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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: ‘Becky’s New Car’ mostly shines in Tisch Mills

Critic At Large

The Forst Inn Arts Collective

Vicki Svacina is in the driver’s seat in the title role of “Becky’s New Car” presented by The Forst Inn Arts Cooperative. (Company photo)

TISCH MILLS, Wis. (WFRV)

Note: A fascinating backstory about the play follows this review.

***

“Becky’s New Car” is a cosmic comedy.

Playwright Steven Dietz likes to play with the audience.

That starts immediately. His title character, Becky Foster, looks up from a household chore, notices guests in her house and begins speaking to them – the audience. Becky hands a person in the front row a roll of toilet paper for the bathroom, should that person be headed that way.

As Becky continues chatting, her life dribbles forth.

She drifts from her living room to a desk at her place of employment, a dealership for top-line automobiles.

Cosmic moment: Becky has forgotten something in her living room, so she walks back to her living room and then returns to her desk, chatting all the way.

In the chatting, Becky reveals the course of where the play is going – in symbolic words. But it’s likely the audience is still going “Huh?” about what has been transpiring so far. Later, it becomes clear: Becky is latently frustrated. Her feelings become un-latent in big, outrageous, stunning, maybe sad/maybe not, out-there, funny ways.

Part of the experience of seeing “Becky’s New Car” at The Forst Inn Arts Collective cabaret-style theater is the up-close proximity of set pieces for scenes. Included in 25 by 15 feet (or so) are Becky’s living room and kitchen, the auto dealership office, a screened dressing area, a home hallway, a patio at a posh home and the front seat of Becky’s car(s).

Part of the experience of seeing the show on opening night Saturday was some bungling of lines and of lighting sequences. Mostly, though, this is a spunky, engaging, laugh-inducing production with director Cathy DeLain and the game cast coloring the quirky characters.

Vicki Svacina is steady on as Becky, who kind of innocently stumbles into temptation. Gee whiz, if a rich customer who buys nine luxury cars with virtually pocket change mistakenly believes that her quite living husband of 28 years is dead and is keenly interested in her, what’s a girl to do? There’s a whole lot on that smorgasbord-comedy plate, and Vicki Svacina skillfully manipulates the morsels with an excellent performance.

Teasing by Steven Dietz is everywhere in his characters and situations, and the players pretty much have a field day sending up their character’s foibles.

Two of the men are widowers who are clinging to vestiges of their late wife – casually rich Walter Flood (Scott Retzak) and woeful car salesman Steve (Zachary Lulloff).

Becky’s husband, Joe (Bill Fricke), is an average Joe roofer whose roof of his house leaks into the living room. Way to go, Joe.

Becky and Joe’s son, Chris (Darrick Bruns), is a 26-year-old perpetual graduate student with lofty analysis for everyone’s behavior and an aura of entitlement for living in his parents’ basement.

Walter Flood’s daughter, Kensington (Elizabeth Szyman), is not above latching onto a guy she likes by feigning a running injury and having the love-struck sap run a crack-of-dawn routine as she joins him by driving along in a car.

Rich widower = woman magnet, and that is Ginger (Corie Skubal), an old friend of the family with $$$ in her eyes for Walter and blood on her shark’s teeth as she glibly takes bites at Walter’s beloved departed wife.

Stepping back, there is seriousness in what Steven Dietz has created. That has to do with self-respect and how people’s lives can quick-turn toward desperation. Chris, the oh-so-smart son, would have a much loftier and detailed take, but he has sudden distractions to deal with.

“Becky’s New Car” is a different kind of comedy. Reality rubs shoulders with farce rubs shoulders with fantasy rubs shoulders with fun. Many times Saturday night, side-shaking/throaty laughs erupted from the audience, which “got it” and what the cast finessed (mostly) in leaping into the fray.

