Thornton, a Wilder and crazy (wonderful) guy

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The family (from left, Stacy Ross, Patrick Russell, Heather Gordon) reads the billboards they pass as father (Søren Oliver) drives them through Trenton and Camden in “The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden,” part of Aurora Theatre Company’s Wilder Times. Below: Infants Tommy (Patrick Russell, left) and Moe (Brian Trybom, right) discuss life in “Infancy,” the first play in the Wilder Times quartet. Photos by Jessica Palopoli

Of the four short Thornton Wilder plays that comprise Aurora Theatre Company’s Wilder Times, one is grating, one is darkly funny, one is poignant and one is so brilliant, so moving it almost erases the memory of the other three.

To begin with, these four one-acts were not written to be performed together, but director Barbara Oliver and her Aurora crew saw links between the first two, “Infancy” and “Childhood,” written in 1962, and “The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden” and “The Long Christmas Dinner,” both written in 1931. Together, they form a sort of piquant portrait of human lives, beginning to end, with special attention given to family dynamics. It’s interesting that the plays more concerned with death and time were written first, and the plays dealing with our most formative years were written 30 years later.

“Infancy,” whose most notable feature is two man babies in giant prams, is the most outright comic piece of the evening, but it’s also grating in canny way. These babies (Patrick Russell and Brian Trybom are frustrated and upset, as babies often are. They can’t communicate properly with their mothers, so they break into loud, tough-talking brutes to get their message across.

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Wilder’s dip into childhood grows murkier, and therefore more interesting, in “Childhood,” as the eldest of three siblings (Marcia Pizzo) concocts elaborate games for her younger siblings (Heather Gordon and Russell), the most involved being the one where they’re orphans after the accidental deaths of their parents. What begins as child’s play evolves into a dark dream in which mother (Stacy Ross) and father (Trybom) become actors in the death fantasies of their children. Kind of creepy, but really interesting.

Act 2 features Wilder’s two most famous short plays, and they’re full of the same kind of seemingly sentimental but actually quite trenchant and profound musings on human existence that make Our Town one of the best American plays ever written. In “The Long Christmas Dinner,” we watch one ever-changing, ever-evolving family sit down to Christmas dinner over 90 years in about 30 minutes. It’s a dazzling piece of writing full of life and death and grief and getting by. Children age from infancy to dotage, stories are told and re-told, traditions come and go, all beautifully performed by Oliver’s cast.

The stand-out here is “The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden,” a simple story of a New Jersey mom, dad and two kids driving down state to see their married daughter/sister after an illness. That’s it for plot, but Wilder fills the play with stark emotion and powerful relationships. This apparently happy family has seen major loss, and there are raging currents of sadness running through their journey.

From the backseat, mom (Ross), keeps saying to her husband, (Søren Oliver) things like, “You know what’s best.” But no one in that car, including the son (Russell) and daughter (Gordon), believes that dad, sweet as he is, is the one who’s in charge. It’s all about mom. She loves this family of hers ferociously and is doing everything in her considerable powers to ensure their happiness, safety and general well being.

Ross’ performance is revelatory. This mother figure is as complicated and as admirable as any I’ve seen on stage. Even a small spat with the son ends up being a major emotional catharsis. And the reunion with the married daughter (an extraordinary turn by Pizzo) is fraught with grief and comfort and release.

Wilder demonstrates so powerfully that length matters far less than emotionally charged, expertly sculpted content. We can experience nearly a century of life and death in a half an hour and the full breadth and complexity of a flawed, functional, loving family in one quick road trip. It’s genius, and it’s great theater.

Thornton Wilder’s Wilder Times continues through Dec. 9 at the Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $35-$50. Call 510-843-4822 or visit

TheatreWorks’ slam-dunkin’ Donuts

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A gallery of Bay Area greats. The cast of TheatreWorks’ Superior Donuts includes (from left) Howard Swain, Søren Oliver, Julia Brothers and Joan Mankin. Below: Lance Gardener as Franco Wicks. Photos by Tracy Martin


I reviewed TheatreWorksSuperior Donuts for the Palo Alto Weekly (read the review here), and the official review will be out on Friday (Oct. 15). I loved the show and appreciated Letts’ ability to create a conventionally well-made play that, unlike a donut, isn’t all empty calories and sticky sweetness.

What I didn’t have space for in the review was proper praise of the entirely local cast.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that Leslie Martinson, director of Superior Donuts, should bring together such good actors. Martinson is also the company’s casting director and has been with TheatreWorks for 26 years. Some directors say that casting is more than 50 percent of directing, and that’s probably true for Martinson, though she’s clearly a solid director (I loved her Theophilus North three years ago).

Howard Swain stars as donut shop owner Arthur Przybyszewski, an aging hippie who can’t really be bothered by life, which he describes as “a derailment.” He runs his shabby donut shop and doesn’t much care that the new Starbucks across the street is killing his business. For him, the business has been dead for years. Swain conveys Arthur’s detachment while making us care about him. Arthur has made some rough decisions in his life, and his troubled relationship with his now-dead father complicate his emotional life as well as his relationships with his own fractured family.

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You can see and feel Arthur start to liven up with the arrival of Franco Wicks, an enthusiastic 21-year-old played by Lance Gardner. If Swain is the soul of the play, Gardner is its spark. He bounces around the set like a dancer interpreting his own original score, and he’s a joy to watch. Gardner and Swain play off of each other expertly, with natural and naturally comic rhythms that go a long way toward making Letts’ play seem more profound than it might actually be.

This is a star-making performance for Gardner, who more than holds his own opposite a seasoned pro like Swain.

