesy)
From left: Willy Farmer (Wayne McRice) looks out bay window while Neil Heywood (Sal Russo) tells recoiling Hannah Heywood (Sheilah Morrison) how truly scary is The Dark outside that window. The actors are dressed as kids throughout the last act of “Let Me Hear You Smile,” a regressive play which flopped on Broadway in 1973 but is a crowd-pleasing success now in Martinez. Set design by Diane McRice, costumes by C.C. Cardin, directed by Helen Means. The Onstage Repertory performance continues through the weekend at Martinez Campbell Theater, 636 Ward St., Martinez, with evening performances tonight and tomorrow at 8 p.m. The play closes with a Sunday matinee at 2:30 p.m. (JAMIE JOBB / Courtesy)

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 …”

When Cat Stevens wrote those lines in 1974, little did we know his lyrics 40 years later could introduce so splendidly “Let Me Hear You Smile,” the 1973 play which reopened the Martinez Campbell Theater season last weekend amid published reports implying the theater was closed.

This is an odd-duck dramatic farce about time marching backward and people acting their age accordingly (we’re talking about the show, not inaccurate press reports). We can thank Campbell’s media wizard Randall Nott for applying Cat Stevens’ clip so well to the soundscape for this strange story which strains to move forward while fighting back the Wheel of Chronos.

Playwrights Leonora Thuna and Harry Cauley never heard their audience smile when their work opened on Broadway, so they knew they had a flop. After opening night, the Biltmore Theater shut down the show and the pair never wrote again. Their play was not the problem.

That one-night flop dropped at the feet of famous young actor Sandy Dennis, miscast as Hannah Heywood. Dennis was only 33 at the time. That lead role required a mature actor who could age on stage regressively during the three acts from retirement to middle age to kindergarten.

Clive Barnes’ review in The New York Times said the young actor had “three chances and she missed every one of them. All she was was sweet and smiling Sandy Dennis, fondling her mannerisms as if they were precious jade.”

More known for her movies, Dennis had won an Oscar seven years earlier for “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” – not a Tony for that play. Was Sandy Dennis renowned for her comic chops? Holy Hades, no!

The hilarious Sheilah Morrison is Hannah Heywood in the current Onstage production. A stage veteran who has worked both coasts and the Midwest, Morrison has the true comic moxie necessary to inhabit such a verbally nimble, physically demanding stage role. Sandy Dennis at 33 must have had no clue what to do with Hannah, whom Sheilah serves here with relish.

Diane McRice's setting without actors as the first audience enters the Campbell Theater since it closed in June.  (JAMIE JOBB / Courtesy)
Diane McRice’s setting without actors as the first audience enters the Campbell Theater since it closed in June. (JAMIE JOBB / Courtesy)

Morrison is a veteran player in her prime who thinks on her feet so she may intuitively commingle other actors, particularly the two men sharing the stage with her in the Martinez production, Sal Russo and Wayne McRice. This is the trio’s first time working ensemble; let’s hope they get another chance on stage together soon.

Sheilah’s nimble stage skills became clear in a frozen moment of tech rehearsal last week when she and Russo had to quickly self-correct a glitch in their blocking for a pair of first act scenes. Sal suddenly dropped character as husband Neil Heywood and said to Sheilah, who dropped her Hannah, “Wait … we’re off.”

The actors realized they had jumped lines, perhaps 10 pages forward in the script, to another point near the end of the first act, when the two had another similar moment on the very same spot on stage.

Many actors recall their lines based on their footwork, precisely where they are on stage in any given moment. When Russo stopped, both actors glanced down at their feet and immediately realized what they’d done. Morrison said: “We’ve blocked both scenes the same way!”

Like trained ballet dancers, the actors retraced their steps back to the point of beginning. There, they quickly reblocked the first scene so their footwork wouldn’t stumble their lines over similar steps in the second scene. That self-correcting maneuver took less than five minutes of rehearsal and was something to behold, although no audience would ever know it.

Wayne McRice, who plays Hannah’s little brother Willy Farmer, is an absolute crack-up here as an eternally-lit wisecracker with “a party going on in his head.” McRice has the good sense to keep the slapstick within his lines.

