A Case of Libel--An Intense Courtroom Drama at NTC A Steady Rain--A Tale of Two Chicago Cops at MTC The Trip to Bountiful-A Memory Play at California Conservatory Theatre A Valentine's Day Treat

Ron Dailey, Alma Deleon and Michael Walraven in A Case of Libel

This lively courtroom battle inspired by the real trial between journalists Quentin Reynolds and Westbrook Pegler is now brought to the stage by the Novato Theater Company as it presents its winter production of A Case of Libel.

Written by Henry Denker, this 1963 Broadway play tells the story of Dennis Corcoran (Bill McClave), a liberal news correspondent who returns from World War II after performing heroically only to be characterized as a drunkard and Communist sympathizer by an ultra-conservative columnist, Boyd Bendix (MIchael Walraven).  

With the help of a brilliant attorney Robert Sloan (Paul Abbot), based on the actual case's Louis Nizer in My Life In Court, Corcoran brings a libel suit against Boyd Bendix.  The climax in which Bendix is tripped up by his own contradictory writings was in reality based on a small portion of the Reynolds/Pegler litigation but it provides a satisfactory "sauce for the goose" third Act.  

The show gets off to a slow start in Act One which takes place in the mid 1950's in New York City in the office of attorney, Robert Sloan.  Director Ron Nash builds from a quiet start when Dennis Corcoran and his wife Anita (Renee Mandel-Sher) come into Sloan's office while he is going over his vacation itinerary.  When Sloan agrees to take Corcoran's case, Nash builds through various twists and turns, as Sloan prepares Dennis for trial.

Then the play really takes off in Acts Two and Three which take place in the courtroom. Here Nash skillfully directs his cast to display the mounting emotions of Corcoran's day-after-day in court.  

The principal players are all outstanding, particularly Paul Abbot as Robert Sloan with his beautiful voice and fine stage presence.  Bill McClave sympathetically portrays Dennis Corcoran.  In contrast, Michael Walraven effectively personifies his adversary, Boyd Bendix with overbearing arrogance.  Kris Neely gives a strong portrayal as Bendix's lawyer Paul Cleary.  Ron Dailey skillfully brings three characters to life--a Scottish military man (with a perfect Scottish dialect), one of the firm's partners and a drunken editor.  Renee Mandel-Sher as Anita Corcoran gives a fine performance as Dennis' supportive wife.  Even though the roles of the Judge (Alma Deleon) and the Court Reporter (Elizabeth Rohtla) have few lines, they contribute a great deal to the courtroom drama by their facial expressions which reflect close attention to detail.  

Director Ron Nash helped both to set the mood from time to time by having some of the actors read aloud headlines from the mid-1950's.  He also designed the set and the action so the audience finds itself in the jury box.  Finally, Nash deserves high praise in directing his very large ensemble who bring this intense courtroom drama to life onstage.

A Case of Libel runs through March 11 at 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, and Sunday at 3 p.m. Performances are held at the Novato Theater Company Playhouse, 484 Ignacio Blvd., Novato.  For tickets, call 415-883-4498 or go online at www.novatotheatercompany.org.

Coming up next at Novato Theater Company is A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum by Stephen Sondheim, Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart, April 6-29, 2012.

Flora Lynn Isaacson

Joey (Kevin Rolston) and Denny (Khris Lewin) in A Steady Rain at Marin Theatre Company

A Steady Rain by Keith Huff and directed by Meredith McDonough is a little gem which is having its West Coast Premiere at Marin Theatre Company. This play premiered in Huff's native Chicago in 2007 and is best known as the play Hugh Jackman and Daniel Craig starred in on Broadway in 2009.  

A Steady Rain is a crime drama told through the confessions of Denny and Joey, two less than reputable Chicago beat cops which takes the form of team monologues to the audience, telling us what happened to them.  There is not a wasted moment in the dialogue.  Everything is essential.  

