Frank’s greatest-hits compilation
Over 10 seasons, River Stage has presented more than 40 plays. Here are some highlights.
Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller (1996)—Frank Condon brought former New York actor Loren Taylor out of a lengthy retirement; Taylor had been managing a Whole Earth Access store in Sacramento and hadn’t been onstage in years. And Taylor proceeded to give a towering performance as Willy Loman, Miller’s frustrated, tragically flawed title character, whose family life and long career in sales are both dissolving before his eyes. The family keeps papering over a serious moral failure, which eventually takes its toll on all involved. Condon, who is at his best when directing serious-minded American playwrights, made a very strong case that this classic from the 1940s still speaks to us today.
Ghost Dance by Mark Stein and Frank Condon (1997)—This original drama is loosely based on an actual incident on the South Dakota frontier, in the latter phases of the wars between native tribes and the American military. An Army officer is killed, and a young Sioux tribesman is charged with murder, leading to a sensational trial that draws the attention of the daughter of a powerful U.S. senator. The script is a tapestry of romance, politics and sorrow, outlining the cultural clash between the tribes and white settlers; the double standard of justice for the two groups; and what motivated the young tribesman, including his religious beliefs. Condon interwove tense courtroom drama with conversations involving the ghost of the dead officer (a very perceptive character, played by local actor David di Francesco). Critics were impressed; SN&R dubbed Ghost Dance the year’s best local production. The play later was published and was presented briefly at Danny Glover’s Robey Theatre in Los Angeles. However, the script requires a large—which is to say “expensive"—cast. To date, Ghost Dance has yet to receive a big-city, big-budget production—a significant disappointment for Condon and Stein.
Redwood Curtain by Lanford Wilson (1998)—A 17-year-old Vietnamese-American girl—a piano prodigy who’s been adopted by an affluent American couple—heads into the woods of Humboldt County to seek her father, an embittered Vietnam vet who’s withdrawn from society. The play, written in 1993, addressed powerful social issues in the context of this strained family relationship—Condon’s production was the first in this area.
The Chicago Conspiracy Trial by Ron Sossi and Frank Condon (2001)—In the wake of the contested 2000 presidential election, Condon staged this play about justice gone awry decades earlier. He recruited almost every available male actor in the region for this enormous courtroom drama (with a cast of nearly 40!) set in the aftermath of the turbulent 1968 Democratic convention. The show began as you walked up to the theater and were greeted by anti-war protesters carrying placards and chanting slogans. Once inside, you were empanelled as a juror (along with the entire audience) and sat in judgment at one of the wildest trials in American history. The cavalcade of characters included student radicals, lawyers, cops and more. The proceedings periodically dissolved into chaos, with the defendants yelling, “Power to the people!” Particularly memorable: an actor portraying Black Panther Party leader Bobby Seale pointing to portraits of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson on the courtroom wall and crying out in anger, “Those men owned slaves!” What’s more, the real Seale was sitting in the audience and took part in a lively panel discussion after the show. The show was a hit, with River Stage turning away 100 people a night during the final performances. “People were giving flowers to our box-office staff, trying to get in,” Condon recalls.
How I Learned to Drive by Paula Vogel (2001)—This very funny but extremely dark comedy about incest with an underage girl won a Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1998, but many theater companies deemed the subject matter taboo. Condon took it on and recruited local actress Stephanie Gularte. Her performance was her breakthrough: funny, sexy, cagey and tough. Playing opposite was Loren Taylor as an outwardly charming but predatory relative who wants to get into the girl’s pants. Condon ratcheted the tension to a fever pitch. SN&R then dubbed River Stage “Best local theater.” Soon afterward, Gularte turned professional and began doing Bay Area shows; she’s now the artistic director of the Delta King Theatre in Old Sacramento.
Gunfighter: A Gulf War Chronicle by Mark Medoff (2002)—Medoff’s script, developed at River Stage in 1999, dealt with a “friendly fire” incident during the first Gulf War, when error-prone technology and bad judgment resulted in an American fighter pilot killing American troops. High-ranking officers quickly pass the blame, letting the pilot (played brilliantly by local actor Eric Wheeler) take the fall. Condon’s direction of the tense cockpit scenes as the fatal encounter occurs were the tautest piece of stagecraft seen locally in years. SN&R and the local metro daily both called Gunfighter the year’s best drama. The timing of the production couldn’t have been more acute: While the show was on the boards at River Stage, another friendly-fire incident took place in Afghanistan, involving American and Canadian troops.
Bertolt Brecht’s Berlin (2003)—With American troops invading Iraq, seizing the oil fields first, Condon chose to stage Bertolt Brecht’s The Exception and the Rule, a dark, anti-capitalist German farce from 1938 about an exploitive Western businessman (actor Andrew Hutchinson) who manipulates everyone he encounters, determined to secure the oil rights in a backward Middle Eastern country. The play was paired with a set of decadent cabaret songs from the 1930s by Kurt Weill and others.
Disability: A Comedy by Ron Whyte (2004)—A comedy? About a quadriplegic? The story involved a 20-something wheelchair-using male, confined to an upstairs apartment where he lives with his parents. He feels all the normal sexual urges for a guy his age, and he wants to meet a girl and get her into bed. With a bit of help, he places a sexy personal ad in an alternative newspaper. When the phone rings, he sets up a meeting, and soon he’s romancing the girl, who’s also in a wheelchair. But this situation is not what it initially appears to be, and the relationship soon develops into something very different (and much more scary) than the comic opening scenes foretold. Condon presented the quadriplegic (played by David Campfield) as a whirlwind of energy, steering his electric wheelchair around like a race car yet never moving his arms or legs. Loren Taylor played the quadriplegic’s father—jovial at first but gradually transforming into something reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock.