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THEATER : Making Sense of the Past : 'Velma & Jessie' deals with two sisters' perceptions of mistreatment by their father, but the play is not all about gloom.

February 12, 1993|T. H. McCULLOH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; T.H. McCulloh writes regularly about theater for The Times.

Every day seems to bring new evidence that many children are misfits in their own homes. A lifelong concern for these children led 24-year-old Geri Baker to found the Misfits Ensemble. One of the company's activities is bringing theater and its therapeutic qualities to the children of the Al Wooten Jr. Center in South-Central Los Angeles, where Baker also teaches art.

The Misfits also produce plays, such as the recent "Cries From the Mammal House" at North Hollywood's Limelight Playhouse. Their current production opens tonight at Burbank's Third Stage Theatre.

"Velma & Jessie" concerns two sisters who, after the death of their alcoholic father, come to terms with early misunderstandings about his abuse of them. The playwright is Baker's mother, Gale Baker, a writer remembered for successful local productions of her plays "Waterin' Hole" and "Pin Curls."

The sisters in the play, Gale Baker says, are like many children who grew up confused by their early experiences.

"As children," she says, "a lot of people don't know how to deal with it. They take a lot of baggage with them into their lives, which turns them into people they might not have been had they confronted the issues in the beginning."

Gale Baker, director Allan Hunt and leading actress Marcia Rodd insist that the play is not all gloom, though. Like Baker's other plays, it is a character comedy, dealing to a great extent with our perceptions of early abuse.

"Our perception of what's going on at the time," the playwright says, "is quite often maybe not what's going on at all. We saw that at the McMartin trials when it was felt that the children were being led into testimony that really wasn't true."

The play also addresses the sudden recall of early abuse that is sweeping the media.

"But then it was not abuse," Gale Baker says. "It used to be, 'Spare the rod and spoil the child.' "

Her daughter laughs at that. "I wasn't rodded," she says, "and I turned out pretty good."

Rodd laughs along, adding: "I didn't have any rod spared, very strict upbringing. Maybe we're the better for it."

Rodd, who was involved in the original readings of the play, appeared on Broadway in "I'm Not Rappaport," "Shelter" (for which she earned a Tony nomination) and other shows. She has also been active on television ("Trapper John, M.D.") and films (Jonathan Demme's "Citizen Band"). She directed the hit production of Baker's "Pin Curls."

In the original readings of the current play, she played the older, sadder Velma, who stayed behind to care for the alcoholic father. Now she's playing Jessie, whom she calls the "silly sister, a bit of a drama queen."

It's a role against her type, Rodd says. She's usually cast closer to Velma's type, and she's reveling in the chance to play flamboyant Jessie.

Hunt has received three Dramalogue Awards for his work on local stages. He and Rodd were involved in the Catalina Productions' musical "The Orphan's Revenge," which was later moved to Washington's Ford Theatre.

He has known the playwright and the actress for some time and says this production is a reunion of sorts.

"This business is such a small world," he says, "and it comes full circle all the time." He says he has admired Baker's writing and has been looking for an opportunity to join forces.

Hunt is enthusiastic about Rodd's decision to play Jessie. "The first thing that hits you about Marcia," he says, recalling previous work together, "is her capability of doing just about anything given to her, on any kind of a level."

He says the tendency of Hollywood to typecast "drives us crazy."

Rodd adds: "Jessie's probably less like me than Velma, but playing something that far away from you gives you a certain freedom."

And, Rodd might add, Jessie gets a lot of laughs. The playwright, director, actress and producer say the play, despite its serious subject, is a comedy. Geri Baker, a stand-up comic who opened for Sam Kinison in Las Vegas and is a Comedy Store regular, believes that humor is a good way to deal with the play's subject matter.

"Rather than making it dramatic and tragic, you're dealing with it with laughter," she says. "That's my favorite way to deal with pain."

Her mother agrees. "Out of the greatest pain comes the greatest comedy."

Where and When What: "Velma & Jessie." Location: Third Stage Theatre, 2811 Magnolia Blvd., Burbank. Hours: 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays. 3 p.m. Sundays, through March 7. Price: $12. Call: Theatix, (213) 466-1767.

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