Struthers takes comedy seriously

Calling from a bus headed for … whatever is the next tour stop … actress Sally Struthers sounds incredibly bouncy and up beat. Not an easy task when the “Nunsense 25th Anniversary Tour,” in which she plays the Mother Superior Mary Regina, began with rehearsals in August, will be on the road until the end of January and lists more than 40 stops in 19 states, most of them one nighters. But the demands of a rigorous schedule definitely don’t faze the actress who has made her mark in all areas of the entertainment business and calls work “My favorite thing.” If touring vaudeville-style seems a change of pace for someone who has received two Emmy Awards, it’s nothing new and it’s definitely not easy. Sometimes “You are so tired you wake up in the morning and don’t know where you are,” she admitted. And, with no understudies, good health is important. ‘You keep your fingers crossed to stay healthy,” she said, only half joking.

Salley Struthers in NunsenseHer journey began in 1968 when Struthers left her home in Portland, Ore., and headed for Los Angeles and the Pasadena Playhouse College of Theater.  Before her first year was out, she was getting professional jobs on shows including “The Tim Conway Comedy Hour and “The Smother Brothers Comedy Hour”  and soon was working so steadily she dropped out of school. (Note: The school closed soon after and, although the Pasadena Playhouse remains, the school is no more.) Then fate, in the form of writer/producer Norman Lear, stepped in and changed her life forever. Even 30 years later, the petite blonde is best known as Gloria Stivic, wife of Michael and daughter of Edith and Archie Bunker, the terrific quartet that was “All in the Family.” Lear’s ground-breaking comedy aired from 1970 to ’78 and endowed Struthers with a persona she carries to this day. It does not, however, weigh her down. “I am so grateful for that show,” she declared. “It was an opening door. It gave me a name and face people in American knew. And it was a wonderful show to work on. We couldn’t believe we got paid to laugh all day long.” Although the spinoff series “Gloria” lasted only one season, it joined the actress with her TV person in a partnership that continues, no matter what role she is playing or in what medium. Her characters are many. On the stage, she has  become Truvy in “Steel Magnolias,” Golde in “Fiddler on the Roof,” one half of “The Female Odd Couple,”Miss Hannigan in “Annie” and Miss Lynch in “Grease.” She played the last three on Broadway and, as Miss Lynch, was on stage in South Bend’s Morris PAC several years ago during the show’s national tour. Her films include “Five Easy Pieces” and “The Getaway” and her TV roles, “Gilmore Girls” and “Still Standing.”

Any medium, it seems, is a good fit for the versatile Struthers. “The best part is not getting bored,” she said, although she would prefer work closer to her home in L.A. and her daughter, Samantha Struthers Rader, who, mom said proudly, “Is one semester away from getting her PhD in clincial psychology.” Currently, Struthers is leader of the surviving Little Sisters of Hoboken, who gather to present a benefit variety show to pay for the interment of their fellow nuns, victims of a poisonous vichysoise created by the convent cook Sister Julia Child of God. “Nunsense” is the first — and the best — of the many “Nunsenses” created by Dan Goggins. It has become a regular in the lineup of community groups around the country. In the hands of a first rate cast, it certainly bears seeing again. With theater offers waiting when this “Nunsense” tour ends, Struthers continues to follow an axiom from her friend actress Brenda Vaccaro, “You gotta keep moving; it creates a breeze.”

“Nunsense 25th Anniversary Tour” Starring Sally Struthers 3 p.m. Sunday (Nov. 2) Miller Auditorium Western Michigan University Call (269) 387-2300 or (800) 228-9858 or visit

