A toast to Belfry’s convent comedy

By John Lyle Belden

It seems nuns are an easy target for entertaining and eccentric characters who also have the noblest of intentions. We get another fun take on this trope in “Drinking Habits” by Tom Smith, presented by The Belfry Theatre in Noblesville.

The Sisters of Perpetual Sewing are a small but important order in the Catholic Church. If the Pope pops a button, the garment gets sent to the little convent somewhere in the U.S.A. to get fixed right up. But the sacred stitches don’t raise quite enough funds to keep the lights on, so Sisters Augusta and Philamena (Jennifer Poynter and Cathie Morgan) have let the grape juice ferment and are selling the wine in town. This is kept secret from Mother Superior (Barb Weaver), who is so anti-alcohol, she won’t even allow the words for such beverages to be said aloud.

Thus we get some interesting euphemisms: Devil’s Delight, Satan’s Mouthwash, Lucifer’s Libations, etc.

Fortunately, the secretive Sisters have always-helpful second-generation groundskeeper George (Bryan Gallet) to help.

But local newshounds Sally (Sarah Powell) and Paul (Jeff Haber) have gotten a tip about the secret vineyard and are infiltrating the convent to investigate. It happens that the Order is expecting the arrival of a new member, so Sally becomes Sister Mary Mary, while Paul becomes Father Paul, her brother. Then the actual nun, Sister Mary Catherine (Sarah Eberhardt), arrives, and things start to get confusing. Add to the mix the neighboring priest and amateur magician Father Chenille (Chris Taylor) and word that the Vatican has sent spies to ensure all its facilities are worth keeping open, and confusion, mistaken identities, multi-layered lies, and other farcical elements rule the day.

Aside from quick entrances and exits from multiple doors, the cast also mines comedy gold from the Order’s ritual of keeping silent at random points during the day. (Apparently, wild gesturing and miming is not a sin.) The goofy goings-on crescendo to a wild ending of revelations (and matrimony!) that would make Shakespeare’s head spin.

Direction is by Belfry board president Nancy Lafferty.

Poynter and Morgan are wonderful in a study of opposites – quick-thinking, fast-talking Augusta, and nervous Philamena, who literally can’t tell a lie. Gallet is handed a challenge in keeping George easy-going and kind without coming across as too simple-minded – he’s the average-sharpness knife in the drawer. Powell and Haber ably portray two people in a situation way over their heads, while also working through unresolved feelings. Weaver has Mother Superior cool and in control, but isn’t too sharply stern, and manages to be out of the loop of what’s going on without looking foolish. Taylor makes Chenille charming in a way that gives the Father “dad” vibes. Eberhardt is so much fun to watch as situations, and Mary Catherine’s growing guilt, put her continually on-edge.

This show is very funny and well worth the drive up to Noblesville, playing through Sunday, July 3, at Ivy Tech Auditorium, 300 N. 17th, St. Get information and tickets at thebelfrytheatre.com.

And, just a thought for a future season: Smith also wrote a “Drinking Habits 2.”

Vital to war effort, ‘Fly Babies’ remembered on BCP stage

By John Lyle Belden

For any fan of history, especially if your knowledge of the “aviatrix” begins and ends with Amelia Earhardt, you need to see “Fly Babies,” playing through Sunday at Buck Creek Players.

Based on the actual Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) during World War II, this drama by Rusty Harding, directed by Melissa DeVito, features a portrayal of real-world aviation legend Jackie Cochran, who – among numerous accomplishments – started this civilian corps of women pilots that helped deliver military aircraft around the United States, and train (male) pilots and crew members for deployment overseas. The ever-masculine Army Air Corps kept the program under wraps at the time, with the women only getting their due in recent decades.

At Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas, Cochran (Sue Kuehnhold) takes under her wing a flock representing the various types of women aviators who trained for WASP wings: Dotty Moore (Sabrina Duprey), who flew with her father as a crop-duster; Pauline Yates (Cass Knowling), a daredevil barnstormer who keeps on flying despite her husband’s death in a crash; Peggy Taylor (Audrey Duprey), a spoiled socialite whose Daddy had her take flying lessons, then apply for this duty, to buff up the family brand; and Hazel Ying (Maria R. Manalang), representing the few minorities allowed into the program, a veteran of action against the Japanese in her parents’ homeland, China.

Mazy Buford (Alicia Sims) represents one of the less honorable aspects of the story: not even allowed in the all-male Tuskegee Airmen, this experienced African American pilot settled for working as a seamstress and cleaning lady to be as close to the aircraft as she could get.

Adding a little levity and charm is Sgt. Louis Lewis (Josh Rooks), the soldier who can get you anything, and despite his non-stop faulty flirting, is a good and likable guy.

Col. Thomas Evans (Tom Smith) is the officer in charge. He’s not thrilled with the program, but sees its necessity in freeing up men to fly in the War. Less understanding is WASP instructor Cpt. John Whitaker (Logan Browning), a man bitter with prejudice – misogynist and racist – and scarred in mind and body from being shot down in the Pacific. The lone survivor of his squadron, Whitaker took out enough of the enemy to earn a Silver Star, but is too damaged to return to action. He takes no pleasure in training “broads” to fly warbirds, but orders are orders, and he grudgingly comes to admit they are pretty good. The women respect his abilities but chafe at his constant meanness; they flip one of his insults – Fly Babies – into a badge of honor.

In the course of their training, Dotty seeks to rectify the injustice done to Mazy, infuriating Cochran, who understands, but also knows pushing the issue could jeopardize the whole program. Meanwhile, some gremlin has been defacing and damaging the WASP training planes. Whitaker insists it’s just harmless “hijinks” by some of the men on the base, but how far will such pranks go?

Dotty in later years is played by Sarah Latimer, in scenes that bookend the story. Stage manager Lauren E. Ruddick steps in as her nurse.

Performances are strong all around. An aviator offstage, Sabrina Duprey adds that confidence to her already impressive talent. Real-world sister Audrey is no slouch either, playing the girl who must become an independent woman who serves not just her family, but her country. Knowling shows no rust in taking her first stage role since high school, giving us one of the more well-rounded characters in the cast. Experienced performer Manalang charms in her first major drama role. Sims brings an important character to life, ranging from expressing the joy of flight to the supreme irritation at how the country she wants to defend treats her. 

Smith plays an apt representative of Army brass, working from tolerating to appreciating to defending the unit he commands. Browning manages to lend some degree of humanity to a very damaged man. Rooks doesn’t take his Radar-esque role too far, projecting a clear sense of duty under the goofy exterior, as well as honest affection. Kuehnhold plays Cochran as both mission-focused and a mama-bear, rock steady always.

In this high-stakes high-pressure environment, the story does take tragic turns. Social attitudes of the era cannot be avoided, either. Appropriate in context, but disturbing to modern ears, there are some racial-ethnic slurs against both Blacks and Asians. DeVito says these parts of the dialogue were discussed with the cast, who agreed it would be more impactful to be true to the period.

Though overall an imagined story, “Fly Babies” is true to the history and shines a light on a nearly forgotten part of America’s effort in winning WWII. Opening-night turnout was surprisingly low. Hopefully more will come out to see this inspiring play, 8 p.m. Friday or Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday (April 8-10) at BCP, 11150 Southeastern Ave. (Acton Road Exit off I-74), Indianapolis. Get info and tickets at BuckCreekPlayers.com.

Shakespeare vs. six-shooters in Westfield

By John Lyle Belden

Upon seeing that Main Street Productions in Westfield has produced “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” one might think that someone dusted off an old script — after all, the John Wayne/Jimmy Stewart movie, and the popular song, came out in 1962. But this play was written in 2014 — by Jethro Compton, based more on the original Dorothy M. Johnson story than the film. And this Western, set toward the end of the 19th century, has a lot to say to us in the 21st.