***

Creative: Playwright – Steven Dietz; director – Cathy DeLain; assistant director – Fred Schnell; stage crew – Julie Ruh; board operator – David Bundy; technical consultant – Michael Sheeks

Cast:

Becky Foster – Vicki Svacina

Joe Foster – Bill Fricke

Walter Flood – Scott Retzak

Chris Foster – Darrick Bruns

Kensington Flood – Elizabeth Szyman

Steve – Zachary Lulloff

Ginger – Corie Skubal

Running time: Two hours, 10 minutes

Remaining performances: 7:30 p.m. Aug. 23, 24; 2 p.m. Aug. 25; 7:30 p.m. Aug. 29, 30

Info: forstinn.com

***

NEXT: “Do Black Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up?” musical, Sept. 20-Oct. 5.

THE VENUE: The Forst Inn stage is wide and narrow. The space is intimate. Seating is at small tables on two levels in a slight arc in front of the slightly raised stage. To the audience’s left is the stage director’s space, with light and sound controls. The space is essentially a black box in theater style in the front – with additions: two chandeliers above the audience, a street lamp the seating area and the ambiance of 1920s style elements to the rear in a service area.  A seating/serving area is in the middle of the building, along with a ticketing counter. The bar area out front includes the bar, table seating, more 1920s ambiance and a passage to an art gallery (rotating artists) that is now part of the offerings of The Forst Inn Arts Collective. The building dates to 1868, with assorted lives over the years. For a notable period – 1990 into the 2000s – the place was popular for productions of Little Sandwich Theatre, which Manitowoc attorney Ron Kaminski (deceased 2018) nurtured with a caring hand as artistic director/performer/do-all for a wide array of productions. The present venture is of that spirit.

++++

The backstory

Charles and Benita Staadecker will not be catching this production of “Becky’s New Car,” but they have seen around 40 productions around the country. Their interest? They commissioned the play.

The Staadeckers offer an illuminating perspective on how plays come to be – at least how “Becky’s New Car” came to be.

The couple is quite enjoying what happened and continues to happen. That would include this add-on to my review.

Charles Staadecker contacted me Wednesday. Benita calls him Charlie. She says Charlie has an app on his cell phone that alerts him to productions of “Becky’s New Car.” I wrote a preview story for the WFRV website, and – bingo! – he emailed this:

“My name is Charlie Staadecker, and I am that crazy husband who decided to give his wife a very unconventional 60th birthday present, a play!
“Formerly of Seattle, we now live in Naples, Florida, where we retired. In Seattle, I went to ACT Theatre, where my wife served on the board. I presented this idea to Artistic Director Kurt Beattie, who had always dreamed of New Plays for the American Theatre by ACT. This would be the first. My only instruction was, ‘Don’t make it dark, it’s a birthday present.’ Kurt then called his dear old friend Steven Dietz and challenged him to write a comedy. Really a deep play about choices you make wrapped in a comedy.
“My goodness, what a journey for us. We have seen over 38 different productions and met the heartfelt artists who make regional Theatre a reality.
“We were told how lucky we were to have a success on our hands, and out of gratitude we spoke to Theatre boards, patrons and audiences encouraging them to do what we did and commission a play. I believe 22 new works were created in our advocacy.
“I could go on and on, but the real expert is my dear wife, Benita. If you want any further backstories, contact her as she is a delight much like Gracie Allen.”

The next morning, I interviewed Benita Staadecker by phone. Here are highlights of our conversation, sometimes as a Q. and A.:

“There were two stipulations for the play – one from Charlie and one from the artistic director,” Benita said. “From the artistic director basically was it can’t be about you (the Staadeckers), and that they would prefer that we would not dictate terms. And Charlie basically only said, ‘Please don’t make it dark. It’s a birthday gift.’

“The artistic director, being wise, hired Steven Dietz, who had worked with the theater for many years, and they knew his work and they liked him a lot. The artistic director said to Steven, ‘I challenge you to write a comedy’ because comedy, as we have discovered, is the hardest thing to write. Steven has said – and this is not a direct quote – ‘Give me a weekend and a bottle of scotch, and I can give you a play. No problem. But a comedy is much more difficult.’ In fact, it took over a year-and-a-half before we saw even the first vestige of ‘Becky’s New Car’.”

