There she is
Many plays set in the 1950s are nostalgic tributes to high-school days where girls in bobby socks flirt with guys in muscle cars. Significantly, there isn’t a teenager in sight in River Stage’s 10th-anniversary production of Mrs. California. It’s about four married, grown-up women.
Most of these women worked during World War II, building bombers or transmitting secret coded messages for the military. But as this show begins, in the early 1950s, the war is over, and so are their jobs. Now, the women are supposed to stay home and be good little housewives. What’s more, they’re competing to become “Mrs. California.” It’s a contest that tests their skill with an ironing board and their ability to prepare a tasty meatloaf on short notice.
This situation gives Mrs. California a lot more socio-historical context than a cream puff like Grease, but it’s still very much a comedy. Many laughs stem from the sheer insanity of the televised competition itself, including an over-the-top announcer (actor Andrew Hutchinson) and a malfunctioning sewing machine. There’s also rivalry between the contestants. Mrs. San Francisco, a regal, childless Francophile (Kristine David, looking like an ice queen) clashes with Mrs. Modesto, a plump, down-home mother of seven (Shaleen Schmutzer-Smith, dressed like an Okie). We witness a struggle for the soul of Mrs. Los Angeles (Katherine Pappa, seen recently in The Taming of the Shrew). She has to choose between her dangerously sexy, divorced and slightly devious best friend (Jana Wilhelmi) and her repressed, unctuous corporate sponsor (David Campfield, a hoot in thick eyeglasses).
Director Vada Russell keeps things popping, emulating the visual style and energy of River Stage artistic director Frank Condon. Condon turned over control of this production after the recent passing of his wife, Kim, who designed costumes for River Stage’s Mrs. California in 1994. This time, Nancy Pipkin’s smart costumes include everything from bathrobes to Eisenhower-era evening gowns.
Mrs. California is solidly entertaining. It’s also likely to start conversations, which is the trademark of River Stage.