Holiday drama ensues

ProArts tackles family dynamics in season opener

Carol Lem (from left), Shane Borge, Kathryn Holtkamp, Francis Tau‘a and Marsi Smith uncover family drama in ProArts presentation of “Other Desert Cities.” Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays, opening Friday, Sept. 21 through Oct. 7, at the ProArts Playhouse at Azeka Place Makai in Kihei. For more information or to purchase tickets for any ProArts event, call 463-6550 or visit www.proartsmaui.com. Jack Grace photo

“Anytime you can make an audience laugh, but leave the theater thinking, and even crying a little bit, it is a good thing,” says “Other Desert Cities” Director Mark Collmer. The comedy-drama by Jon Robin Baitz, which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 2012, makes its Maui premiere at the ProArts Playhouse in Kihei next weekend.

Collmer shared an excerpt from the introduction to the script written by poet and playwright Honor Moore.

“As the play unfolds, the making of art, in this case the publication of a book, becomes a metaphor for the investigation of the cost of telling of truth inside one particular family. At the same time, a contemporary dramatist reveals to us that we are in the midst of a cultural shift that challenges us to a higher standard of ethics, to greater courage and honesty in that first society where we all begin our lives, the family.”

Collmer spent seven years on Maui directing plays before relocating to Pennsylvania four years ago. His previous local directing credits include “Sylvia” and “Miss Reardon Drinks a Little” for ProArts, and “The Pirates of Penzance” and “Under Milkwood” for Maui Academy of Performing Arts.

Now back on Maui, I asked why he chose to direct “Other Desert Cities.”

Dan Church (from left), Lou Young, David Negaard and Hana Valle try to get the story straight in Maui OnStage’s production of Neil Simon’s farce, “Rumors,” opening Sept. 28. Jack Grace photo

“Baitz’s tale is one of two Americas. Though it was written in 2011, I think it resonates more today in terms of its political scope, but I also love this author’s tender and humorous perspective,” he said.

Anyone who has ever lived in Southern California will easily identify with the “two Americas” in “Other Desert Cities.” One world is traditional California conservative, peppered with golf, tennis and martinis in places like Pasadena and Palm Springs, and the other is just west of those communities to their literal and figurative left — Hollywood.

Its title comes from a real eastbound Interstate 10 sign in Southern California which reads, “Indio and Other Desert Cities.”

The play’s events center around a family Christmas Eve reunion in 2004 at the home of Polly (Marsi Smith) and Lyman Wyeth (Francis Tau’a) in Palm Springs. Their daughter Brooke (Kathryn Holtcamp), a New York-based travel magazine writer, has returned home after a six-year absence. Brooke is joined at the holiday gathering by her younger brother Trip (Shane Borge), a hip television producer. Polly’s liberal sister Silda Grauman (Carol Lem) is also visiting after a stint in rehab.

The sisters had co-written comedy screenplays in the 1960s, but have been estranged due to politics for many years. Lyman is a former movie star who became a U.S. ambassador during the era of his political hero, President Ronald Reagan.

There is an idiom, generally attributed to WASP households, “the elephant in the room.” The elephant is an obvious problem that no one in the room wants to discuss, and that is exactly what happens to the Wyeth family on Christmas Eve.

“I can really identify with the opening moments of the play,” said Collmer. “The magic of Christmas Eve, joking with my dad, a sister kidding mom and the anticipation of Christmas morning that everyone feels when you have gathered together for the first time in a long time. But then there are fireworks on Christmas Eve, and the present is an elephant in the box,” he said.

The Wyeths are a conservative family that drinks quite a bit and have effectively let sleeping dogs lie for many years, that is until Brooke announces that she is about to publish a memoir dredging up tragic event in the family’s history.

I asked Collmer if emotions have had an effect on the cast in the rehearsals of “Other Desert Cities.”

“Absolutely — both in the comedy of the play and the heated dramatic moments. Some of the actors have said that they see so much of their families in the show that the rehearsals have been a real eye-opener to explore and come to an understanding with their own family. Yet some have said it’s been an education in seeing how the other half lives, stressing that in their family they would have had it all out at the dinner table much earlier,” Collmer explained.

I asked if brutal honesty was better than not stirring the pot.

“For this family, finally arriving at the truth is their road to healing. That healing would have taken much less time if it had been addressed at the earliest possible moment, but because it was ignored, because they all pretended it wasn’t there, more healing needed to be done,” he continued.

Comedies and dramas rarely attain the same box office success as musicals, but the types of weightier plays frequently presented at the ProArts Playhouse are essential to the growth of theater on Maui.

I asked Collmer why it is important to present this type of theater.

“It’s not a new concept. Theater needs to hold a mirror up to society. It is a good opportunity for actors to explore roles that they might not get the chance to bite into. It’s worth offering that in any theater’s season. I’m pleased that Kristi Scott (executive director of ProArts) is upholding the tradition that Jonathan Lehman started,” he said. “I’m grateful to give back and be a part of the Maui theater ohana, and I encourage everyone [to] come out and enjoy the comedy and the fireworks.”

Upcoming

Captured live on film in London, the Chichester Festival Theatre presents a one-night-only screening of “King Lear” starring Sir Ian McKellen.

Considered by many to be the greatest tragedy ever written, “King Lear” sees two aging fathers, one a king, one his courtier, who reject the children that truly love them. Blindness unleashes a tornado of pitiless ambition and treachery, as family and state are plunged into a violent power struggle.

* Screening is at 7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 27 at the Maui Mall Megaplex 12. Reserved seats are $18.75 (plus applicable fees) and are available at www.fathomevents.com.

*****

Maui OnStage opens its 2018-19 season with “Rumors” by Neil Simon, directed by David Belew. In this outrageous farce, the deputy mayor of New York City accidentally shoots himself just before a 10th wedding anniversary party. His wife is nowhere in sight, and his lawyer must get the story straight before the guests arrive.

When “Rumors” debuted in 1988, it was hailed by The New York Post as “Light, frothy and fun.” NBC-TV said, “Not only side-splitting, but front and back splitting,” and The New York Times said it, “Has nothing on its mind except making the audience laugh.”

* Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays, running Sept. 28 through Oct. 14 at the Historic Iao Theater in Wailuku. To purchase tickets for any Iao Theater event, call 242-6969 or order online at www.mauionstage.com.

Opportunities

Maui OnStage is calling actors of all ages to audition for “Elf The Musical,” directed by Dale Button. The role of Buddy the Elf will be reprised by Ricky Jones.

All additional roles are open with auditions scheduled in ten-minute increments from 6 to 9 p.m. Monday, Sept. 24 and Thursday, Sept. 27 at the MOS OFFStage Studio at 811 Kolu Street. Actors should prepare a short comedic monologue and an upbeat song from a musical. You must provide sheet music in your key (an accompanist will be provided) or sing to a CD or MP3 track (accompaniment must not include vocals).

Callbacks will be held from 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 29. Rehearsals will begin the following week. “Elf” will run weekends, Nov. 23 through Dec. 14. To reserve an audition appointment, call 244-8680 ext. 23. For more information and a complete character list, visit www.mauionstage.com.

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