This week's two local productions are terrific shows, well directed and superbly acted!

Two local theatrical productions provided great entertainment this weekend, with inspiring, thought provoking and moving subject matter, well worth the price of admission. The Diablo Actor’s Ensemble at 1345 Locust Street in Walnut Creek, next door to Peet’s Coffee, is currently presenting a very powerful story of discovery and growth, with Jeff Baron’s outstanding play, ”Visiting Mr. Green”!

This was Baron’s first play and it opened in New York in 1996 with Eli Wallach playing the part of Mr. Green, an 86 year old widower living in a dingy, unkempt little apartment on the lower east side of New York. The play found an exceedingly receptive audience with this hauntingly humorous and heartwarming story of two people thrown together by circumstances, (angry and resentful at first), who eventually learn to communicate and care about each other. The play has been translated into 22 languages and has been produced around the world in over 300 separate productions, winning numerous “best play” awards, everywhere.

The 29 year old Ross Gardiner (played by Dennis Markham) is an American Express Card executive who very nearly runs over the senior Mr. Green (John Hutchinson) with his car, causing him to fall, to hit his head and injure himself. Gardiner is cited for reckless driving and is judged negligent, and subsequently has been ordered by the court to perform community service for the next 6 months. More specifically, the court has ordered him to call on Mr. Green every week for that period, to help him take care of his needs. Neither man really wants to fulfill the court’s decision, but even after Mr. Green tells the court he doesn’t want or need this stranger coming into his life, the judge’s decision stands firm.

When Gardiner makes his first evening call on Mr. Green, he discovers a very lonely, withdrawn and resentful older gentleman, whose wife of 59 years, Yetta, had passed away a couple of months earlier. Mr. Green had depended on his wife for all chores normally associated with that of a devout and loving wife; the home cleaning, the grocery shopping, the food preparation, the laundry service and in fact, his entire social world. Green cannot understand how a wife who was 8 years younger, could die suddenly and leave him alone. He is totally unprepared for this new role so late in life.

At first, the two men’s meetings are barely communicative, restrained, and resentful, that is until Mr. Green discovers that, like himself, the younger Gardiner comes from a Jewish background. While Mr. Gardiner is not a devout Jew and cannot speak any Yiddish, their Jewishness does provide a basis for some opening dialogue. And a wonderful, colorful dialogue it is. Humorous, acrimonious, and stimulating, the clever insights and deep dark secrets born and nursed by both men, bring many levels of food for thought, many delicacies to this verbal banquet.

While there is a great deal more to this story that I would love to reveal, to do so would be a disservice to my readers who will want go to the theater and have this story revealed in its own time, in the proper manner. Believe me, it is a superb play with equally articulate and superb acting by the two man cast as these two gentlemen and with equally astute direction by Scott Fryer. This is a play that I have seen previously, many years ago, was eager to see again and I cannot recommend it enough. It is a brilliantly written little gem. Markham and Hutchinson are wonderful, pluperfect in their roles as they truly become Mr. Green and Mr. Gardiner.

“Visiting Mr. Green” will continue Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., with Sunday performances at 2 p.m., and one Saturday matinee this coming Saturday, May 7th, at 2 p.m., closing on May 21st . Tickets range in cost between $10 and $25 each, with seniors only paying $22 each. Tickets can be secured by visiting To purchase tickets by phone, please call 866-811-4111

The second show this week is a highly entertaining and superbly acted one-woman show, performed by Kerri Shawn and directed by Scott Denison, about a woman known very well by most Americans, as the unabashed columnist who wrote under the pen name of Ann Landers. Playwright David Rambo wrote a play with well documented excerpts from the second Ann Landers’ very public life, long running columns and her private letters. She was a woman who in real life, was a lady by the name of Ester “Eppie” Ledderer. The play is entitled, “The Lady with all the Answers”.