There is much about Letts’ play that is conventional, like the gangster Luther Flynn played by the always-reliable Gabriel Marin. Though he’s a typical big-city goon, Luther claims he has empathy, and all that empathy has given him an ulcer. Marin takes a stock character and makes it more believable. The same is true for Joan Mankin as the sort of bag lady /neighborhood drunk known as Lady Boyle. You just know Lady is going to spout crazy wisdom at some point, and sure enough, here it comes. But Mankin gives Lady a little edge. She’s not always nice, nor is she always safely sane.

Julia Brothers is Randy, a beat cop with a thing for Arthur, and her courtship – if you can even call it that – with Arthur is adorably awkward. What could be the play’s most conspicuously sappy subplot becomes its most endearing. And Michael J. Asberry as Randy’s partner reveals himself to be a “Star Trek” geek and a truly committed police officer.

As Max, the Russian proprietor of the DVD shop next door, Søren Oliver gets to play bumbling immigrant, no-nonsense businessman, neighborhood tough and sloppy drunk – and it’s all mightily entertaining.

Superior Donuts was Letts’ encore after winning the Pulitzer Prize for the considerably darker and thornier August: Osage County. His attempt to interject a slice of hope into the landscape of American drama didn’t fare very well on Broadway. I think the play fits much more comfortably on the regional stage, where plays don’t have to shake the foundations of the theatrical establishment to be noticed. TheatreWorks, a company unafraid of compassion and sentiment, is the perfect home for this play.


The TheatreWorks production of Tracy Letts’ Superior Donuts continues through October 31 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View. Tickets are $19-$67. Call 650 463-1960 or visit for information.

Review: `The Devil’s Disciple’

Michael Ray Wisely (left) is a British soldier and Gabriel Marin is Dick Dudgeon, a man about to hang even though he’s not the man the Brits think he is in the Aurora Theatre Company’s production of The Devil’s Disciple by George Bernard Shaw. Photos by David Allen


Aurora’s comic melodrama goes to the `Devil’
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The Devil’s Disciple, the Aurora Theatre Company’s latest offering, is funny as hell.

Leave it to the Aurora and the ever-reliable director Barbara Oliver to expand their list of sparkling George Bernard Shaw productions. This is Oliver’s seventh Shaw play for the Aurora, a company she helped found, and her sure hand helps team this somewhat beastly Devil.

Produced in 1897, The Devil’s Disciple was Shaw’s first success in the United States (we’re told it toured the country with a cast of 33 and a marching band), and it is his only play set in America, though technically the play, set in 1777, actually takes place in the colonies during the early years of the Revolutionary War.

Oliver’s crisp production makes do with nine engaging actors and no marching band. John Iacovelli’s set, with the help of Jarrod Fischer’s lights, transforms quickly and effectively from one spare New Hampshire home to another, to a courtroom and then, with a few swift adjustments, to a town square outfitted for a hanging.

The fact that death and war loom over Shaw’s comedy makes it rather tricky to pull off and perhaps accounts for the play’s infrequent production. But Oliver and her actors quickly find a way to balance the tone so that Shaw’s incisive humor and wry satire mix with his melodrama and his rather serious thoughts on oppression, independence and hypocrisy.

Gabriel Marin plays Dick Dudgeon, a self-proclaimed “devil’s disciple” who is reported to be a gambler, a swindler and one who runs with the gypsies. From what we know of Dick’s family – his piously pitiless mother (a wonderfully grumbly Trish Mulholland) and oafish brother (Anthony Nemirovsky) – it’s no wonder the man flew the family coop and embarked on a blasphemous life of crime and infidelity. He’s a proud reprobate, and his pride is evident in Marin’s every swagger and sideways grin.

On the occasion of his father’s death, Dick has inherited everything, including the palpable disdain of his pinched, prudish family. Strangely, Mr. Anderson (Soren Oliver in a robust performance), the Calvinist minister, sees something in Dick that belies the man’s dastardly reputation, but Anderson’s wife, Judith (Stacy Ross, above, with Marin), is so disgusted with the rogue that she recoils from him as if his devilishness were contagious.

Shaw stacks everything in Dick’s favor so that, in reacting to the ridiculous people around him, we see what a good man he is – his paternal attentions to his late uncle’s bastard child (played by Tara Tomicevic) provide irrefutable proof. It’s all a set up so that when, via mistaken identity, Dick is carted off by the Redcoats to be hanged in the town square, we know Dick will do the honorable thing and continue pretending that he is indeed the minister.

This honorable act, coupled with her husband’s cowardly dash to safety, so surprises Judith that her faith is completely shaken.

Purple melodrama and blue humor give way to red-coated comedy in the second half when the Brits go through the motions of giving Dick (aka the minister) a “trial” before they hang him. Warren David Keith, playing the real-life Gen. John Burgoyne, all but steals the show as a sensible man among twits (Allen McKelvey and Michael Ray Wisely play his bumbling comrades).

Burgoyne strikes up an almost immediate admiration for Dick and his gentlemanly ways, and the process of sending the man to his death is so bloody civilized it’s a riot.

Keith and Marin spar wonderfully, and the laughs just get bigger and bigger, stopping only when the noose is actually fitted around Dick’s neck.

True to the two-hour play’s melodramatic strains, Shaw ties things up neatly, even heroically. He leaves poor Judith, pulled from one man to another and back, flapping in the patriotic breeze, but everyone, even the British soldiers, receives a just resolution. And the audience is left to ponder the historical significance of the devils among us.



The Devil’s Disciple continues through Dec. 7 at the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $40-$42. Call 510-843-4822 or visit .