Shake me, wake me

Standing in the Shadows

Reach out, I’ll be there: Alicia Dienst, Joanne Blankenship.

Reach out, I’ll be there: Alicia Dienst, Joanne Blankenship.

“I didn’t choose to do this play,” says Marsha Swayze, president of the Lambda Players Board and the director of its latest production, Standing in the Shadows, explaining that the woman who was originally slated to direct had to drop out, leaving her reluctantly holding the bag—until she read the script. “I was overwhelmed by the story, and was quickly thankful I decided to direct it,” she says.

Standing in the Shadows, written by Rosemary McLaughlin, is loosely based on a highly publicized, real-life custody case involving a woman’s parents, medical authorities, gay-rights advocates and the woman’s lover.

The play opens with Rebecca (Alicia Dienst), a young woman critically injured in a car accident on the New Jersey Turnpike, who is desperately trying to get her bearings and make sense of where she is and what has happened to her. Her memories are a jumble of old jokes and nursery rhymes, fragmented by flashes of the crash. Now, as Rebecca lies in a hospital bed in a coma, her lover, Emily (Joanne Blankenship) must struggle not only with her own emotions, but for the right to help her partner recover.

Through a series of internal monologues, we see Rebecca progress slowly from aphasia to a clear understanding of what has happened to her, who she has become and—most important—what she wants. These monologues are blended with flashback scenes, where Rebecca remembers her years with Emily, and with scenes in the hospital room. There, Emily takes steps to help Rebecca communicate; she also tries to stimulate Rebecca’s senses with poetry, big-band music and a specially rigged laptop computer—to all of which Rebecca gradually responds.

The play also features Sarah Palmero as a workaholic doctor whose fascination with the case may get her fired. Laura Chakravarty Box and Harvey Farr portray Pearl and Dwight Hoover, Rebecca’s average parents from the Midwest, who have yet to come to terms with their daughter’s sexuality. Farr has an extensive history in Sacramento theater, recently appearing in another Lambda Players production, Oscar and Bosie, about the life of Oscar Wilde.

Elly-nominated actor J.G. Gonsalves joins this cast for his second appearance with the Lambda Players, fresh from playing the role of Willie in Celebration Arts’ critically acclaimed production of Master Harold and the Boys. Gonsalves plays a Jamaican nurse whose decency and empathy for the couple makes up for the harsh reality and unforgiving bigotry that others sometimes show.

With the recent Vermont decision to grant domestic benefits to committed gay couples that would parallel heterosexual marriage rights being challenged, the social commentary that this presentation provides is a timely one and remains one of the most heated and debated issues.

“It’s incredible,” Swayze assures. “It’s such a strong, poignant play and so relevant to our times, I think people are going to walk out of the theater amazed and, hopefully, a little more educated about their own relationships and the rights and responsibilities that come with them.”

Swayze says the turnout for auditions was quite enthusiastic, which blessed the play with a strong cast. The show’s logistics presented more of a challenge, however. One of the more difficult technical problems she faced was how to block movement in a play whose script called for its principal character to be either in a hospital bed or in a wheelchair for most of the show. “It was particularly difficult, given the small stage space of the Geery Theater,” she admits. “But it’s just a matter of seeing what works, and I like a lot of input from the actors on blocking as well. Yes, certain things need to be done, but it also has to feel and look natural. And it won’t if the actors don’t feel it.”