Good acting is the pleasure of Evergreen Theatre’s “Panache,” a romantic comedy running through Feb. 18 at St. Norbert College’s Webb Theatre.
Now, the play may be a bit hard to buy, but the characters are quite enjoyable.
Creative: Playwright – Don Gordon; director – Bill Sergott; assistant director – Grace Sergott; set design – Kimberly King; costume design – Nikki March; props mistress – Sara Yach; set dresser – Patricia Grimm; lighting design – Jack Rhyner; sound design – Michael O’Callaghan; production coordinator – Dawn Barron; stage manager – Dan Terrio; master carpenter – Warren Elliott; artist (for artwork in story) – Charlie Fries
Cast: Harry Baldwin – Eric D. Westpahl; Kathleen Trafalgar – Sarah Doyle; Irwin Alcott – Justine Gulmire; Laura – Trisha Picard; Jumbo Dombroski – Jerry Lesperance
Running time: Two hours, 18 minutes
Remaining performances: 7:30 p.m. Feb. 11, 16, 17, 18; 2 p.m. Feb. 12, 18
On opening night Friday, something unusual happened at the performance by the De Pere-Green Bay area troupe. The audience twice cheered what was happening, and the timing wasn’t anywhere near the climax or a particularly momentous moment. The lead actors are so convincing that the audience bought into their oil-and-water characters and responded spontaneously.
The setup for one of the cheers: The husband (unseen) of Kathleen is due for a telling off. Kathleen is such a sophisticated wuss that anger is a controlled substance – to be avoided because it is essentially illegal in her mannered life. Her advisor in this case, Harry, lives in Brooklyn – “Hey, rat face, yer mudder has smelly feet.” Plain-spoken Harry offers his suggestions for Kathleen’s method of approach. After Kathleen demonstrates how she is going to give her husband his comeuppance – limp upon limp – Harry unleashes a fiery rant. BOOM – “You this and that and everything else.” And the audience cheered. The cheer was for Harry. And Kathleen. And the characters. And sense-of-fun direction by Bill Sergott. And for being in the presence of this play and production.
Playwright Don Gordon dreams up a situation that puts two never-the-twain-shall-meet people in the same place and has them fall in love. Oops, I gave the outcome away. But, hey, the play is billed as a romantic comedy, and Harry and Kathleen are the main characters, and … duh.
Eric D. Westpahl, as usual, is really good in his character. In essence, Harry is a regular person. Bit of a slob. Drinks beer. Plays poker and Blackjack to all hours. Has a crummy job (while meantime he aspires).
Sarah Doyle has THE part. Kathleen is an “other” person for the unwashed masses. Drives a silver Mercedes. Drinks Perrier (or 40-year old brandy). Dresses with refinement. Lives in Scarsdale (where there are no scars because of reconstructive surgery). Is an honors graduate (almost the highest) of Bryn Mawr, a college of the elite… ists. Is accustomed to the best and getting her way 24/7. “No” is not part of her vocabulary when she has her mind set on something. Doyle IS this woman, in percolating character all the time – like a pot bubbling happily on the stove that always seems to be full and is never turned off.
Don Gordon’s device for getting these two characters together is a vanity license plate, “PANACHE.” Meaning: Class, style, a certain flair. Harry has the plate – first come, first served rightfully. Kathleen wants it, NEED it to complete her presence in her life view. Kathleen has the gall to go to Harry’s slovenly apartment – she has her methods of finagling the necessary information – and insisting she is the rightful person to have such a plate. Harry nicely tells her to take a hike. But Kathleen becomes his bad penny, always turning up.
That’s the easiest part of this play. Jumbo Dombroski (Jerry Lesperance) also is easy to understand. He’s Harry’s card-playing friend who’s often around, willing to dispense brass-knuckle justice (really) and lose at cards.
The challenging parts revolve around another of Harry’s friends, Irwin Alcott (Justin Gulmire), and Harry’s late wife, Laura (Trisha Picard). Irwin almost never appears in the present. Laura is present only in memories. Harry conjures these characters, either for Kathleen or for himself, as if switching TV channels with a remote control. Irwin and Laura are in his mind but are seen. This is a play with heavy doses of imagination.
How Harry meets Laura is an act of kindness for Irwin. Those sequences throw a lot of curves. So does a revelation about Kathleen’s motherhood. Much goes on in the performances that is nurtured.
All the performers shape their characters with care. There’s a delicate balance going on, and their care makes that sweet.
Harry-bonds-with-Kathleen is a not-going-to-happen scenario in real life, but the director and players make it happen in hearts. Nice.
NEXT: (Youth) “Anne of Avonlea,” Feb. 23-23; (Adult) “Fiddler on the Roof,” May 5-13.
THE VENUE: The 184-seat Neil and Mary Webb Memorial Theatre is the smaller of two theaters in St. Norbert College’s Abbot Pennings Hall of Fine Arts. The Webb stage is one-of-a-kind thrust stage, meaning it “thrusts” into the audience space. A traditional proscenium stage has a flat front and usually has curtains. A trust stage rarely uses curtains. People in front rows can practically reach out and touch performers when the performers are on the stage lip. Any seat in the theater is close to the action.
THE PEOPLE: Neil and Mary Webb were husband and wife. Neil Webb was president of St. Norbert College from 1973 to 1983. He earlier headed the St. Norbert psychology department. He left academics for a while before becoming president of Dominican College in California. On Dec. 7, 1987, Neil and Mary Webb died in an airplane crash in California in an act of sabotage by a disgruntled employee; a recent episode of Smithsonian Channel’s “Air Disasters” re-created what took place on board. The Webbs’ deaths happened shortly before the Hall of Fine Arts was to be remodeled with a small theater in the plans. Neil Webb had a lot of friends in the community and had the reputation, so his name was used to raise funds for the theater.
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