SAN DIEGO — A question naturally arises when a theater changes artistic hands as the Bowery Theatre did--in the midst of its last show, the extended hit "Danny and the Deep Blue Sea."
Will the Bowery maintain the level of excellence that has made it one of San Diego County's best non-Equity theaters for serious contemporary American plays?
Things seems resoundingly on the right track with "Laughing Stock," two previously unpaired one-act comedies by Romulus Linney.
The choices, at first consideration, seem light to the point of being flimsy: "Sand Mountain Matchmaking," a story about a well-bred Virginia widow trying to find true love in her new hillbilly home, yields to "Tennessee," a tale about a 90-year-old North Carolina woman who discovers that life, in the guise of her husband, has played a terrible joke at her expense.
Indeed, most of the depth here arises from between rather than in the lines. Under Ralph Elias' skillful direction, care for the country people Linney portrays comes across in nearly every nuance of acting. Similarly, the homespun look, to the coarse, torn cloth of Kelly Fuller's shirts and skirts, down to the indelible-looking dirt and grease stains and the occasional brambles on the back, eloquently tells its own story of hard work in a hard terrain.
Together with Erik Hanson's detailed, rough-hewn log cabin sets, nicely lighted by J. A. Roth, and Lawrence Czoka's chipper fiddle music, used for ironic punctuation, a world is created.
Admirers of "Danny and the Deep Blue Sea" will be glad to see Erin Kelly, who in that production played Roberta, the tough Bronx divorcee, back as the refined Virginia widow in "Sand Mountain Matchmaking."
Here she is, still acid-tongued, looking for a prince among the frogs that come a-courtin'--and, my, my, what frogs these mortals be! As her suitors, broadly grinning Jim Johnston, ornery Richard Gilman and Satan-declaiming David Kornbluth are worthy as the widow's foils if not as her beaus.
Sean O'Shea as a bemused neighboring farmer, Bonnie Dillingham as a mysterious woman of spells and 9-year-old scene-stealer Jesse Encinas round out the smart ensemble.
"Tennessee" provides a longer and trickier dramatic journey. As a comedy, it is ostensibly about an old deceit practiced on a wife (Christina Courtenay) by her husband (Richard Gilman).
But, like a story by Guy de Maupassant, the joke is not simply on the apparent subject of the narration. Much is told by a mirror the young bride looks into on her way to her new life, and looks into again as her life draws to a close. The image of a young boy picking it up to gaze at himself is a reminder that this young face, too, will all too quickly wrinkle and be gone.
Courtenay carries this segment as the old woman who drifts back into girlhood in a fantasy sequence at her old family home. Gilman and Johnston return from "Sand Mountain Matchmaking" with effective and radically different characterizations as her husband and her home's new owner.
As the new owner's wife, Rochelle Robinson is, curiously, the only cast member to come across clean-scrubbed in hands and face. It is an anomaly that seems reflected in the blandness of her presentation. Adam Stein provides quiet but effective support in the small role of the the owner's young son.
Maybe nothing earthshaking is going on in either of these very human comedies, but, as Spencer Tracy said of Katherine Hepburn in "Pat and Mike," what there is "is cherce."
"LAUGHING STOCK:" "SAND MOUNTAIN MATCHMAKING" and "TENNESSEE"
By Romulus Linney. Director is Ralph Elias. Lighting by J. A. Roth. Sets by Erik Hanson. Costumes by Kelly Fuller. Sound by Lawrence Czoka. Stage manager is Elizabeth Walter. With Erin Kelly, Jim Johnston, Richard Gilman, David Kornbluth, Bonnie Dillingham, Jesse Encinas, Sean O'Shea, Rochelle Robinson, Adam Stein and Christina Courtenay. At 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays through Aug. 28. At 480 Elm St., San Diego.