Rance Foster (Matt Hartzburg), a scholar seeking his fortune out West, is beaten and left for dead by Valance (Adam Davis) and his gang. Rescued by local cowboy Bert Barricune (R.C. Thorne), Foster is brought to a saloon owned and run by Miss Hallie Jackson (Sabrina Duprey) in the tiny town of Twotrees. The local Marshal (Kevin Shadle) isn’t much help as he feels the small bounty on Valance’s head isn’t near worth facing his gun. 

As Foster recovers, he discovers that “Reverend” Jim (Xavier Jones), the black boy who grew up with Hallie, has perfect memory — having earned his nickname by memorizing the Bible just from hearing it, despite being illiterate. Foster decides to teach Jim — and Hallie, and anyone who’s interested — to read, with the help of books he carries with him, including a volume of Shakespeare sonnets.

Hints of civilization don’t set well with Liberty Valance, who wants to keep the territory as lawless as possible for as long as possible, while enriching himself and his gang. So, he comes to visit Twotrees, setting in motion the events that lead to his final showdown.

The play is directed by Veronique Duprey, Sabrina’s mother. She said that when she found the script a couple of years ago and looked for an opportunity to stage it, she had not thought of her daughter to take the role of Hallie. But now, the casting seems perfect. An experienced young actress, Sabrina convincingly holds her own with the men — much like her character.

Other roles are also well-cast. Hartzburg wins us over as the idealistic tenderfoot; Thorne projects strength even standing still; Davis is perfectly chilling; Jones is outstanding in a surprisingly complex character; and Shadle takes what could be a comic role and stays true to the drama, playing the Marshal on the fine line of pragmatism and cowardice. Supporting roles are played by Cody Holloway, Alex Dantin, Robert Fimreite, Rich Steinberg and Rob Stokes.

Tom Smith lends his strong voice and presence as the Narrator, sort of a living embodiment of the Spirit of the West.

More than the events surrounding a legendary shootout, this is a story of love and loyalty, finding the strength to make one’s self and world better, and bravery beyond the ability to hold a gun steady.

And drinking a lot of fake whiskey (it is set in a saloon, after all).

Note the play includes coarse language and the use of loud blanks in the pistols (the venue is kind of small). Main Street Productions will break ground on a new playhouse in downtown Westfield later this month, but for now performances are still in the old former church building at 1836 W. State Road 32, through Oct. 13. Call 317-402-3341 or visit westfieldplayhouse.org.

An American classic comes to life on Civic stage

By John Lyle Belden

“To Kill A Mockingbird,” the celebrated novel by Harper Lee, is likely a book you are familiar with, perhaps from reading it in school, or by seeing the Gregory Peck film which closely followed Lee’s story.

The Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre presents a live production of “To Kill A Mockingbird,” the play adapted by Christopher Sergel, which is performed annually in Monroeville, Alabama, Lee’s hometown on which the novel’s setting is based. Unlike that production, the local staging doesn’t pick a trial jury from the audience – but attorney Atticus Finch still speaks directly to us.

For the unfamiliar, the story, set in Mayscomb, Ala., in the mid-1930s, is told by Finch’s young daughter, Jean Louise, known as Scout. The play gives us a grown-up Jean Louise (Michelle Wafford), who emerges from the audience to narrate for her younger self (Bridget Bingham), who is trying to make sense of all the things happening around her.

