“Tonight is an adventure, and we ask you to keep that in mind” was the apt message delivered by Providence Players of Fairfax President Danine Welsh ahead of the show’s first ever outdoor performance in the parking lot of The Italian Café.
Under the unique circumstances of the coronavirus pandemic, the cast and crew had done extraordinary preparations for their twin one-act plays “Laundry and Bourbon” and “Lone Star.”
The show was poignant and the execution top-notch, but to have theater at all was a cause of celebration for all involved in their preview performance on Oct. 7.
“We were so hungry to do theater, we wanted to get back to a creative environment and create for our patrons, our season ticket buyers, and for our actors, and our company…and the community’s been really supportive so they want that too,” said producer Jayne L. Victor.
Fortunately, the Providence Players have had a history of experimentation away from the James Lee Community Center. Since March of last year, they have staged three pop-up plays in the dinner theater format at The Italian Café.
Drawing on that relationship, the theater group were able to use the back lot of the restaurant, but decided to have Dickey’s Bar-B-Q catered and local country-bluegrass musician Gretchen Purser perform to keep things thematically consistent. The plays, written by James McClure, are set in small-town Texas in the 1970s.
Everything about the plays’ presentation has been in compliance with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. Ticket buyers get a six-foot by six-foot square in the parking lot for up to two people that are socially distanced from each other.
Directors Michael Donahue and Beth Giles-Whitehead did most of the rehearsals through Zoom calls. And they gradually eased the cast together into live rehearsals with daily temperature checks.
“The rehearsal process wasn’t all that different than for a regular show, except that we wore masks and maintained distance,” said cast member Jaclyn Robertson.
The Providence Players’ last attempt at a play, William Inge’s “Picnic,” was shut down late into the rehearsal period, which left several of the cast members with a heavy heart.
This was reflected in Welsh’s flat-out admission in her opening speech: “This year has been a dumpster fire.”
“We still don’t know when we will be back at James Lee Community Center. So some of the members of our board put their collective heads together and came up with this crazy idea for our first ever outdoor production,” Welsh continued.
The parallel one-act plays “Laundry and Bourbon” and “Lonestar” tell two interweaving stories of marriages in distress.
The first play is set on the back porch of Elizabeth (Julie Janson) as she passes the afternoon chit-chatting with her childhood best friend Hattie (Sara Joe Lebowitz). Hattie’s bouncy sarcasm enlivens the play pretty much every time she opens her mouth and she balances out the casual gloom of her scene partner.
“God I hate the laundry. Same thing week in and week out. Sometimes I just want to burn it down,” said Elizabeth at one point.
“You can only look at so much Fruit of the Loom before it makes you want to puke,” replied Hattie.
With admirable subtlety, the dialogue segues into more serious problems afflicting the pair of friends. Elizabeth’s high school boyfriend and current husband, Ray, has been a mess since serving in Vietnam with bouts of heavy drinking, infidelity and unresolved depression.
As the two look back and reminisce, the contrast is set up between Hattie, who moved on from her exciting high school boyfriend to a guy who could give her a family, and Elizabeth, who is still with her husband.
The pair is interrupted by town socialite Amy Lee (Robertson). Her holier-than-thou snootiness rubs Hattie the wrong way, but Hattie can’t resist hearing the gossip around town, so she lets Amy Lee stick around. The class differences between Amy Lee and Hattie feed into the pair’s rivalry and highlight their aspirations — or lack thereof.
“It’s about friendship and about longing and finding your path,” said Giles-Whitehead.
In a similarly constrained format, “Lone Star” takes us into the world of the husbands that were being gossiped about in the first play. Amy Lee is boastful about having married up, but the bubble bursts as Cletis (Chuck O’Toole) appears on screen and is shown to be the town idiot.
On the other hand, the belligerence of Ray (David Whitehead) matches up to our expectations. Like Elizabeth and Hattie, Ray and Roy have a conversation that focuses on the good old days of the past with the subtext that something in the presence is missing.
To “Lone Star” director Michael Donahue, that something is the 1959 pink Thunderbird convertible that attracted Elizabeth and Hattie to Ray as teenagers and that Ray uses as a symbol for his masculinity.
“Once the car’s gone, everyone can’t seem to get on with their lives as an adult,” opined Donahue who directed “Lone Star.”
The play runs through Oct. 17 at The Italian Café (7161 Lee Highway). For tickets and information, visit Providenceplayers.org.