One Thirty Productions’ creative team knows their audience better than just about any theatre company in the North Texas region, and they know the sort of plays sure to please their loyal following. With Elaine Liner’s “Finishing School”, in its world premiere through 3/22 at the Bath House Cultural Center, they have hit pay dirt.
Her years of observing and critiquing live stage productions as an arts journalist have blessed Elaine Liner with a clear understanding of story and character arc and a gift for engaging dialogue. This sweet romantic comedy set in an assisted living center provides the right balance of humor, pathos and human interest to entertain anybody seeking a satisfying afternoon’s light divertissement. As a first production it contains a few flaws: its two female characters deserve to get fleshed out, with more on stage time; and the play warrants a stronger, less abrupt conclusion. Those are fixable issues, minor considering the overall excellent entertainment it provides as is.
One Thirty Producing Partner Gene Raye Price directs the four-character show with a gentle touch, keeping it natural and light. The main male character, Alfred, chafes at his recent confinement to the Center and could get played with a sharp, bitter tone. Price directs regional professional John S. Davies to keep the wit intact in Alfred’s offhand remarks and jokes without allowing them to go dark and angry. Davies, a master at role creation, presents an affable Albert; befuddled and frustrated by his circumstance, yet still making the best lemonade he can of those sour lemons. A real pro, Davies never dropped a line nor shifted out of character when he found himself helping a suddenly ill patron positioned on the front row at the performance I attended. It felt like Alfred helped the sick patron. The audience gave Davies as Alfred a spontaneous ovation mid-scene. It’s easy to relate to Alfred as written, and Davies makes the most out of the character’s possibilities. What a pleasure to watch this fine artist and craftsman explore a character’s nuances deftly.
I understand that playwright Liner wrote Alfred’s best friend, the character Wizzer, for founding One Thirty partner Larry Randolph, a terrific senior actor with many national and regional credits. Randolph became ill and needed to be hospitalized the day before “Finishing School” opened. Another senior regional professional, Gordon Fox, bravely stepped into the role, as “the show must go on”. Fortunately, Wizzer inhabits a wheelchair throughout the show and drifts off asleep every so often. Fox keeps his script casually open across his lap like a magazine, referring to it only occasionally. He looks perfectly believable nodding off asleep in the wheelchair over his open “magazine”. I doubt may audience members recognize he’s carrying a script. Wizzer functions as a sympathetic foil to Alfred’s stronger character. Fox and Davies play off each other with confidence and find the well-defined rhythms and comic timing of Liner’s play with accomplished ease.
Ellen Locy and Catherine DuBord play a likeable mother/daughter duo, with the mother emerging as Alfred’s romantic interest. Both strong actresses, they bring vitality and a hint of suspense to the plot. The Center’s maddening, demeaning activities schedule gets communicated by loudspeaker announcement, delivered with frozen cheeriness by B. J. Cleveland. Some of the show’s best laughs arise out of watching Alfred’s responses to the deadly voice over announcements. Even with the emergency casting adjustment, this production comes off as a resounding success for One Thirty audiences. The play’s quality, humor and charm demonstrate its valid potential for future production.
To buy tickets or get information about One Thirty Productions’ matinees, call 214-532-1709. All performances take place at 1:30 pm at the Bath House Cultural Center on White Rock Lake.