Denny (Khris Lewin) and Joey (Kevin Rolston) are two of Chicago's less than finest beat cops who confess to the audience the misdeeds and mistakes that have turned their lives into violent chaos with their in-your-face storytelling.  These two Chicago police officers are longtime partners and best friends.  Joey is single and lonely, and Denny is married with children; but both men have flaws and serious problems.  Introverted Joey struggles with a drinking problem and secretly loves Denny's wife, Connie; angry tough-guy Denny can barely disguise his racism and cheats on Connie with a prostitute on his beat.  

These two cops offer contrasting descriptions of their harrowing experiences.  They relate how Walter Lorenz, a pimp that Denny has harassed over the years, shoots a bullet through Denny's front window causing flying glass to sever an artery in Denny's son's neck. Denny pursues Lorenz relentlessly drawing Denny into a series of dangerous and incriminating activities. During a domestic disturbance, the two return a frightened Vietnamese boy to a man who says he is the boy's uncle.  The uncle turns out to be a cannibalistic serial killer.  

These two actors have mastered the Chicago street-speak, with their accents mostly in place and they both tell their characters' stories with a centeredness that confidently holds the stage.  Kevin Rolston creates a complete portrait as Joey who emerges as a constant worrier born with a sense of guilt and a fear of offending.  Khris Lewin does a great job of bringing Denny to life as a blustery family guy with skewed notions of domestic and professional honor.  

Meredith McDonough's tight staging on a sparse set by Andrew Boyce-just a couple of green upholstered metal chairs on a platform under a slanted, grated ceiling is enormously effective.  Go see A Steady Rain. According to MTC's Artistic Director, Jasson Minadakis says, "It's a roller coaster ride of suspense and surprises that takes the good cop-bad cop genre to a level all its own."  

Performances run through February 26, 2012, Tuesday, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.; Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 7 p.m. There are matinees on Sunday at 2 p.m. and a special Saturday matinee February 25 at 2 p.m. Performances are held at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley, CA.  For tickets, call 415-388-5208 or go to www.marintheatre.org.

Coming up next at Marin Theatre Company will be Othello, the Moor of Venice by William Shakespeare directed by Jasson Minadakis, March 29 through April 22, 2012.

Flora Lynn Isaacson

The Trip to Bountiful by Horton Foote is set in the 1950's and tells the story of an elderly woman, Carrie Watts (Phoebe Moyer) who wants to return home to the small town where she grew up, but is frequently stopped from leaving Houston, Texas by her daughter in-law, Jessie Mae (Sylvia Burboeck) and her overprotective son, Ludie (Steve Rhyne).  

Mrs. Watts is determined to outwit her son and bossy daughter in-law and set out to catch a train only to find the trains don't go to Bountiful anymore.  She eventually boards a bus to a town near her childhood home.  On the journey, she befriends Thelma (Siobhan Marie Doherty) who is traveling alone and reminisces about her younger years and grieves for her lost relatives.  Her son and daughter in-law eventually track Mrs. Watts down with the help of the local police force.  However, Mrs. Watts is determined. The local sheriff (Michael Fay) is moved by her yearning to visit her girlhood home and offers to drive her out to what remains of Bountiful.  The village is deserted and the few remaining houses are derelict.  Mrs. Watts is moved to tears as she surveys her father's land and the remain of the family home.  Her son eventually turns up and drives her back to Houston.   

Phoebe Moyer gives a moving performance as Carrie Watts, both heart-wrenchingly frail, yet cunningly willful.  Sylvia Burboeck as Jessie Mae has excellent playing energy and displays her complete self-absorption.  Steve Rhyne strikes the perfect note as the husband and son caught between two women.  Siobhan Marie Doherty is charmingly sympathetic as Thelma and Michael Fay does double duty as both the Sheriff and Ticket Man. He is ably supported by WM. Hunter as both Roy and another Ticket Man.  The speech of these characters reflects the southern Texas locale and is consistent.

Kimberly Richards is a wonderful director who establishes real connection in all of her cast. Equally impressive is the set design by Flash Bazbeaux. The opening scene is a multi-faceted set of both a living room and a bedroom.  All through the play there are wonderful projections on the back wall showing us detailed scenes of where we are and where we are going.  