Dracula Can Be Deadly

With Halloween right around the corner, it’s no surprise that vampires are making their annual appearance. Especially THE vampire, the infamous Count Dracula. Steven Deitz’ theatrical version of Bram Stoker’s classic novel opened Friday evening in a production by South Bend Civic Theater in the Wilson Mainstage Auditorium. Written in 1996, it is more akin to Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 film than to the 1931 classic that gave Bela Lugosi his cinematic  signature role. The Dietz play is reportedly more like the novel.  Having never read it, I cannot attest to this.       Enough to say that it definitely is a challenge to present and one on which the SBCT cast and crew obviously expended a great deal of time and energy. Unfortunately, the results are disappointing. The initial impact of the towering set — it stretches way above and beyond the usual restrictions of the proscenium — is encouraging. Designed by director Rick W. Ellis and technical director David Chudzynski (who also plays vampire hunter Abraham Van Helsing), it contains at least six curtained openings which move the action from one location to another without having to actually change the set. Two major projection areas on the right and left walls are used to depict visually the second act journey from London to Transylvania. Their size blurs the scenes, however, and the accompanying voice-overs are equally indistinguishable. After the prologue by Renfield (Steve Gergacz), whose “entree” is a large “rat,” the opening scene between Lucy Westenra  (Sarah Obren) and her close friend Mina Murray (Kim Iwaszewski)  was, from our location right center, entirely unintelligible. Not a good thing when it sets up much of relationships as well as much of what is to come. Excepting Chudzynski, Nathanial Smith as Jonathan Harker, Gergacz and Anthony Panzica (the youthful Dracula, pictured) the majority of the dialogue was delivered in the same way. When I can’t hear and, in several scenes, can’t see what is going on, it tends to make me lose interest long before the 2 1/2 hour vampire hunt draws to its familiar conclusion. Eventually, everything takes on a comic aspect.When Van Helsing proclaims “There is no joy” and the first thing that pops into my mind is “in Mudville,” it’s obvious my focus shifted from blood-sucking, insect-eating, baby-crunching horror.Rumbling set pieces — an understandable necessity but, in scene changes, one which can be masked with music — and a seeming uncertainty as to whether to play the often unwieldy dialogue straight or kamp resulted in an unsettling  mixture and made me really miss Bela Lugosi. I wish a better reaction from local theater-goers whose demand for tickets has increased the scheduled eight show run to 10, with a midnight show Oct. 31 and an additional matinee Nov. 1.

Accent on Youth

This past weekend two local productions were aimed directly at youngsters. One was performed by a mix of older (college grads) and younger actors and the other, by a definitely young cast. Garbed in tee-shirts, overalls and (literally) dog-eared caps in primary colors, Red Dog (Brian Wells), Blue Dog (Diana Meidan Zhao), Green Dog (Anna Harris) and Yellow Dog (Regina Warren) joined two spotted “dalmatians”, M.C. Dog (Kyle Curtis) and Hattie (Breanna Kelly),  in a day and a night of non-stop (excepting intermission) doggie adventures. There was no doubt that this was aimed strictly at the pre-teen audience members, but that didn’t stop their accompanying adults in sharing the many laughs as the lop-eared canines played and slept (“Dogs sleep at night” except these didn’t) through a series of extremely physical anticshart  The best for me was watching the very young viewers watch the on-stage action. It was in the Warner Studio Theatre where the audience was only an arms-length away from the actors and many in the front row reached out to greet the “dogs” throughout the performance. They was no need to suspend disbelief. They absolutely believed! It was an object lesson of how to prepare the audience of tomorrow through a thoroughly entertaining performance today. And, at an hour and 15 minutes, was definitely within their attention span. “Go, Dog,Go!” coninues Wednesday through Sunday. At the Bristol Opera House, the newly-named E.C. Team (replacing the redundant Elkhart Civic Theatre Youth Theatre) offered “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” for one weekend only. The cast was made up of all young people, the oldest one or two in high school but, although there were no program listings, it was obvious that most were from area middle schools.  Directed by Karen Johnson, the two dozen cast members acquitted themselves and their director admirably. In the title role, Joel Lininger made every line distinguishable, even to the rear of the house, and never lost a bit of dialogue.  He was on stage in every scene and carried off this formidable assignment with ease, whether he was fighting (or getting “engaged”), he took it all in stride. Undoubtedly a leading man in the making. The surrounding cast also paid attention to the basics of stage craft: How to stand, how to deliver dialogue and how to create a character. This was most obvious in the featured players, notably Dakota Miller who played Aunt Polly, Andrew Scott as Tom’s smug, tattle-tale brother Sid, and Ted Field as Tom’s partner-in-crime Huckleberry Finn. The group of Tom’s peers, both male and female,  (with special notice to the “smallest,” McKenna Kaczanowski, who was a clear as a bell) handled their roles well. Not only did this group deliver the lines without stumbling, they also served as the stage crew to shift the set pieces from one of the many required locations to the other and did so swiftly and quite silently, allowing the many scenes of the two-act production to flow easily. To those of us who wonder about the casts and crews of the coming seasons, it was a real shot in the arm .. or the program. Only wish some brief bios could have identified the ages, schools and — even at their ages — possible “theatrical experience.” Maybe for the next E.C. Team production, which will be a musical, “Willie Wonka Jr.” to be presented Feb. 13-15 at the Opera. A cast of 50 is planned to include ages 8 to 18. Auditions at 10 a.m. Dec. 6 at the BOH. I do encourage all young people with any interest in being on or off-stage to give it a try!