"Where were you Nov. 22, 1963?"
Upon that recurring bit of sociological nostalgia (remembering one's personal circumstances the day of John Kennedy's assassination) comes Charles Green's new comic drama "Shy of Dallas," opening Thursday at Theatre 40.
Although the setting of the play might imply a heavy political agenda (in Dallas, the day before and the day of the assassination), the President is not part of the action.
"Shy" is a study of the lives of a group of local junior-high instructors: best friends Janine and Nadine (with Nadine seeing herself in Janine "20 years down the road, disappointed with life, not having taken chances she could have"); radical Leslie, who has just returned home; home economics teacher Connie-Marie (who's black) and the coach with whom she's having an affair.
"But Kennedy is there," argued director Devorah Cutler. "First of all, he's on Dallas soil--their soil. But to them, he's always there, in the background. His portrait's hanging in the teacher's lounge and it symbolizes his courage, the risks he took. And it affects these people. By the end of the play, Nadine is able to get out of town, no longer 'shy of Dallas.' And Connie-Marie (snubbed by the other teachers until this point) has had her consciousness raised, is able to talk back, no longer thinks of herself as invisible."
In the larger picture, of course, the '60s are a period of racial history that cannot easily be glossed over. Connie-Marie may go from sitting off to the side in the lunchroom to being "smack-dab in the middle of the group"--but overall, Southern desegregation was neither quick nor easy.
"It does deal with the stereotypes that existed then," Cutler defended, "but also with the other values that started in the '60s that are still underground, the messages of John and Bobby. . . . "
Producer Mary Saxon (who met Cutler in 1983 when she directed the acclaimed Theatre 40 production of "Dusa, Fish, Stas and Vi"--in which Saxon starred) agreed.
"For me, the play represents a period when people thought they could take more risks, an exciting time. Kennedy was Camelot, an era everyone got caught up in (she was 13 at the time; Cutler, 11), though I don't think we realized how much of an impact it made on our outlook for the future till later on. It was like there was this ideal, this dream--then it was gone."
The product of the women's shared "philosophies, tastes, values and ideas" is Cutler/Saxon Productions, established to develop projects for theater, television and film--specifically, showcasing characters of "heroic" quality.
Their current inventory includes a "female hero" who died in Vietnam, a Texan nun-lawyer named Sister Shuan O'Reilly and a story (by "Nuts" playwright Tom Topor) called "Romance." Good women's roles are at a premium, they agree, but not the determining factor: "Where I'm coming from," stressed Cutler, "the story is crucial."
As is a place to develop it. "Shy" is the first production of Theatre 40's Playwright's Workshop, a collective (subsidized by subscribers) that also sponsors workshops for children's theater, directors and actors--plus weekly adult seminars at Beverly Hills High.
"And in exchange (for the seminars)," explained Saxon, "they give us this beautiful, rent-free theater. Otherwise, in Los Angeles, to do top quality Equity-Waiver work, rent a space, make a return possible. . . . I don't think there's another Waiver theater in town that offers so many workshops, so many opportunities for actors to participate--really control the company."
As for their own enterprise, Saxon allowed, "Sure, that female dynamic is part of it. I like to think it comes out in a lack of egos."