A Feisty Woman, and the Man in the Mirror
Surf City Theatre brings a rarely seen comedy to Hermosa Beach
Charles Busch has written many successful plays, including “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife,” which in 2002 was staged to acclaim at the Ahmanson Theatre. “Olive and the Bitter Herbs” didn’t garner as much praise when it opened off-Broadway a few years back, and the fact that its West Coast premiere is taking place in a community theater may not bode well.
However, Surf City Theatre feels they have a winner with their production, opening Saturday for three weekends in Hermosa Beach (as must the Kentwood Players: their take on it on is coming our way in July).
Members of the cast, the director and artistic director, munched on donuts and sipped coffee late last week, and explained why this pony is going to fly into the hearts of all who go and see it.
She’s no extrovert
Lisa Leonard, the company’s executive producer and artistic director, chanced upon “Olive and the Bitter Herbs” about three years ago. And, no, it’s not the story of a rock band.
“I loved the characters,” she says. “I thought they were all really good, solid characters and I love Olive because I understood her from the beginning. She’s a very cantankerous person at this point in her life, but there’s a lot of stuff that’s happened to Olive, and the stories come out during the play that made this person who has put up a 40-foot wall to keep people from touching her and hurting her.
“I love who she is,” Leonard continues, “and I just wanted to wrap her up in my arms and say it’s gonna be okay.”
Olive Fisher, they play’s central character, was well known for her “Gimme the sausage” commercials in the late 1980s, but her “career” has slid downward ever since. As Leonard just pointed out, she’s cantankerous and doesn’t get along with her neighbors. She lives in a building that has gone co-op, and she’s the last remaining renter.
In the Surf City Theatre production, Olive is played by Diana Mann, and her two neighbors by Steve Oreste as Troy Chamblay and Tim Peck as Robert Brannigan. Troy and Robert don’t like Olive, and she doesn’t like them. Hillary Weintraub is Wendy, who as Olive’s manager or agent feels some responsibility for her welfare. Robert Amberg is Sylvan Gusik, a genial widower and the father of the co-op’s board president.
There’s one more character, but of a spectral sort. His name is Howard and he remains hidden in the living room mirror.
The Second City Theatre stage is small, or let us say intimate, which is fine where director Jeffery Caldwell is concerned:
“We can delve into the interpersonal relationships and not worry about the audience not catching nuances with certain gestures or glances that, if you’re 15, 20 rows back, you’re not catching the subtleties of what the actors are portraying on the stage. This setting gives everybody an opportunity to make the performance more intense and more focused.”
It also allows the audience to concentrate more on the characters, and to observe how each one’s actions affect all the others. As for the ghostly Howard, Caldwell says that “there’s just enough of an essence in this mirror that everybody believes in the same hope and ideal that they seem to feel when they see the reflection of, not just themselves, but themselves in the world around them.”
Miss Charming she’s not
With all eyes on cantankerous Olive, what does Diana Mann have to say about her role?
“My biggest challenge,” Mann replies, “is making this very feisty, angry older woman likeable, because it’s so easy to tip the scales and be just a plain old icky bitch. I’m trying to find that little place where she’s human, that everyone can identify with.
“One of the ways I’ve done that is by seeing her as a smart person who sees through people’s bullshit, basically. When they say things that are just ridiculous she calls them out on it, which causes them to attack her.” Olive then uses their attacks to complain of being victimized, and this only entrenches her more deeply in her cantankerousness, and so what we end up with is a bit of a vicious circle.
“And so now the challenge of this third act of her life,” Mann says, “is trying to find out what she’s doing, what has happened to her life, and how she can become human again. So that’s my challenge.” She laughs. “It’s a big challenge.”
Leonard concurs. “The most important challenge for us was finding the right Olive… and Diana is rocking it.”
The challenge for the viewer is to empathize with a character that’s isn’t so likeable to begin with.
Perhaps the only person trying to help Olive is Wendy, who’d worked with her in the past. As Weintraub explains it, “Olive was having some trouble and I got used to checking in on her, and so now I add her to the list of people that I run errands for and do favors for.”
Weintraub got the nod for the role of Wendy after impressing Lisa Leonard and others when she performed last year in the company’s production of “Tribute.” And yet asked why she was chosen to play Wendy her reply is short and sweet: “I’m a lucky girl I think is the answer.”
Misery loves company
Trey and his husband, Tim, share a wall with Olive, and even with Wendy as a go-between they aren’t looking forward to at last meeting her in person.
“I’ve no reason to like Olive whatsoever,” Oreste says. “And then we find this common bond. We’re both really bitter, we have reasons to be bitter, and we’re also kind of bitter on our own. And I think that’s what human beings are: A lot of people have problems that they are upset about.”
Lastly, there’s Sylvan Gusik, the genial widower.
“He’s probably the angel of the play,” Oreste says. “When he gets upset–and he never really gets upset–he finds a positive spin, but the rest of us definitely have our moments when we’re not nice people.”
Led by Wendy, the various characters seem to be pushing their way into Olive’s life. “And part of the reason,” Mann says, “is Howard.”
“One of the great things about this play,” Caldwell says, “is the way it goes through its machinations. What drew me to it is the kind of anticlimactic story with the hope of optimism at the end.”
“It has a lot of layers to it,” adds Leonard. “It’s like an onion and it’s peeling and you’re seeing the different layers of the characters and the different layers of their lives. It’s cool that way. It makes it so much more interesting.”
The play itself may end on an upbeat note, but the future remains uncertain.
“It’s not like we’re all gonna find rainbows and leprechauns and a pot of gold,” Oreste says. “We still have issues that are unresolved.”
It’s a play that’s funny and yet a play that has serious concerns. Or, as Oreste puts it, “This is more real, based on reality comedy, but even tragedy can be funny.”
Everyone laughs, so he must have hit the nail on the head.
Olive and the Bitter Herbs opens Saturday at the Second Story Theatre, 710 Pier Ave., Hermosa Beach. Performances, April 16-17, 22-24, and 29-May 1, with Friday and Saturday shows at 8 and Sunday shows at 2 p.m. Tickets, $25. Call (424) 241-8040, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or go to surfcitytheatre.com.