The first Chicago-Sun Times columnist of the “Ann Landers” advice column was penned by a nurse by the name of Ruth Crowley for 9 of the next 12 years. Crowley kept her real name under wraps for the entire time that she wrote the column, but when she died in 1955, a writing contest was held by the newspaper and Ester “Eppie” Pauline Friedman Lederer was given the column. Eppie was a very controversial, bold, direct and often critical adviser. She upset many people with her stand on legalizing prostitution, gay rights. pro-choice and even a controversial description of Pope John Paul II and Polish men, describing the Pope as a “kindly Polack” and going on to say that “Polacks are anti-women”! Boy did that bring a huge uproar from the Polish-American community!

Her advice was sometimes deemed inappropriate and incorrect and she was occasionally derided for her insight, insults and misinformation and failure to do proper research. She even advised people as late as 1996 not to throw rice at weddings in that if birds ate it, they might explode, which was totally incorrect. Milled rice is not harmful to birds. She was a funny, perceptive and very intelligent Jewish woman who spoke her mind and spoke it openly and often, continuing to write the column until her death in 2002, after 46 years.

She was considered a heroine by many soldiers when she visited Vietnam and personally conveyed messages for them from the front to their relatives back home by making over 2,500 personal phone calls to soldiers’ families when she returned home from her tour in Vietnam. She visited thousands of troops on front lines and in hospitals, with the backing of Lyndon Johnston. She was one of the first columnists to recommend that people connect with Alcoholics Anonymous for drinking problems.

This story is also about her sibling rivalry and estrangement from her twin sister “Popo”, who had gotten her start as a journalist by helping Eppie in organizing her material, who then broke away and started her very own column. Yes, it was her twin sister, Pauline Esther “Popo” Friedman Phillips, who wrote the competing advice column, well known as “Dear Abby”, between 1955-95.

Kerri Shawn is a very talented actress who (according to my wife, who has heard Eppie Lederer speak and read her column for many years) pretty well nailed her character. I personally have only been familiar with Ann Lander’s column as fed to me by my wife, after she read and reread the column to me occasionally. I have long admired Kerri Shawn as one of the better local actresses, consistent and accurate in her diverse portrayals. I don’t think I have ever found any of her work less than perfect.

The time is 1975 and this is a very entertaining and candid look at a famous lady who graciously invites us into her living room in her home in Chicago, while she is attempting to ferret out and write what will turn out to be the most difficult column of her entire career. I will have to let you wait to see the show to figure out what this is all about. As it turns out, this lady, certainly did not have all the answers after all!

In fact, if you are not a great Ann Landers fan, you might have a little difficulty with the first act, which seems so scattered as she tries to get to the main point of this evening’s quandary. She has a very strong and abrasive personality and until you get to know her, you might find it a little difficult to hang in there. But do hang around until the second act, where you will begin to understand the depth of the real person.

The set designed by Kelly Tighe is perhaps the best designed set ever to adorn that unique little space. The way it is laid out, it makes just about every seat in this little theater, a reasonably comfortable seat. I did end up with a slightly sore neck from having to loot to my right all evening, but it was not a major problem. Lighting by John Earls and Sound by Jeff Collister are equally excellent in design and effectiveness.

“The Lady with all the Answers” continues in the Knight Stage III Theater, downstairs in the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:15 p.m., with Sunday performances at 2:15 p.m., through May 15th. You can order tickets by calling the box office at 943-SHOW (7469) or by visiting the box office at 1601 Civic Drive in Walnut Creek, or by visiting the Barnes and Noble book store ticket outlet in Walnut Creek. Tickets are a flat $25 each.

Ballymore Eustace residents gathering at the "Thatch Pub".

Cathal Hollad performing in Gogarty's Temple Bar in Dublin!

Another lovely couple sharing a table in the "Thatch Pub"

Claire and Paul O'Kelly at their
Hazel House B&B

The Celtic Tigre has all but died, but the land of Eire is still vibrant, thrilling, romantic and alive; greeting all who come to its emerald shores with hearty handshakes, brotherly love, a glass of Guinness, a song or two, a touch of humor and so much more!