Phoebe Moyer's remarkable performance is worth the price of admission. She portrays Carrie Watts as not some daffy forgetful old lady hankering for an unrecoverable past, but a canny survivor who is able to accept the compromise involved in fulfilling her wish to return to her past of past losses and happy memories.  

At any rate, you'll find this trip worth taking!  

The Trip to Bountiful continues Friday at 8 p.m., February 17 and 24; Saturday at 2 p.m., February 25; Saturday at 8 p.m. February 18 and 25 and Sunday at 2 p.m., February 19 and 26.  Performances are held at the California Conservatory Theatre of San Leandro, 999 East 14th St., San Leandro, CA.  Call for tickets at 510-632-8850 Tuesday-Friday, 12 p.m. to 4 p.m.

Flora Lynn Isaacson

David Rouda as Aaron and Lonnie Haley in On the Nose by Rod McFadden

The Treat Street Theatre opened its inaugural performance last Friday night, February 10, 2012.  Their mission is to keep new theatre alive and growing and to support local artists.  This inaugural performance is in partnership with The Playwright's Center of San Francisco.  

This first program honors two prolific local playwrights, Rod McFadden and Don Samson and is entitled, Counting On Love--In the Age of Mappo...and other stories of the heart.  The six one act plays presented provide a diverse assortment of romantic and love-themed stories just in time for Valentine's Day weekend.  

In program order, the first offering, Counting On Love by Rod McFadden and directed by Carol Eggers, is a playful study of an eager young suitor, Vincent, refreshingly played by Patrick Bibeau, who skillfully navigates his way through the labyrinth of his newfound object of affection's dating logic.  Sophia has a Ph.D. in mathematics and is played smartly and sexily by Erika Perez.  

The next play, Sunday at Buckley's by Don Samson and directed by Anna Budd, explores the consequences of retreating from unfinished business. This is a phone conversation between Jim (played with nonchalance by Michael Belitsos) while at his favorite Sunday spot and his daughter, Lisa (played by Elena Marella in an intense performance).  This play has a surprise ending!  

Act one ends with Love Birds, a charming romance by Rod McFadden and expertly directed by Carol Eggers.  Love Birds appeared at the 2011 Fringe of Marin Festival to appreciative audiences.  A young man, George (Rick Roitinger) and a young woman Marcia (Claudia Rosa) meet on a park bench. George is feeding the pigeons and Marcia is reading a Jane Austen novel.  Both Rick Roitinger and Claudia Rosa are a dynamic duo as their romance develops.  It is a clever idea to have the lights go on and off to designate that 3 weeks have passed. Two lonely people find each other when reading and feeding.  

Act two opens with On the Nose by Rod McFadden and skillfully directed by Crystal Nezgoda. This is a hilarious last straw comedy about the heights of tolerance and patience one love can have for another.  Paul, played to the hilt by Lonnie Haley, is the patient house-husband and Aaron, naively played by David Rouda, is his oblivious bread winning partner.  This delightful comedy is a real crowd pleaser!  

Next, Sally by Don Samson and sensitively directed by Suzanne Birrell, is a tense domestic comedy in which two married lesbians, Lisa (Desiree Rogers) and Jean (Claudia Rosa) stretch both of their abilities to maintain family harmony while the kids are in the next room watching t.v.  

The grand finale is the World Premiere of Rod McFadden's A Sudden Past, set in 1929 at the dilapidated Temple Theatre in upstate New York. Director Greg Young very cleverly begins the program with a silent movie set in the same period.  Here we find Le Roi the Magnificent, as Vaudeville magician (played with style by Rick Roitinger) who is still grieving the death of his Talma (the beautiful Robin Meyerowitz) three years after her passing.  He looks for guidance while braving the fading Vaudeville circuit with his new assistant, Adelaide (delightfully played by Elena Marella), who has big plans of her own.  The fabulous costumes are designed by Mary Dollar.  

Playwrights Rod McFadden and Don Samson are unique voices whose work blends deliciously for a great night of theatrical storytelling.  Performances are at 8 p.m. February 13, 14, 17 and 18 at the Exit Studio Theatre, 156 Eddy Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/220963 or at www.theexit.org.

Flora Lynn Isaacson