Along with seeing “Becky’s New Car” in city after city, the Staadeckers have seen the play multiple times in those cities, Benita said.

“We like to go to either the dress rehearsal or the opening night because that’s always exciting,” she said. “And then, if possible, we like to go toward the closing because there are always changes that happen. The actors become more familiar, both with themselves in the part and with each other. So it’s always interesting for us to see that dynamic.”

I said, “It has to be interesting just from production to production to see how the troupes put things together.”

“Amazing,” Benita said. “The directors all have had a different take on the play, some because of the staging. It was originally staged in the round. So it was made for the round. Not every theater can do it in the round, so they have to make stage changes, and that’s always interesting.

“We have seen it in professional theaters with professional actors. We have seen it non-professional theaters with I will say non-professional actors but who have wowed us with their ability. So I don’t think there are any non-professional actors. They’re all professional. Some are just paid more than others. Only a couple have basically disappointed us, but in the scheme of things that’s not so terrible.”

I asked, “By any chance, are you coming to Tisch Mills in Wisconsin?”

When told no, I said, “Well, let me explain it. Tisch Mills is a crossroads, and the theater is a crossroad theater. Any direction you drive, you have to drive through farmland. You’re thinking you’re going to the wrong place. It’s one of those if-you-build-it-they-will-come kind of things. But inn has been around for a century or so. In the last 20 years, it’s been a place for small theater.”

Benita said, “I wonder why they chose ‘Becky’s New Car’.”

I responded, “The troupe is run by two people. One (Michael Sheeks) teaches theater at a local two-year campus of a university. His partner (Catherine Egger) is in real estate (among her ventures). They got together and revitalized this theater, which had been dark for a number of years when the founder (Ron Kaminski) died. They want to have a variety of presentations. They do comedy. Did you ever hear of ‘Tony ‘n Tina’s Wedding,’ an audience participation show? (Yes). They just finished a run of that. Prior to that, they did ‘Death of a Salesman.’ (Uh-huh). They also did ‘The Glass Menagerie.’ Coming up, they’ll do ‘Do Black Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up?’ So they have a mix of things, but they always want to have a finger on theater theater. That’s why.

Benita said, “Okay. Well, I don’t think they (the audience) will be disappointed.”

Q. Are you going to any cities coming up to see “Becky’s New Car.”

A. As it happens, we live in Naples, Florida, and one day we opened the paper and saw that our local theater is doing “Becky’s New Car” in April of 2020. So that makes it very convenient for us to host the cast and have a party and invite all our friends to enjoy this with us. That’s the only one we know so far. Charlie has an app on his phone that alerts him every time “Becky’s New Car” is mentioned, so we always keep abreast of where it is. If something happens that we can put it on our calendar and afford to go, we’ll go.

Q. Do you report back to Steven Dietz when you see a production?

A. Yes, we do. We always tell him which ones we’ve seen and sometimes what we thought, and sometimes we keep it to ourselves.

Q. What does he most want to know?

A. He likes to know where we’ve gone. Another thing, he likes our opinion, but we usually keep it pretty short.

Q. What do you like about the play?

A. I like to watch the audience. I know the play backwards and forward. Except if it’s done very poorly, I don’t get crazy. But I like to watch the audience and see their reaction because there are a couple of moments in the play when it’s a kind of an ah-hah moment, and that to me is the most interesting – the audience, have they discovered the clues? And do they see what’s going to happen? Because it’s not so straightforward. There are some twists and turns like any road a car would go down. It’s not straight the whole way. It’s a left and a right and a U-turn. So that to me is the most interesting.

I said, “I have seen the play a couple of times so far, and it impresses me that the audience really doesn’t know what to expect.”

