Vesta Gleissner has done an outstanding job of corralling this gang of misfits into an entity of amusement and entertainment
■ By Rusty Strait / Senior Reporter
There’s an old saying that nothing ever goes away, it just recycles at a later date. At last Friday’s opening night of Linda Stockham’s tour de force, “Divorce Sale,” the Ramona Hillside Players presented not only a comedy on stage but a reunion of characters that once performed at Maggie’s West Palace Theatre on Harvard Street in downtown Hemet some 25 or so years ago. Vesta Gleissner (director), Kevin Speir (co-star) and yours truly were part of a rather residency cast and crew at Marguerite McPherson’s hub of an entertainment center. It seemed like going home. However, the play is the thing, and I offer my critique.
I’d never heard of Linda Stockham, a playwright from San Bernardino, now residing in Hemet. Described as holding a B.A. in Cultural Anthropology and an Interdisciplinary M.A. in Anthropological Studies in her bio, I can honestly say she sure knows the human psyche. Vesta must have been her understudy because the cast of characters, from the opening of Act One, drop in like inhabitants or aliens from the cosmos with the force of stray asteroids — and we are off to the races. The play is set in spring of 1990.
Cast, in order of appearance:
Bernice Rosenblum (Robin Hochteil)
Lena Hill (Donna Lind)
Kay Britman (Monica Reichl)
Troy Rosenblum (Chuck Sims)
Chloe (Melanie Johnson)
Ozzie Roarke (Kevin Speir)
Joyce (Nancy Hughes
Willard (Marvin McQuown)
Wilma (Emilie Ortega)
Madam Szendrei (Susan O’Connell)
Kay (Monica Reichl) and Ozzie (Kevin Speir) are hosting a “divorce sale” in their garage for their recently divorced neighbor, whose now ex-husband doesn’t seem to know what’s going on in his brief appearances, but carries on quite well as the guy who got took for everything.
Scene One opens when Lena appears with a covered tray of goodies that she places on a side board next to the coffee urn. Enter next Bernice, a soured-on-life veteran Army nurse from the Vietnam War who, like any good G.I. will tell you, there are only two places worthwhile on earth — where you have been and where you are headed — because where you are sucks. She epitomizes one who fears loneliness. The two women are concerned with a small dog in a doggie bed who seems to sleep too much (or so they think). The sleeping dog is a metaphor for confession and redemption.
The “sale” is conducted as characters are all aptly displayed during the first act. Almost every scene brings a surprise revelation. Although the play progresses as a comedy of errors and misunderstandings, such shenanigans lead to the discovery that the pet mutt is not sleeping, but is dead. He is quietly planted in the back yard.
Chloe (Melanie Johnson), a young student who seems to believe all things are somewhat metaphysical, decides they should call in her mentor, Madame Szendrei, a psychic. Szendrei will hold a séance to see if Wilma (Emilie Ortega) can make contact with her late husband Harry, who, she firmly believes, has returned to her in the form of a dieffenbachia plant, which she now carefully cultivates on her window sill. Wilma is upset that somebody’s pet kitten (up a tree throughout the play) has done its business in Harry’s soil. She fears that Harry will die again, this time as a plant.
There is some hustle and bustle, and not a little confusion, as they try to figure out what kind of wine they should provide Madam Szendrei, as they await her arrival.
Madam Szerendei floats in late and takes over what will become the séance to expose everyone’s problems by having them all ‘fess up. Each character finally admits their phobias and as the final curtain falls they have buried their pasts, just as they buried the sleeping puppy.
Every actor in this psychological farce is excellent. No missed or bungled lines. They come off like a repertory company that’s been working together for years.
Some, however, are outstanding. Kevin Speir, after pursuing other avenues of adventure for several years, returned to the stage as a somewhat bungling, happy-go-lucky character filled with halfway philosophical epithets. Speir is a returning star, too long away from the footlights. As a character actor akin to Stu Erwin of old black and white films, stage and television, Speir could well make a place for himself in a television series. There is indeed a need for such characters in television today.
His stage wife, Monica Reichl, has played the gamut of roles in real life that she more than adequately brings to her role in this project. She is the backbone that makes this play work.
Donna Lind as Lena is something else. She so underplays her role that she steals damn near every scene she is in. Appearing meek but doubtful, her sin emerges as one might opine, “I would have never thought that of her.” Chuck Sims (Bernice’s long suffering spouse) is the husband who lives with a woman he hardly knows and is ignored by. He has the patience of Job.
Emilie Ortega, as Wilma the widow who has resurrected her dead husband as houseplant, reminds one of a daffy Carole Channing, who sees everything through rose-colored glasses until someone smashes the lens and lets the daylight in.
Perhaps I missed someone here, but not by intention. It is a great cast, funny play, and I’ve saved the best for last. Vesta Gleissner has done an outstanding job of corralling this gang of misfits into an entity of amusement and entertainment. She understood this business and no doubt will be welcomed back to Ramona Hillside Players again and again.
Final performances are Friday, Jan. 13 at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, Jan. 14 and Sunday Jan. 15, 2:30 p.m. matinees. Reservations: (951) 658-5300 or www.ramonahillsideplayers.org. Tickets: $15 general admission.