Writers and critics who cover the efforts of community theater companies have seen most if not all the old classics. In theater parlance, plays like Annie, A Christmas Carol and Our Town are called “workhorses,” meaning familiar scripts with commercial appeal for audiences who tend to ignore more recent playwriting developments. Imagine our surprise and delight, then, when an amateur company chooses an entire slate of obscure material for its first full season back from the pandemic. Such is the case with Olympia Little Theatre (OLT), which will offer a roster of seven shows entirely new to most audience members. Feeling adventurous?
OLT has a template for how it arranges its play genres each year, “a varied season so we’re not doing all comedies or all dramas,” explains board president Kendra Malm. “The way we set it up, it has a nice rhythm to it.” The first show out of the gate next season, directed by Toni Holm with an opening date of September 9, is Tiny Beautiful Things, adapted by Nia Vardalos (of My Big Fat Greek Wedding fame) from a bestselling book by memoirist Cheryl Strayed. Strayed inherited an online advice column, “Dear Sugar,” from her friend Steve Almond, replying to TheRumpus.net readers’ inquiries for two years before divulging her true identity. Holm has wanted to direct the stage adaptation, which follows Strayed surrogate “Sugar” through that unpaid assignment, since before the pandemic. The New York Times called the script a “handkerchief-soaking meditation on pain, loss, hope and forgiveness” and warned audience members to “brace yourself for a good (and good is the word) cry.”
“The second show is a comedy,” Malm continues, “Leaving Iowa, directed by Kathy Dorgan.” This warmhearted, family-friendly dramedy, by Tim Clue and Spike Manton, is about “a family road trip,” explains Malm, as seen “from both the past and the present. It’s about kids taking their father’s ashes back to Iowa, and also remembering road trips in the past.” Dorgan led Olympia High School’s drama program for 22 years and is now the artistic director for Creative Theatre Experience at Harlequin Productions. Her first of two OLT slots this season will open October 21.
Of course it wouldn’t be a community theater season without a holiday show, which brings us to One Christmas Eve at Evergreen Mall, written by Lynne Halliday, James Hindman, Arlene Hutton and Craig Pospisil. It’s the debut directing effort from OLT house manager Scott Ellgen, and opens December 2. “It’s sort of like an Almost, Maine,” says Malm, referring to another theatrical workhorse. It’s “all about dealing with the Christmas season.” On the last day of holiday shopping at the titular, Midwestern mall, eight vignettes introduce us to, as the script’s publisher, puts it, a “diverse cast of characters — from a lovesick mall Santa to an overeager mall cop, from a pair of brainy misfit teenagers to a pair of battling actors in a production of A Christmas Carol, from a petulant college freshman to a pair of newlyweds.” Expect charm enough to sustain theatergoers till the vernal equinox.
OLT likes to greet new calendar years with serious dramas, in keeping, perhaps, with Olympia’s rainy days and long winter nights. In January 2023, it’ll open The Man From Earth, adapted by Richard Schenkman from Jerome Bixby’s final screenplay and directed by Robert McConkey (Clockwork, Clue). It’s about “a group of college professors,” says Malm, “coming out to say goodbye to a colleague who is retiring. … He claims that he is immortal, basically, that he was born in the Stone Age and has lived since then, and it’s all about, what is history? What really happened, (and) what would you do with 10,000 years of life? … There’s a lot of discussion about, OK, is he putting us on? Is he reliable? What does it mean if it’s true?”
Even longtime fans of surly comedian and The Daily Show regular Lewis Black may be unaware he’s also a successful playwright. OLT will demonstrate that fact with Black’s One Slight Hitch, a comedic play about “a wedding that is having problems,” says Malm, “with the bride getting cold feet.” Black refers to it as a romantic comedy “as nice as I could be … If my name weren’t on it nobody would know that I wrote this play.” He based it on a time when a former romantic partner, who’d long told him she never wanted to get married, abruptly did just that with someone else. Black wondered what would’ve happened if he’d shown up at the wedding, and in this play, someone very much like him does so. Directed by Dave Marsh, One Slight Hitch will open March 10.
Dorgan’s second directorial effort this season is Into the Breeches! by George Brant, opening April 21. “It’s set during World War II,” Malm reveals, “and it’s about this drama group where all the men have gone off to war, and the wife of the director of the drama group has decided that she’s going to put on the Henriad with all of the women that are around.” The “Henriad,” for those not in the know, is Shakespeare’s epic series of history plays about British kings before, during and after the 1415 Battle of Agincourt. Brant’s comedy was first performed to glowing reviews in 2019.
OLT closes its upcoming season with an even newer play called In the Gutter, directed by Malm herself for June 2023. “I would call it a noir farce,” she says. “It is about a door-to-door gutter salesman who encounters a fast-talking woman with a husband problem and a nosy neighbor.” Think Double Indemnity, staged as a comedy. “That is written by (Maryland playwright) John Morogiello, and this, I think, will be only the second production of it. It was something he wrote during the pandemic just for the hell of it, and it is full of double entendres and puns.”
OLT weathered the pandemic well, Malm reports, thanks to owning its own building plus donations and a sizable nest egg. “Our shows have been selling well,” she adds, “because I think people are wanting to get back and come to the theater, even with the restrictions that we are still doing. … We are still asking people to wear masks and show proof of vaccination or a recent negative test.” Those rules also apply to Malm’s summer 2022 project: namely, directing the second run of her own full-length script, Life Is Complicated. When another director helmed that show’s 2016 debut, OLY ARTS critic Alec Clayton wrote, “Plays on Broadway are usually rewritten many times after they are first performed on the road. A playwright needs to see her play performed by actors before finalizing it. This play has never before been performed. I would love to see it fully developed and produced again at OLT or some other theater.” That opportunity arrives this summer.
With that in mind, Malm also gave us a sneak peek at the cast list for Life Is Complicated, which is as follows:
Talia Carver as Chelsea Walsh
Dani Gelardi as Zoe VanderVecken
Randall Graham as Dave Walsh
Arthur Pinpin as Jordan Kramer
Amanda Robinson as Midge Walsh
Steve Saxton as Chuck Walsh
For full details on the run of that show, see below.
Photo credits: Theater Artists Olympia, Kathy Dorgan.
Life Is Complicated
7:25 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays,
1:55 p.m. Sundays, July 15-31
Olympia Little Theatre,
1925 Miller Ave. NE, Olympia