His character, youngest among the three, is a postal worker who retired first among them only to bury himself in National Geographic trivia which he spouts at random, much to the consternation of his never-wanna-quit hero and older brother-in-law Neil Heywood (Russo) whose family home is the setting for their “intercoursing” story. That term sprouts to life in the last act when Eros slumbers into these old kids’ imagination.

Russo and McRice previously appeared together in the Onstage hit “Motor Trade.” Here, director Helen Means has wisely cast them for their opposing so-called somatotypes: endomorph Russo a hale, husky man who could have been coach’s choice for pulling guard on a football team. McRice, an ectomorph, looks more like a baseball player, all sprung tight and ready to recoil as a shorter Hunter Pence. (Come on, Giants!)

In their few scenes together, Russo and McRice are terrific and we hope other directors will cast them as opposed forces again in an offering up to Ares.

C.C. Cardin’s costumes greatly enhance the regressive timeline and back-flippant humor of this work, so when the characters become kids in the final act, they look like children from photographs at the turn of the 20th Century: all knickers, suspenders, pigtails, summer prints, Navy Blue suit with white tie. Cardin’s costumes fit the physical demands of these tough closing scenes with obviously retired adults dressed as kids from 1904, allowing everyone to act accordingly.

Diane McRice’s deep-set stagecraft also plays a key role, particularly for its open, understated utilitarian layout. It’s a wide drawing room with sparse furnishings that change as the acts change and, stage right, a stained-glass framed bay window known for its “flashing”! (See the play to get that pun about aptly named “Willy.”) But what makes her setting work for the pseudo-farcical action is the wide columned archway in the center of the room which leads to three exits: upstairs, the kitchen, or the front door.

As each character wants out of that front door at some point during the play, McRice’s design and Nott’s lighting eliminate the need for actually showing any doors at all, which allows “the dark” or the distance outside to creep into the room for deep effect in the final act. Diane has crafted a nifty retooling of the traditional three-or-more-door sets that true farce demands. Solid stage doors are difficult to build to withstand the constant battering of that kind of play, which this isn’t. McRice was again aided by Claudia Gallup and Russo in construction.

When Means began developing this text with her actors, she was uncertain whether it would resonate with Baby Boomers old enough now to vaguely remember the 20th Century.

Furthermore, she points out: “When we started working on it we didn’t know if we’d be able to perform it anywhere.” (See sidebar: “Campbell Squatters?”). After two performances last weekend, she’s now convinced the play does resonate today; she heard her audience smile!

Opening night’s Campbell crowd was lively, although it tended toward retirees and others who can relate directly to the play’s odd timing. However, the handful of younger folks there seemed to enjoy the night as well, particularly the punchlines.

In the lobby after the show, each actor admitted being quite surprised at the sustained laughter which built in the house throughout the evening. They know that’s something quite rare for opening nights where glitches can sprout hitches, and Pan runs flat out of Puck.

Any weakness in this Campbell production lies not in performance but in the text, which might have been miraculous had it come from the pen of Herb Gardner (“A Thousand Clowns”) instead of two courageous playwrights who never got another opportunity to stage a flop – or a success.

* * *

NOTE: Last week’s review of “Let Me Hear You Smile” detailed the play’s forth-and-backtracking storyline but those opinions were formed in research and rehearsal. That review was rushed into print, as the play had yet to open; it will run seven more shows over the next two weeks. This further review is based on the company’s first costumed rendition of the work before an audience last Saturday.

Based on his own fully-informed performance review, your critic-at-large now confidently can assign this performance an accurate “beaver count” – the home-grown five-star award system specific to Alhambra Creek. He still recommends this ticket wholeheartedly and gives “Let Me Hear You Smile” four beavers and one kit.

* * *

“Let Me Hear You Smile” continues through Sept. 6 at Martinez Campbell Theater, 636 Ward St., Martinez, with three shows scheduled this weekend and four the following week. Showtime is 8 p.m. tonight and tomorrow, with a 2:30 p.m. matinée on Sunday. The following week, 8 p.m. shows are set for Thursday, Friday and Saturday, with a final Sunday matinée at 2:30. Tickets are $15 general and $12 senior. To order tickets or get more information: (925) 957-2500 or (925) 518-3277. Also see: https://www.facebook.com/OnstageTHEATRE

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