For the past 25 years, every time I would experience some truly moving theater written by one of the many great Irish authors, I thought about taking a flight to Dublin to visit the birthplace of some of the finest theatrical works ever written. Finally, in large part due to my step-son William finding a fantastic airfare that was under $600 round trip for each of us, Karen and William and I found ourselves in Ireland enjoying one of the best holidays of our lives.

The weather, normally very wet this time of year, typically raining every other day, was only moderately damp. In fact, everyone kept asking us if we brought the unusual spring-like weather with us from California. Such was not the case as you may remember. Iat had been pouring in Walnut Creek for two weeks prior to our departure date on the 27th of March.

On our first day in Dublin, we visited the downtown area and were rudely awakened to the fact that parking on the street and in the public garages is very difficult to find and very expensive, typically 2 to 3 Euros an hour, which at the current rate of exchange equals about $2.80 to $4.20 an hour. If you want to make the rounds of the Guinness Brewery, or the infamous Kilmainham Gaol (Jail) or just the Temple Bar area, you could easily shell out $20 to $30 in parking meters in a short day. That was when we decided to make our escape from the city in search of the castles, abbeys, historic sites and quaint little towns that were also on our agenda.

With no set plans, just a very abundant wish list compiled in part with the gracious help of our friend Nancy, who had attended Trinity College a number of years ago, and our Irish friend Fred Williams, who lives in Tuam (pronounced Choom) near Galway, we found ourselves in a rented motorcar flying down the N7 towards Naas and the delightful rural community of Ballymore Eustace. Fred had told us that it is never difficult to find a hospitable and reasonable bed and breakfast in or around just about every town in Ireland, so “no worries”, just press the pedal to the metal and when the evening shadows start to fall, slow down and look for those welcoming Bed and Breakfast signs hanging repetitiously at driveway entrances all along the motorways.

We did just that and after pulling off the main motorway at the little rural town of Naas, we took the second exit on the second round-about and headed off south towards the farms and little villages south in the direction of the beautiful Wicklow Mountains and the Wicklow National Park. Having no idea of where we really were (the road signs indicating what road you are on are practically none existent until you arrive at a major road junction), we decided it was time to seek some help. As we drove down an ever narrowing one lane road, we saw a lady pruning her trees along her beautifully landscaped driveway, pulled up, introduced ourselves as strangers in a strange land and asked her where in general we were and did she know of any local B&B’s. This delightfully friendly lady told us where we were, which didn’t really register as our map was much to general, showing the entire island with very little local detail.

Then she informed us that there was a very nice B&B just about a quarter of a mile straight down the road we were already on, make a right when the road dead ends and look for the B&B sign, third house on the left. We did as instructed and within 15 minutes we popped out of the car at the driveway of the Hazel House B&B, introduced ourselves to Paul and Claire O’Kelly and were invited in. We loved them and their house so much, that we stayed there for four nights in a row as we crisscrossed the local countryside in search of the many treasures of Eastern Ireland and even returned to stay with them the last two nights before our departure back to Dublin to fly home.

This was our continuing experience all over Ireland for the two weeks we were there; delightful people, gracious B&B hosts in both towns and in the country. The real value of staying in the local B&B’s is the valuable insights the homeowners will share with you about how to get around safely and at a reasonable cost. Thanks to Paul and Claire, our second day had us headed back towards Dublin to see the sights we wanted to see our first day there, but now we were headed towards a mid-point local commuter train station at “Red Cow” on the outskirts of Dublin, where we parked our car in a large “Park and Ride” parking lot for three euros for a 24 hour day, boarded the train and were able to spend the entire day in Dublin for just 3 Euros each plus daily parking (ie: about $15 for all three of us). We took the electric train and found we could get on or off again at whatever exit we wished, covering the entire downtown area and coming back to our car at “Red Cow” late in the evening. Perhaps the greatest value of taking the daily commuter train was that it freed us from having to worry about returning to pay a meter. In Dublin, if you miss renewing your parking tickets and placing them inside your car, they “boot” your car and signage in Dublin indicates it will cost $80 Euros to get the boot off. At the end of the day it was just a quick little jaunt back to our B&B for the night.

