theatre/dance
02.25.05

 

Sally gives her heart
By David Ollington

The ornate New Theatre Restaurant, Johnson County’s contemporary and premier dinner theatre, reliably sells out, offers delicious food and stages professional productions. The artistic staff, when selecting their season, focuses on entertaining their clientele with a smorgasbord of comedies, musical revues and perennial summer musicals.

Often, the attraction of any given production is the appearance of a television star in a headlining role. Sally Struthers, of All in the Family, fame currently performs in the New Theatre’s production of playwright Ivan Menchell’s Club of Hearts.

Sally Struthers in The Club of Hearts (photo courtesy of the New Theatre Restaurant)

Three women, Ida, Lucille and Doris, played by Struthers, Lynn Cohen, and Dodie Brown respectively, meet once a month to visit their husbands’ graves. (Menchell originally titled his play The Cemetery Club but later altered it to reflect the lighter tone of the work he created.)

The first scene in the play marks the four-year anniversary of Doris’ husband Abe’s death. With barbed wit reminiscent of The Golden Girls, the three recall old times, drink tea and banter. At the cemetery, they each speak directly to their departed husbands, standing or seated at the tombstones. During one of the women's appointments with their posthumous spouses, they meet Sam the butcher (Ronald Cohen), a widower who visits his departed wife's grave.

A friend of the four characters, Selma, has invited them all to her upcoming wedding and has asked the women to be bridesmaids. Menchell bases several gags on Selma’s many marriages. (We never meet Selma.) Lucille sets her eye on Sam initially, but we learn that his interest lies in Ida. He invites Ida to accompany him to Selma’s matrimonial celebration, but Lucille and Doris go behind Ida’s back to tell him not to take her, for various fabricated reasons. The interpersonal difficulties build to a climax of uncomfortable proportions. Like many contemporary comedies, the play stays light and funny until Act II when the darker undercurrents of the conflict take precedence.

The New Theatre attracts an older crowd, and the subject matter of The Club of Hearts speaks to the median age of the audience with lines such as, “When Blue Cross pays for Harry being sick, then I’ll pay the cemetery for Harry being dead,” and “You’re only three years younger than dirt.” Menchell chose themes of widowhood, death, maturity, and the stability of old friends. The play soulfully addresses both the sweetness and mourning of life's twilight years.

Menchell fully explored the characters he created. We see them in casual conversation and emotional conflict, drunken revelry and debilitating hangover. They experience range in their grief, from humorous to sorrowful. The friendships resonate with complexity, at various times affectionate, resentful, emotionally supportive and vengeful. The playwright provided the actors with an opportunity to achieve dimensional performances, and the skilled, experienced cast meets the challenge.

Struthers gives generously, both to the audience and to her fellow actors. She created a believable character and responds with sensitivity while still garnering heartfelt chuckles from the audience. She moves with comic grace, hurling herself over the couch in exasperation and later executing a very funny drunken cha-cha. She later resolutely draws us into darker corners of Ida's psyche, hitting a stunning peak of frustration and bitter betrayal.

Director Richard Carrothers has nurtured a balanced ensemble. The Club of Hearts contains no stars; Struthers’ expertise makes the entire production one of shared craftsmanship. Even though Struthers receives spontaneous applause on her entrance, she takes a bow at the end of the show not alone, but with the entire cast.

Dodie Brown, a local celebrity in her own right, especially at the New Theatre Restaurant, has created a deadpan Doris — dry, down to earth — but of all three women, she’s in the most in denial about her husband’s death. Lynn Cohen’s Lucille is appropriately vain and man-hungry. Cohen gets the most histrionic of all the actors. This seems false at times but works well with the narcissistic character. Ronald Cohen makes an almost innocent Sam, understated, endearing and appropriately reserved. With Cohen as the only man in the cast, his presence onstage in his scenes charmingly disrupts the flow of energy.

Keith Brumley designed a set with two sides: Ida’s apartment and the cemetery. The stage rotates between scenes with expert timing. The women talk to the headstones in the cemetery with overlapping monologues, and Lighting Designer Randy B. Winder, with some alacrity, effectively delineates each character’s passages. The three women bring food from the wedding reception back to Ida’s apartment and Deborah Morgan’s properties include a rather cheesy choice of using plastic fruit for this. Everything else onstage seems real.

Go see Sally Struthers. There is more to her than meets the eye. She gives her heart to this production.

The Club of Hearts runs through April 10 at the New Theatre Restaurant in Overland Park. Call 913-649-0103, or toll-free 866-333-SHOW extension, ext. 116 or 118 for more information or visit www.newtheatre.com.

David Ollington can be contacted at Ollington@aol.com.

 


              
              
                 

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