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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: Déjà vu works for ‘A Bad Year for Tomatoes’ in Sturgeon Bay

Critic At Large

Rogue Theater

This same cast from 2014 – from left Jamie Buesing, Stuart Champeau, Chris Milton, Lola DeVillers, Donna Johnson, Chris Weidenbacher and David Clowers – is returning in the current Rogue Theater production of “A Bad Year for Tomatoes.” (Troupe photo)

STURGEON BAY, Wis. (WFRV) – Writer John Patrick churned out an amazing amount of material from radio to television to Hollywood – some of it famous. With “A Bad Year for Tomatoes,” he had for-the-fun-of-it enjoyment in mind as he toyed with a what-if for a play:

What if a famed screen star is tired of it all after a long run – from her first role as a baby to her latest as a creaky old lady – and wants to disappear to Nowhere and write her autobiography all by herself… and grow tomatoes… only her Nowhere is a tiny town where everybody’s business is everybody’s business?

The seven Rogue Theater players who liked putting on the play so much in 2014 are all back for six performances in a temporary theater. It’s another chance to be a bit kookie with John Patrick’s bubbly script.

The time is the 1970s in Beaver Haven, Vermont. Myra Marlowe arrives with her agent Tom Lamont to settle in in her new home away from the maddening crowd. Myra takes on her real name – Myrtle Marigold Durdle – and soon discovers her new “crowd” of neighbors is maddeningly snoopy.

As Myra, Lola DeVillers is showcased with her bundles of energy for action/reaction acting. Myra even concocts a crazy sister, so Lola DeVillers can take on yet another identity with her trademark flair.

John Patrick’s life can be imagined in his script. From Hollywood, he has a smart-mouthy agent, played here with glibness by Stuart Champeau, who directs. From a getaway place he may have owned in the sticks, John Patrick has stereotypical characters. Speaking softly and carrying big stacks of gossip are meddling Cora (Chris Milton) and Reba (Donna Johnson). Piney (Chris Weidenbacher) is a bewhiskered oh-so-helpful do-all, stinky, guy with a run-on mouth – manure, anyone? horse or cow? how much? John Patrick’s quaint getaway must have had a spiritualist, in this case with Willa Mae (Jamie Buesing) spiriting around reading palms and such. Of course, there’s was a sheriff. This one (David Clowers) comes along to try to sort things out about the hidden identity of the star and the nutty sister she made up to shake off the clingy townsfolk.

Clearly, the performers have fun with their roles, and it can be understood why they would want to repeat the pleasures they experienced. To play on the old joke: It’s a happy déjà vu all over again.

For instance, why wouldn’t a regular guy want to put on a big fake beard and ragged clothes to be an ax-carrying bumpkin who chops wood, knows the fine points of manure, slaughters pigs and makes horehound candy to give to the gal he’s sweet on? Chris Weidenbacher’s impeccable timing and character flavorings stand out amid the overall aura of enjoyment among the players.

The performance space is one of the all-the-world’s-a-stage situations that Rogue Theater is accustomed to. The troupe has a knack for the trick of pulling a show out of a hat – an old train station or a restaurant dining room or a clubhouse or a parking lot during the COVID-19 pandemic or a church all-purpose room.  

***

Creative: Playwright – John Patrick; director – Stuart Champeau; co-artistic directors – Stuart Champeau and Lola DeVillers

Cast (in order of appearance):

Myra Marlow – Lola DeVillers

Tom Lamont – Stuart Champeau

Cora Gump – Chris Milton

Reba Harper – Donna Johnson

Piney – Chris Weidenbacher

Willa Mae Wilcox – Jamie Buesing

Sheriff/lights – David Clowers

Running time: Two hours

Remaining performances: 7 p.m. July 16-17; 2 p.m. July 18; 7 p.m. July 22-24; 2 p.m. July 25

Info: roguetheater.org

***

NEXT: “A Gentleman and a Scoundrel” by Jack Sharkey, August.

THE VENUE: The Oasis Center at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church; 1756 Michigan St., Sturgeon Bay, serves many purposes. For “A Bad Year for Tomatoes,” a portion is set up as a room in a home with a mantel, sofa, rocking chair and a work table and chairs. The audience sits on a mix of folding and fabric chairs. The ceiling and walls (wainscoted below) are of cream color, with inset lights above the performance area and five-light chandeliers above the audience (stage lighting at the rear). The audience chairs are on laminate wood, and the performance area is on carpeting. A folding wood wall to the audience’s left separates the space from a kitchen and dining area.

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