That first evening in Dublin, we visited the world famous Abbey Theater to enjoy the world premier of a new play by award winning playwright and director, Paul Mercier, entitled, “The Passing”. Mercier is a highly recognized Irish playwright, having written 12 plays for his own theater company, The Passion Machine Theatre Company, written and directed four films and won numerous awards for his work keyed for both English and Irish language audiences.
“The Passing” was an exciting one act play that focused quickly on a family whose past communication problems are brought to a head, following death of their father, the head of their somewhat dysfunctional family. Daughter Catherine (Catherine Walsh) has returned to the family home after changing her mind about the family home being put up for sale.

She returns to the empty but not vacant house earlier in the day, bringing groceries, flowers, and a ton of memories. The security alarm is set off by accident, making her entry a significant neighborhood event, with a neighbor, Stephen (Andrew Connolly), coming to investigate the intrusion. Her brother, Liam (Peter Hanly), arrives later in the day, surprised and angry to find that Catherine now wishes to contest and stop the sale of the home, which she had agreed to in writing as purchasers began the sale and title transfer process a few days earlier. The day passes quickly as other family members come by to investigate this change of heart by a sister who had pretty much abandoned the family unit when she and her husband divorced, seeming to have no family ties or desire to connect with them. Now that the home is about to be sold, old wounds are opened. Old accusations, familial fractures, heart-aches and memories pour out in this memory play that takes place over one evening, a play that brings finality to a myriad of assorted painful shortcomings and some unfinished family business.

The casting has brought together a pluperfect cast including previously mentioned Catherine Walsh and Andrew Connolly, Peter Hanley as brother Liam, Roxanna Nie Liam as Catherine’s daughter, Rachel; Kathy Rose O’Brien as her sister Fiona; Ali White as her brother’s wife, Trudy, Nick Lee as her daughter’s friend, Aidan; and finally, her ex-husband, Andrew Bennett as Patrick.

Obviously, this play will have had its run by the time you make up your mind to take that long talked about trip to Ireland. This historic theatre, considered the National Theatre of Ireland, the theatre that has been home to works of the likes of William B. Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, Hugh Leonard, Tom Murphy and Brian Friel will always have provocative theatrical opportunities to engage you in the future. The Abbey Theatre itself has had a much checkered history demonstrating both great promise and at times, wallowed near death. In fact, the present facility which includes three theaters, the Peacock, the Gate and the Abbey is currently supported financially by the Irish Free State and has been promised entirely new facilities in the Docklands entertainment center that will consist in the future of three venues, a 700 seat theater, a 350 seat theater and a 150 seat theatre. Plans call for the construction on the new Abbey Theatre to break ground in the near future.

Ireland is really an island of entertainers and entertainment just about everywhere and anywhere you go. In Dublin, you can sign up for a literary pub crawl that crawls from pub to pub with professional actors performing the works of Joyce, Beckett, Oscar Wilde, Brendan Behan and many more. In addition there are musical pub crawls that wend their way from pub to pub engaging Irish musicians that provide a wonderful cross section of Irish music. While in Dublin, on our last visit the day before we flew home, we spent the afternoon walking the “Temple Bar” area and had lunch in the Oliver St. John Gogarty’s Temple Bar where we became enthralled by the music of a couple of guitarists Ed Valentine and Cathal (Charles) Holland, who sang as the “Temple Bards” performers. We supped and sipped and listened and sang along with them as they lightened up our afternoon with a mixture folk songs both old and new. We even purchased one of their CD’s entitled “Stone! Cold! Sober!” that is a wonderful selection of folk music emanating primarily from well known local musicians and balladeers (plus even a piece or two from London and the American southern states). The CD includes the marvelous fiddle accompaniment by Brendon Lynch, with vocal accompanyment by Cathal's daughter, Aine Holland, who were both absent from the live performance. In fact, as I am writing this article, I am listening to this wonderful CD, my foot is tapping while I’m typing, and I am wishing that I were once again back in Ireland!

