"Educating Rita", "Brimstone" and "The First Grade" bring standing ovations on opening night!

Photo credit: Ben Krantz L to R: Ginny Wehrmeister & L. Peter Callender in "Educating Rita"

I know you must think that this reviewer must have been sniffing glue recently as it seems that everything I have been reporting on has been terrific. Well, here I go again, three more shows and three great opportunities to enjoy some fantastic entertainment within an easy commute from your home. Diablo Actor’s Ensemble, who took over the Lois Grandi Playhouse West Theatre in downtown Walnut Creek, has just scored a tremendous coup by securing the talents of one of the best and most active actors in the San Francisco Bay Area, L. Peter Callender, as their lead in the Willie Russell play, “Educating Rita.” The Willows Theatre, which has recently re-focused and condensed their seasonal offerings in the Campbell Cabaret Theatre in Martinez, has brought back a Mary Bracken Phillips multiple-award winning musical, “Brimstone”. The third show is a World Premier of a powerful new play by Chicago playwright, Joel Drake Johnson (a former high school teacher), entitled “The First Grade”, currently playing in the Aurora Theater in Berkeley!

Education Rita "absolutely brilliant" !

One of the most exciting aspects of being a theater reviewer is the opportunity for me to see the marvelous talent that resides in the Bay Area, grow, mature and excel towards careers as professional actors, directors, set designers, playwrights and teachers and in watching them succeed in reaching their dreams in the theater arts. Movies are movies and we as audience members seldom have any connection with the characters and actors on the screen, getting to know them merely as celluloid icons. When you attend local theatre, you often get to meet with the people in front of and behind the scenes, sometime even becoming fans with a personal acquaintanceship that lasts for years. This week’s productions provide a couple of opportunities for me to relish the job I have, purely for that reason, if nothing else.

Director Scott Fryer has been a personal friend of Karen and myself for well over 20 years, having watched him work in the industry starting in Baldwin Park in Concord, going back into the mid 1980’s. Now he has his own theater, the Diablo Actor’s Ensemble, in downtown Walnut Creek. After a rather rocky start, Scott has hit the road running with a terrific, and I do mean terrific, outstanding, and perhaps even what I would call absolutely brilliant production, called “Educating Rita”. He has even managed to bring into his humble little theatre space the exceptional talents of one of our very favorite actors, one we have followed at ACT. Berkeley Repertory Theater, Cal Shakespeare, San Jose Repertory Theatre and far too many others for me to mention here, Mr. L. Peter Callender as a college tutor, Dr. Frank Bryant in this present show. In addition, Scott has selected a very lovely and talented young lady that we have also been following in recent years as Callender’s foil, Miss Ginny Wehrmeister, as the other lead character. She portrays a blue collar working class girl, a married girl, seeking to get out of her station in life and find real meaning, a simple girl named Rita Susan White.

You may have seen the movie made in 1983 from Willy Russell’s original stage play, the movie starring Michael Caine and Julie Walters that is still rated as a solid 3 out of 4 stars. I thought the movie was excellent, but this staged production is pure “Brilliance!” By condensing the action purely to the professor’s office, the play remains absolutely focused and keeps you glued to your seat.

Educating Rita is one of the few college theme stories that is not about the “animal house” mentality, and rings like a bell about the real value of schooling and the real value of dedication and determination and winning, regardless of the odds. Rita is a hairdresser who is bored with the mundane life surrounding her. Even though she knows nothing directly about life after “education”, she has decided, after listening to the mundane, boring conversations of the uneducated women who sit in her hairdresser’s chair every day, that there has to be something more to life. Her blue collar husband has absolutely no greater ambition than to get through his day at work, drink as many pints of ale as he can consume in the local pub, and cajole his wife into getting pregnant. She does not want children and the responsibility for them until she finds some way to better herself. She has decided to re-enroll in school and get tutoring so that she can pass the board examinations and acquire a certificate of completion, to move forward and upward from the unrewarding life she lives every day in her present environment.

When she signs up for tutoring she is assigned to Dr. Frank Bryant who turns out to be an alcoholic and cynic, who, only for the inefficiency of the educational administration and guaranties for on-going employment, has not been fired. Rita is anything but a typical student and Bryant is anything but a typical instructor and they cobble together a tenuous collaboration that proves amazingly beneficial to both parties. The story is heartwarming and at the same poignant as we examine the personal problems of both parties and more specifically, the incredible pressures of Rita’s family, friends and husband, that are determined not to let her become better than them, to allow her to become a upwardly striving and successful human being.

While the play is superbly written, it is the personal absorption of the actors into their characters that brings this play to the next level, to the epitome of local “professional theatre”, and to what is sure to be called a milestone for Diablo Actor’s Ensemble. While L. Peter Callender is always pluperfect, it is a huge jump for Ms. Wehrmeister to what can only be considered a truly professional level performance that makes this outright thrilling theater.

f I could qualify any theater as ‘must see” theater, “Educating Rita” would have to be it! The Diablo Actor’s Ensemble Theatre is located at 1345 Locust Street in Walnut Creek, next door to Peet’s Coffee. Call (866) 811-4111 for tickets and reservations or order on line at http://www.diabloactors.com/ . Tickets range between $10 and $25 each and the production continues with Thursday through Saturday performances at 8 p.m., with Sunday matinees at 2 p.m., closing on February 14th. There is a public parking garage across the street that stays open until 3 a.m. on the weekends.