Scout, her brother Jem (Dalyn Stewart) and friend Dill (Ben Boyce) are occupied with what the reclusive neighbor Boo Radley might look like. The only clues are items left in a tree in his yard. But a bigger distraction comes when Atticus (Steve Kruze) is appointed by Judge Taylor (Tom Smith) to defend a black man, Tom Robinson (Antoine Demmings), who has been accused of beating and “having his way” with teenager Myella Ewell (Morgan Morton) by her father, town drunk Bob Ewell (Joe Steiner). The children endure taunts for their father defending a black man, but Atticus counsels them to endure and be confident he is doing the right thing. Scout wonders if she can feel pride in her father at all, until an incident with a mad dog reveals there’s more to the man than she ever suspected. Likewise, Jem wonders why his punishment for his vandalism of bitter, hateful neighbor Mrs. Dubose’s (Holly Stults) garden is to deliver kindness, until he comes to understand the whole situation.

The Robinson trial is a big spectacle, so the children sneak in to see it for themselves (thus allowing us to witness it), finding only room to sit in the “Colored” section with the Rev. Sykes (Brad Thompson). They marvel at how Atticus takes advantage of flaws in the testimony, and the kids are sure this will come out in their (and Robinson’s) favor. What does happen gives life lessons the children will never forget. And the events that follow will result in men killed, Jem injured, and Scout becoming a whole lot wiser.

Other notable characters include Sheriff Heck Tate (Clay Mabbit); the Finches’ cook, Calpurnia (Chandra Lynch); and an appearance by Boo Radley (Colby Rison) himself.

Under the direction of Emily Rogge Tzucker, this important story rises from the page to remind us of how horrible, yet accepted, hatred and injustice can be – then, and even more than 80 years later. Of course, that includes the bigoted context of the South in the 20th century, in which no person would even think of saying “African American” and “black” was mostly just a color you painted. So, be warned, the word “nigger” is used numerous times, by characters with either malice or apathy towards its dehumanizing effects. And if my writing the word out in the previous sentence bothers you too much, you should steel yourself before seeing this play – and go anyway.

Scout’s purpose in this story is to learn to see the world through others’ eyes – a man who would rather do what’s right than what’s popular, a person in unspeakable pain, a person judged purely by his skin tone, even a person who just can’t deal with other people – and thus teach us to do the same. Experience it for yourself at the Tarkington theater at the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel, through Feb. 23. Information and tickets at civictheatre.org or thecenterpresents.org, or call 317-843-3800.

Buck Creek presents sweet ‘Gift’

 

By John Lyle Belden

Sometimes you don’t want a lot of heavy drama, especially at Christmastime. As a remedy for the noise, bustle and bad headlines, Buck Creek Players presents “The Unexpected Gift.”

Jack (Tom Smith) had resigned himself to another Christmas Eve alone in his cabin in the Upper Peninsula, his eighth such holiday since his wife passed away. But suddenly at the door is daughter Kate (Michelle Tasker), who must drop off his grandchildren — almost-10 Sarah (Bailey Cline) and teen Jonathon (Mason Tudor) — while she travels for business. He reluctantly agrees, and the kids then have to get to know the grandpa they barely remember.

Cline’s Sarah sparkles with curiosity and desire to live up to her mother’s glowing memories of days spent in the cabin, while Tudor’s Jonathon is age-appropriately surly and blunt about having to dwell in “the Stone Age” with no TV, no phone, and outdoor plumbing. Smith as Jack wears only a thin layer of gruffness, a grand-paternal teddy-bear more than a grizzly. He also gives as good as he gets with Jonathon’s quips, latching on to his modern use of the word “sweet.”

And that word does best describe this holiday play — sweet — like a live Hallmark Channel show. Like the Christmas tree they set up, decorated with cleverly improvised ornaments, it’s light on substance but heavy on charm and emotional resonance.

Being the BCP holiday show, there is also its annual fundraiser for the Blaine Jarrett Memorial Scholarship Fund. You can bid on a silent auction of various themed baskets, including a “Mystery Basket” offered at every performance.

This cozy Christmas diversion runs through December 16 at the Buck Creek Playhouse, 11150 Southeastern Ave. (Acton Road exit off I-74). Call 317-862-2270 or visit BuckCreekPlayers.com.