Our travels took us from one marvelous adventure to another, day after day, without one single day of regrets. We visited Fred William’s daughter’s home in Ballyjamesduff, north of Dublin in County Cavan where they conduct their Irish Arms Historical Reproductions business. Lynne Williams and her partner, Boyd Rankin, make and supply the armament, costumes and horses for historical dramas, productions and movies such as Mel Gibson’s “Braveheart” and the new HBO mini-movie-series that premiered this past week, entitled “The Game of Thrones”. My son, William was offered the opportunity to actually hold the “claymore” sword (Scottish Gaelic claidheamh mòr), or two handed "great sword" that Mr. Gibson brandished throughout the Braveheart movie.

Even in the wonderful little country town of Ballymore Eustace, the heart and warmth of Ireland is worn on its sleeve. Our friends (Paul and Claire who are quickly becoming extended family), told us to drop in at the “Thatch” pub in their little town about10 pm on our last Sunday evening. They assured us that William and I were sure to enjoy the music and dancing and (for William’s benefit I’m sure) all the lovely ladies. Well, “The Thatch” consists of both a bar, where the younger people hang out and the separate pub lounge where the town’s seniors gather every Sunday evening to dance and to listen to Jack Mc Donald sing their favorite songs while accompanied by John Kelly on accordion. The O’Kelly’s were absolutely correct, we truly enjoyed the evening. The fun-loving seniors in the lounge invited, - - no - - - insisted that we join in. We found ourselves holding hands and dancing with them and all their friends, dancing the evening away to an old fashioned country dance similar to a very simple round dance. This turned out to be one of our best experiences of the whole trip - - an Irish Ho-down!

Every bend in the road provided new wonders to behold, from the Irish National Stud Farm, to the posh upscale Ashford Castle (which hosts presidents, royalty and movie dignitaries alike) in County Mayo, to the beautifully restored Bunratty Castle and Folk Village (and its wonderful story teller, Jack McBride), to the Ring of Kerry, to the Cliffs of Moher, to the Rock of Cashel, to the Mukrose House and Gardens, to the grand Torc Waterfall, and on to County Clare and the Poulnabrone Dolmen portal tomb on the rocky limestone Burren, plus the beautiful Corcomroe Abbey and of course, no visit to Ireland would be complete without a visit to Johnnie Fox’s incredible indescribable world famous pub and restaurant at Glencullen, in County Dublin, touted as the “Highest Pub in Ireland”. These are only a small sampling of the many, many wonderful sites we visited in Ireland. I am planning to write a ten part article about our adventures in Ireland and am looking for a blog site where I can post it for you.

Right now is a great time to visit Ireland. Sure the exchange rate is not the best at approximately 1.45. In other words, each Euro will cost you $1.45 American. However, that is due in large part to the weakness of the American dollar. The British pound is less of a value at a 1.65 exchange rate at this time. The Irish love American tourists and go out of their way to make your stay, a very pleasant stay!

This is a great time to take a magic carpet (or at least an airplane) to Ireland to see and save some real green (as in emerald isle). Further, Ireland is currently considered among the ten safest destinations for American travelers in the world right now. While there have been some instances of terrorist activity in Northern Ireland recently, none have been targeted against Americans. While my wife and I always fly by the seat of our pants when we travel and shop for bargains several months ahead of time, we usually travel very reasonably. It looks as if our 14 day excursion ended up costing us only about $1,600 each, including airfare, meals, car rental, gas and everything. Happy travelling my friends!