IRVINE — The most memorable quality of Michael Brady's sentimental drama "To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday" is exactly that, its sentiment. It's sort of a more serious, yuppie version of Noel Coward's "Blithe Spirit," without the wit but with more warmth.
Gillian has been dead two years, since she fell off the mast of her boat and drowned while sailing with her husband, David. David is still mooning about their beach house, trying to raise their teen-age daughter, Rachel, and carrying on with Gillian's spirit in the moonlight just as though she'd never gone away. Now Gillian's sister Esther and brother-in-law, Paul, have arrived for a visit, dragging along attractive blond lady friend Kevin as bait to lure David out of his doldrums.
The inevitable happens. Gillian finally waves a loving farewell, and David and Kevin plan to meet in New York to become better acquainted--urged playfully on by wise young Rachel.
"Gillian" is one of those simple, inoffensive little plays whose success depends entirely on the ability of a director and actors to infuse it with life. At the New Community Center Theatre in Irvine, Metanel Rasmussen guides the company easily and comfortably. She knows the right balances and rhythms to make Brady's writing work.
Aaron Charney's David is crusty, charming and just introspective enough to be more interesting than Brady's writing makes him. Ryan Kray and Ross Burton are not only delightful as the in-laws but also give intriguing insights into the singular relationship of Esther and Paul. Laura Walsh is excellent as Rachel, clever and warm, and with obviously a better understanding of her father than he has himself.
Mary Morrissey is a bit icy as Kevin, but if that's an actor's choice, she makes up for it in her tender scenes with Rachel as they get to know each other. Filling out blanks in David's personality is the presence of teen-age neighbor Cindy, played with affecting spunk and hero worship by Jeannie Franzblau. Renee Fontaine is the spirit of Gillian who wafts across the sands, swirling with undying love for David, but she is way too ethereal and too much of another world to honestly portray the down-to-earth anthropologist whose strong will and gritty wit keep David's flame burning.
The problem with the production is the lack of projection on everyone's part except Burton and Charney. An attempt has been made to correct this with two mikes hanging from the ceiling, but because the actors rarely are near them, the effect is like the early-talkie problems in "Singin' in the Rain," when actors' indistinct voices blared loudly as they passed a mike disguised by a plant.
Granted, the acoustics in the space are dreadful. So much more the director's obligation to remind her cast, even in soft moments, to speak up. It's a lack of energy, not of volume, that causes the trouble. Half of the actors' performances still are embedded in the set.
\o7 * "To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday," New Community Center Theatre, 2025 Alton Parkway, Irvine. Friday-Saturday, 8:30 p.m.; Sunday, 2 p.m. Ends Sunday. $15. (714) 442-9252. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.\f7
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Aaron Charney: David
Laura Walsh: Rachel
Jeannie Franzblau: Cindy
Mary Morrissey: Kevin
Ross Burton: Paul
Ryan Kray: Esther
Renee Fontaine: Gillian
A New Community Center Theatre production of Michael Brady's drama, produced by Alex J. Palermo, directed by Metanel Rasmussen. Scenic design: Lee Jones. Lighting design: Alison Brummer. Costume design: Catherine Merrill. Sound design: John Ross. Stage manager: Anna Dahl.