"Out of Sterno" Delightfully Off-Beat

If ignorance is bliss, Dotty Burke is in a state of euphoria. Dotty is the heroine of “Out of Sterno,”  a play by Deborah Zoe Laufer making its area  premiere at South Bend Civic Theatre. The comedy takes a creative look at one young woman’s journey from happy (?) housewife to enlightened adult. The Sterno in question is not canned heat but the name of the small  Midwestern town in which Dotty and her husband, Hamel, have lived for their entire married life of seven years.

South Bend Civic Theatre production of Out of SternoActually, Hamel lives in the town. Dotty lives in their apartment which, as he reminds her every evening between coming home  for a change of clothes and a smiley-face hamburger and rushing out to a “meal meeting”, she is never to leave. Dotty spends the days creating papier mache household appliances and watching the couple’s first meeting recreated on video and happily does as she is told. The crack in her “perfect” reality comes in the form of a  taxi driver who stirs some suspicions and insists on taking her to Hamel’s “meeting.” As reality seeps in, Dotty looks for answers in magazines, from  public transportation “bus buddies” and from Zena, a hardened multi-divorcee divorcee and former Miss TriBoro Area. She is the owner of Zena’s Beauty Emporium and Hamel’s secret lover. She also becomes Dotty’s employer. En route to her eventual emancipation, Dotty  — and her life — undergo a variety of changes, not the least of which are discovering her own talent (as an “appliance manicurist” she paints toasters, etc., on fingernails), realizing she is pregnant and finally learning to stand up for herself. Dotty’s journey “Out of Sterno” is an hour and a half (plus intermission) of solid fun underscored by a solid sprinkling of universal truths and a lot of recognizable (although exaggerated) situations. The credit goes to designer David Chudzinski for his wonderfully skewed settings; to lighting designer Kyle Techentin for his equally imaginative effects; to director Tami Ramaker for the requisite fast pace; and most of all to the excellent quintet of actors who make up the cast of 11 characters.

South Bend Civic Theatre production of Out of SternoKirstin Apker portrays three men while Kyle Curtis delivers the personas of four women and one man. Each of these is definitely its own creation and is a credit to the actors who cross genders to deliver some genuine gems. Phil Kwiecinski’s Hamel is a smarmy blend of overweening male ego and ignorance from his slickly greased hair to his magenta shirt and leather pants. His dismissive treatment of the wife who adores him is, here, a laughing matter but one that is unfortunately too true to life. Nicole Brinkmann Reeves plays Zena, a self-professed “soul mate of Princess Di,” who gives a bad name to all East Coast women. She is obsessed with getting Hamel for a husband, a target which ultimately is bad for her and good for Dotty. She defends her narcissistic shell with sarcasm  that hides a raft of insecurities. So easily does Lisa Blodgett become the dangerously naive Dotty, it’s difficult to believe that “Out of Sterno” is her first comedy.  She delivers a large majority of the dialogue (she talks to herself, to the audience and to the other characters) and displays a wonderful honesty that, when delivered with her wide-eyed naivete,  makes even her most outrageous statements acceptable. She is charming and funny and absolutely adorable. Also ultimately triumphant!

“OUT OF STERNO” plays at 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday in the Warner Studio Theatre, 403 N. Main St., South Bend. Tickets: 234-1112 between noon and 6 p.m. weekdays or call www.sbct.org.

Shaky "Tin Roof" Proves Luke-Warm

In the world of Southern playwright Tennessee Williams, the scent of magnolias never quite masks the aroma of decay, the patina of elegance  is constantly eroding and repressed emotions are always ready to explode. Understanding and interpreting the multi-layered characters who people Williams’ world is a Herculean assignment for even the most experienced company. That Goshen’s New World Arts has accepted this assignment in its current production, “Cat on A Hot Tin Roof,” is to its credit. Even though the end result is ultimately disappointing, NWA is to be applauded for taking on the challenge. The cast is made up primarily of inexperienced actors and a first-time director who struggle bravely through Williams’ emotional assembly of characters who rarely say what they mean in a situation where what is not said is ultimately more important than what is.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at New World ArtsLike “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “The Glass Menagerie,” the tale of Big Daddy Pollitt and his dysfunctional brood has proven to be catnip (pun intended!) to theater companies throughout the world. It has been  produced on Broadway half a dozen times since its debut in 1955, all with varying degrees of success., and the still-popular 1958 movie stars Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Newman and Burl Ives.  The leading role of Maggie the Cat  is an immediate  tour de force. The frustrated but tenacious young woman bursts on the scene talking and, for much of the first act, delivers a monologue to her unresponsive husband, Brick, recently injured in a drunken attempt to jump hurdles at 3 a.m. on the local football field. He is determined to drink until a “click” in his head allows him to shut out a reality he refuses to admit. Around the couple swirl his father, Big Daddy, whose recent medical checkup at a clinic reportedly resulted in an all-clear and allows him to really celebrate his 65th birthday; his mother, Big Mama, who persistently declares her love for the husband who clearly cannot tolerate her and prods Maggie to produce an heir; his brother Gooper, father of five with another on the way, a lawyer whose eye is on Big Daddy’s estate “28,000 acres of the richest land this side of the valley Nile”; and Gooper’s avaricious wife Mae. Also varied grandchildren, a preacher, a doctor and Pollitt servants, all of whom wait patiently for their entrances. As the birthday celebration progresses and a thundering storm approaches, truths are revealed, faced and, by some, accepted. The ending is not happy but the promise of truth lightens the horizon.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at New World ArtsStage veterans Bob Franklin as Big Daddy and Julie Herrli-Castello as Big Mama bring a welcome energy to their scenes as does Darryl Gilliken as Gooper. They sustain their characters throughout. Annie J. Mininger handles Maggie’s extended dialogue well (even though her projection sometimes faltered) but physically seemed too still to be balancing on the hot tin roof of personal Pollitt politics. Christa Plew delivered a shrewish Mae although her accent frequently slipped way north of the delta. The small playing area is not used nearly as well as in the recent NWA production of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” and the props, furniture (why the large lace doily draped on the settee seat?) and lack of set dressing (large blank walls) were more distracting than supportive. In the final analysis, however, I repeat my applause to NWA for taking on Tennessee. That is how we learn and that is what community theater is all about.  Undoubtedly their next encounter will be more rewarding.

“CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF” will be presented at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and May 14-15 in  the theater at 211 S. Main Street, Goshen. Entrance off Third Street. Tickets are $12 general admission and $8 for students and senior citizens. At the door or Better World Books in Goshen or visit www.brownpapertickets.com.