Noel Coward in Paradise
Charming performances mark Theatre on the Ridge’s solid new production
Charming performances and a solidly produced and directed rendering of a clever Noel Coward script combine to make Present Laughter a winner at Theatre on the Ridge.
The fast-paced, 1940s-era British romantic comedy chronicles a discord-filled slice of the life of Garry Essendine, a self-important, silk-robed, overly dramatic stage performer who is a magnet for ego stroking (and more) from a wide variety of ladies who find his allure irresistible. “Everybody worships me, it’s nauseating,” he says. Scandalous personal truths are revealed to the audience throughout, and the anticipation of whether all of the characters discover those truths drives much of the intrigue of the production.
Garry’s well-furnished living room—its walls full of past show posters and a pretentious self-portrait—is the setting for all of the play’s farcical and melodramatic moments. Players come and go and briskly move about, and a symphony of closing doors and ringing telephones and doorbells further define the rapid tempo.
The talents of established local standouts Sean Green (as Garry), Sheri Bagley (as his still very present ex-wife), and Shaunna Jones (as his loyal but assertive assistant), all under the direction of TOTR co-founder Judy Clemens, guide this true-to-the-original adaptation of Coward’s delightful play.
During a recent show, Green, who has displayed a remarkable range of characters in recent area performances, flawlessly executed Garry’s persona of a talented but narcissistic actor who is staring middle age in the face. “My life is one long torment and nobody ever cares,” he says, garnering little sympathy.
The versatile Bagley, who had no trouble perfectly assuming the role of a purse-lipped British woman of privilege, skillfully provided the voice of reason and keeper of decorum among a cast full of dysfunctional characters.
Jones was the perfect Monica, prim and proper while simultaneously cold and steely, with the ability to deliver a piercing glare of disdain even while offering a toothy smile. “Your belief in yourself is about as timid as Napoleon,” she is able to get away with telling Garry, her boss.
The venerable John Marek was excellent as the possibly insane, definitely creepy Roland Maule, a peppy and giggly author who kept Garry off-balance and added a special facet of amusement to the show. And Leandra McNeal, as the young Daphne Stillington star-struck in Garry’s presence, was appropriately over-the-top as she often professed her love for the leading man.
Teal Dougherty, who portrayed Sara Lane Kerr on TV’s The Edge of Night more than 50 years ago and has recently blessed locals with a return to the stage, was delightful in her limited role as Lady Saltburn.
In a role that brought the play’s boldest and most provocative moments, Kim Bertoglio’s depiction of Joanna, a predatory seductress of a certain age, fell a little short on this Friday night, with a few missed lines and overall slight lack of oral projection and believability.
Present Laughter is the second production of Jerry Miller’s tenure as artistic director of TOTR. Miller, the longtime Summer Theatre Festival director, Butte College Theatre Arts instructor, and veteran performer and director, replaced Joel P. Rogers, TOTR’s first-ever artistic director who departed to Santa Cruz. Executive director Clemens is pleased to have Miller as her primary creative teammate.
“After Joel left last summer I said if we were going to replace this position there’s only one person for it,” Clemens said. “We’ve worked together since the early ’80s. Besides being talented, if there’s one word to describe Jerry, it’s ‘collaborative.’”
Miller, who helped with the stage design and painted the portrait of Garry that hangs prominently on the Present Laughter set, has helped draw a wider range of local talent from Chico and Oroville, according to Clemens. “New blood is the only way the theater can continue to grow,” she said.