"Brimstone" lights a fire in the imaginations of many!

More highly entertaining theater is bringing audiences to their feet in the Campbell Caberet Theatre at 636 Ward Street in downtown historic Martinez with the current powerful production of “Brimstone”. In 1998, as a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critic’s Circle, we awarded the first production of this outstanding musical 9 awards. The book and lyrics are written by Mary Bracken Phillips who is also known to Willows theater-goers as the author of John Muir’s Mountain Days. The music is written by Patrick Meegan.

The time and place for this epic tale of love is in the midst of a war-torn civil and politically divisive IRA conflict in Northern Ireland. Eamon, an Irish emigrant to the United States, has returned to Ireland following the death of his brother, or should I say, the murder of his brother, a suspected IRA revolutionary soldier, shot while purportedly unarmed. Everything is in turmoil, as you probably remember those days, not that many years ago. But the real story is the story of an unrequited love between Eamon (played by a local favorite, Jon Marshall) and his childhood sweetheart, Miraid (played superbly by Nicole Helfer).

Hopefully without giving the whole story away, Eamon had earned a scholarship to attend Princeton University in the United States as an architectural student, but didn’t want to leave his love. Through the conniving of his mother, Roisin (played by Sally Hogarty), and Tommy, the brother whose death brought Eamon back to the turmoil of Ireland for his funeral, Eamon was led to believe that his love, Miriad, was actually in love with and was involved intimately with his brother, Tommy. The conspirators felt this was the only way they would get this proud son of Ireland out of the country for the opportunity of a better life! (Does theme sound familiar?)

This return to the battle scene finds Miraid as a militant soldier in the battle for independence and a “Free Ireland” from the British rule. Her involvement puts her life and Eamon’s life sorely at risk and it is their battle for survival that captures our imagination and takes us back to those fearsome days. This is a terrific musical, the lyrics and music are haunting, fun, refreshing and powerful, resonating again in my mind today as I write this article. Mary Bracken Phillips is still one of the very best lyricists today and I still love this show. If you have not seen it then by all means put it high on your list.

The acting is outstanding on every level, including of course, Jon Marshal, Nicloe Helfer, Sean Patrick Murtagh, Henry Perkins, Sally Hogarty, Jonathan Spencer and a young up and coming actor by the name of Jacob Ben-Schmuel. This is an actor you are going to want to keep in your sights, another young man with great potential.

This show is now performing on a very tight stage that pulls off a show that should really be played on a much bigger stage. The set works fairly well, but it is the actors, probably taking their lives at risk, due the very tight confines of platforms, revolving staging, low overheads and rapid movements, who deserve the credit for making it work as well as they do.

The Campbell theatre is a cabaret style theater, where you can order drinks and food sent to your little café style table. Karen and I ordered the Potato Leek Soup and Salad which was delicious for only $5 each. What a bargain!!! They also serve beverages (alcoholic and non-alcoholic), deserts, pizza, quiche and Shepards pie. Tickets range in price between $17 for youth to $32 for adults. Seniors tickets range between $20 and $30 each. Call the box office at (925) 798-1300 or visit their web-site at http://www.willowstheare.org/ for ticket and reservation information. There is plenty of street parking available near the theater.

"The First Grade" can be a terrifying place, for the grown ups!

Now, returning to “The First Grade” in Berkeley, in the Aurora Theatre, we have another powerful story about families in crisis! Sydney (Julia Brothers) is a first grade teacher whose personal family life seems perfectly in control when she is in her classroom, but when in the confines of her home, appears to be on the brink of disaster, and definitely in tatters. She is sharing her home with her ex-husband, Nat (Warren David Keith), her perpetually depressed daughter, Angie (Rebecca Schweitzer), and Angie’s son, whom we understand may be addicted to Ritlan! Sydney has enough issues on her own to make us see why others in her family have problems dealing with her, but in addition, Sydney discovers that the physical therapist she is working with, Mora (Tina Sanchez), has some deep dark secrets of her own, with her reportedly abusive husband, Jamie (Adrian Andhondo), and his threat to take their children away.

Even though Sydney is overwhelmed with her own personal problems, she extends an offer of unlimited help, at any time, to her distraught young therapist. Naturally, Mora comes seeking help in the middle of the night, around 3 a.m., with her angry husband, Jamie, and Jamie’s equally upset father, Rick (Paul Santiago), not far behind! The tension is excruciatingly oppressive and powerful, but the finale brings us back down to reality without any bruises! Standing ovations were definitely in order for this well written and well directed play!

Life between the cookies and milk and Ritalin is often very private and this excellent production, taking us back to “The First Grade”, provides a very realistic look at life in the not-always-perfect suburbs. Unseen walls come tumbling down that make this is a very powerful play, very tensely performed by very excellent actors. Director Tom Ross has delivered a very moving, haunting and emotionally beautiful play. The simple set, created by Nina Ball, is really a superbly designed and highly functional working set.

As my third choice this week, it is well worth the drive to Berkeley, to 2081 Addison Street, in downtown Berkeley, practically next door to Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Tickets are a very reasonable $15 to $55 each and can be obtained by calling (510) 843-4822 or by visiting their web-site at http://www.auroratheatre.org/ for more information.