Some theatergoers might think the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga stages only first-rate Shakespearean plays along with classics from mostly dead playwrights. However, the troupe also adds new and contemporary works of equal caliber to its summer repertory. This season is no exception. Currently playing is Rose Cottages, a delightfully fresh modern comedy about the true meaning of family.
First seen at the Ensemble Studio Theater in New York, the play penned by Bill Bozzone and directed by Heidi Helen Davis is set in a rundown motel near Orlando, FL. Rose, the proprietor, played by Earnestine Phillips, is given a 72-hour deadline by the county health inspector to improve the place. Enter cocky 14-year-old skateboarder Lydell (Graco Hernandez) who offers to help her. She reluctantly hires him, just as a trio of tourists arrive (newlyweds, played by Aaron Hendry and Savannah Southern Smith and the groom’s oddball mother, played by Ellen Geer).
Complications quickly arise when the couple ditches mom and Rose realizes she's harboring a runaway teen. As the play evolves, the troubled threesome realizes it must begrudgingly depend on one another, thus forming a de facto "family" unlike any seen on a stage in recent memory.
At a brisk 90 minutes, director Davis creates a steady, lively pace of interaction among her gifted ensemble without a need to push for laughs. Bozzone has a knack for crafting authentic characters that make his plot devices credible—most pointedly, a faulty air conditioner that zaps Jessie (Geer) into an altered state. As a result, Jessie thinks Rose is her husband and Lydell is her son.
Some of Bozzone's best humor exhibits itself through the tormented pasts of the central figures. Perhaps the play's funniest moment comes when Lydell reveals that his father pretended to kill Santa Claus in order to silence his son's persistent questions about the bearded one's Christmas arrival. One cannot help but smile when the antics culminate in lines like "You come down here for a little R and R, you lose your mother, and your wife jumps out of the car. It's no pleasure cruise."
Of all the performances, Geer proves most memorable. First seen as an obnoxious third wheel who nags her son, a crazier, hyperactive side emerges, followed by a wacked motherly fortuneteller and finally a charming sly fox. Geer rises to the occasion through all her quirks and her co-stars play off them admirably. Phillips brings a raw, down-to-earth quality to the ornery Rose that works best when she reacts to the bizarre events around her. Hendry does a nice turn as a Jersey cop besieged by the feisty Jessie and a pesky young wife he met at a roller rink.
Although the insect-filled sound design and minimalist sets evoke the requisite grungy accommodations, more thought might have been put into creating a Florida landscape. A few more palm trees might have helped to disguise the hard-to-ignore Topanga greenery.
On opening night, Bozzone was in attendance and Davis, who is also the Theatricum's artistic director, talked about the writer's efforts to tweak the play to accommodate a female Rose (originally written for a male) and a much younger Lydell (formerly an 18-year old AWOL soldier). Both changes don't affect the tone or premise and both actors playing the roles rise to the material with ease.
It's also worth mentioning the casting of newcomer Hernandez. Geer discovered him while she was judging an acting competition sponsored by City Hearts, a nonprofit that offers arts programs to inner-city children. She then gave the 14-year-old a scholarship to the Theatricum’s Summer Youth Camp. When he auditioned for Rose Cottages, director Davis said he nailed it. His naturalistic performance helps keep the play grounded amid some of the absurd situations.
At one point amid the craziness, Lydell says: "The three of us are going to laugh about this someday," which sums up the essence of this likable comedy. While Rose Cottages explores the theme of family and the ties that bind us together, the real success of this production comes from the backstage family (the Geers and their entourage) that consistently delivers a wide variety of quality, thought-provoking theater.
The Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum is located at 1419 North Topanga Canyon Blvd. in Topanga. For tickets and information, call 310-455-3723 or go here.
Saturday, Aug. 6 at 8 p.m.
Sunday, Aug. 7 at 7:30 p.m.
Saturday, Aug. 13 at 8 p.m.
Sunday, Aug. 14 at 7:30 p.m.
Saturday, Aug. 20 at 4 p.m.
Sunday, Aug. 21 at 3:30 p.m.
Friday, Aug. 26 at 8 p.m.
*Saturday, Aug. 27 at 4 p.m.
Saturday, Sept. 3 at 8 p.m.
Sunday, Sept. 4 at 7:30 p.m.
Sunday, Sept. 11 at 7:30 p.m.
Saturday, Sept. 17 at 8 p.m.
Saturday, Sept. 24 at 8 p.m.
Saturday, Oct. 1 at 8 p.m.
Sunday, Oct. 2 at 7:30 p.m.
*Prologue (pre-show discussion): Saturday, Aug. 27 at 3 p.m. (included in ticket price)
Adults: $32 (lower tier); $20 (upper tier)
Seniors (60+): $25/$18
Students, Military Veterans, AEA Members: $20/$15
Children (7-12): $10
Children 6 and under: free