“Right,” Bonita said. “Well, there are moments when you have to let go of reality. (She spoke of a specific, a spoiler). So you have to suspend reality for a couple minutes and just kind of go with it. But I think it works on a level that understanding that there are a lot of people who have had a Becky moment. I have had many women who have come up to me after the play and said, ‘I so understand what she’s going through. I have had that Becky moment in my life.’ That’s very thought-provoking in that a play can really speak to the emotions that people are having. But you have to realize the play was written 12 years ago, and we were going through a pretty deep recession and Becky had to work and wasn’t feeling appreciated either at the job or at home. A lot of both men and women have gone through that experience, though there are a lot of things there in the play besides just Becky and what she’s going through emotionally.

Q. When you visit the play in another city, do you let on what your connection is?

A. Oh, yes. We never go in like mystery shoppers. They always know we’re coming. We don’t try to overwhelm them. We’re not the center of attention. We always offer, if they want, to use us in any way for publicity or to help with promotion or to talk to the actors and give them insight into the characters and how they were developed because we were there from the very beginning, the very first table reading, through all the cuts and different aspects of how the play happened. So we’re always willing to share what we know. But if they don’t want to hear from us, we’re quiet and we’ll watch the play and applaud and be very grateful for another performance. It just depends on what the theater wants.

Q. Let me guess, you really don’t want to give an assessment necessarily, either. Like, “Oh, yours is pretty good, but we’ve seen better.”

A. Everybody always asks.

Q. Right. “What did you think?” Right?

A. Yes – “Wasn’t this the best one you’ve ever seen?” I’ve developed a rejoinder in that whatever city I’m in, it’s the best one I’ve ever seen in that city. That’s all. It’s like your favorite child. “Who’s your favorite child?” You can’t do that. I don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings. It’s not just the actors who are working hard and the director and lighting director and the stage manager and the person who sweeps the floor – they’re all working hard to make good theater. I am certainly not there to tell them they’re not doing their job. That’s not my role. My role is to show how grateful we are that they’ve done this play.

Q. I think you’re a good person to ask this question. It’s one I’ve been wrestling with for a long time. What is it about theater, you can go any direction, basically, and you come a community and people are putting on plays there. What is it about people that they have to put on plays?

A. This is my assessment from the years that we have been involved in the arts, not just theater, but symphonies. We’ve commissioned four symphonic works. We’ve been very involved in the arts, and I will tell you without regard that without art there would be no element of our history left for future generations. If you look to the Greeks and the Romans the Peloponnesians – how do we know about them? We know about them through their art, whether it’s their architecture, their plays, their writings, their music – whatever it is – we know about them through their art. And I believe in my heart that’s what this is all about. We’re not wealthy. Neither of us was born with a silver spoon in our mouth. We worked hard, and we made a decision on how to spend our money.  Everybody has a right and a reason to donate their disposable income. We just made a decision that we wanted to support the arts because in times of cutbacks, the arts are always the first to be taken out of the budget and we believe that art is critical and important, and we want to support it. So that’s what we do, and that’s why we do it. Nobody’s going to know who I am 200 years from now. But maybe somebody will say, “Oh my God, I found this play in the archives called ‘Becky’s New Car,’ and oh, somebody must have paid to have this written because it’s dedicated to Benita Staadecker. Who is the heck is she?” Well, you know, it’s pretty amazing to have your name on something that basically could live forever, and I’m very grateful for that. And we encourage other people to do it because it’s not hard. I’m not going to discount that it’s not expensive because it can be anywhere from $25,000 to $50,000 to commission a playwright to write a play. So, no small change. But it’s beautiful and we’ve done it ourselves and we’ve done it with other couples and we’ve had wonderful experience by doing it and we encourage other people to do it because it’s a lot of fun and it’s amazing to have something that, you know, it’s going to be in the archive, it’s going to be in the library, it’s going to be there, and that’s a gift. A gift that keeps on giving.

Q. Do you get to share in any of the royalties in this?

A. No, we don’t. What we did was in our contract – I don’t know how many years – but a portion of Steven’s royalty went back to ACT Theatre, so it was a gift that we made to ACT Theatre. I think so far it’s been over $80,000 has gone back to the theater. But we get no royalties. We just get intrinsic pleasure, that’s what we get.

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