San Francisco Theater Review: IN FRIENDSHIP: STORIES BY ZONA GALE (Word for Word)

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by Tony Frankel on September 5, 2013

in Theater-San Francisco / Bay Area

A PRAIRIE THEATER COMPANION

As many newer plays fail to grasp the art of storytelling, Word for Word Performing Arts Company offers compelling narratives via short stories which are performed literally, well, word for word. Their 20th anniversary production is a seamless Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema San Francisco review of IN FRIENDSHIP: STORIES BY ZONA GALE - Word for Word at Z Below, Z Space's new second venue, San Franciscocompendium of Zona Gale stories which take place in the town of Friendship Village, Wisconsin. Our narrator is a writer (Susan Harloe) who recounts how she arrived for privacy, but becomes embroiled in the trivial trials of a small-town clutch of women known as the “Married Ladies Cemetery Improvement Sodality.”

Directed by Delia MacDougall and Joel Mullennix, the cast of eleven is made up of Word for Word’s core company and original founders (plus Mr. Mullennix and Paul Finocchiaro). Both directors imaginatively incorporate business on top of what the author offers in her short stories, and the actors, many of whom dexterously shapeshift from one Upper Midwest character to another (a special nod to dialect coach Lynne Soffer), speak the narrative in character. Their smooth transitions into dialogue seem so effortless that any “she said” becomes positively unobtrusive. The result is a gently urgent and heartwarming experience which will inspire you to support and encourage theater, storytelling, literature and friendship itself.

Though barely on the radar of most reading lists, Gale (1874-1938) was an extraordinarily successful journalist, novelist, and playwright who received in 1920 a Pulitzer Prize for drama – the first woman to do so. While her portrayal of provincial prairie life at the turn of the 20th century is not as spicy as her Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema San Francisco review of IN FRIENDSHIP: STORIES BY ZONA GALE - Word for Word at Z Below, Z Space's new second venue, San Franciscocontemporaries Sinclair Lewis and Willa Cather, Gale proffers a slice-of-life that perfectly captures that antiquated world of social mores and the American pioneer spirit with wry observations and pithy humor.

The stories begin with “The Debut,” in which a barely literate washerwoman Mrs. Ricker (an affecting, sad-souled JoAnne Winter) holds an astoundingly belated coming out for her 30-year-old daughter. The hardworking Ricker may be on the lower rung of the social strata, but the ladies are fine with attending the “day-boo” until the town’s uppity social matron, Mis’ Postmaster Sykes (the gloriously stiff and pretentious Nancy Shelby), decides to make a rival of the poor woman by sending out invitations for her own party. Naturally, as happens in all the stories, the unnamed newcomer (a bewildered and put-upon Harloe) happens to have a lovely home and is used as a fulcrum in the see-saw game of social power.

Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema San Francisco review of IN FRIENDSHIP: STORIES BY ZONA GALE - Word for Word at Z Below, Z Space's new second venue, San FranciscoThe promoting protagonist who befriends our narrator is Calliope Marsh (a hands-on, no-nonsense Jeri Lynn Cohen), who successfully draws the hesitant writer into the municipal mélanges, no doubt partly due to her amusing metaphors, such as describing Mis’ Mayor Uppers (the reticent Patricia Silver) as being “like a vinegar cruet.”

In “The Java Entertainment,” an aspiring but controlling newcomer, Mrs. Oliver Wheeler Johnson (Stephanie Hunt, moving about the stage like a brisk prairie wind), alienates the ladies during a firehouse sale, but this segment drags a bit because it never reaches full comic potential until disaster strikes. The follow-up story “The Cold Shoulder” ends the first act beautifully as the gossipy women are forced to examine their judgments about Mrs. Johnson. Especially beguiling is the animated Amy Kossow as the corpulent Mis’ Amanda Toplady; Kossow blends pathos and humor perfectly, which are the trademarks of the evening.

Those trademarks are most evident in the emotionally stirring last act, directed by Mullennix. A combination of two stories has Calliope planning a huge Thanksgiving dinner for the needy and hungry folk of Friendship. As she enrolls a disparate group of ladies to prepare the meal, there’s just one problem: This small town doesn’t have needy and hungry folk. Almost a mash-up of “Babette’s Feast” and any given story from Garrison Keillor, this inspiring story ends up being heartbreaking and uplifting at the same time. The woebegone and lovely Delia MacDougall plays one of the three Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema San Francisco review of IN FRIENDSHIP: STORIES BY ZONA GALE - Word for Word at Z Below, Z Space's new second venue, San FranciscoLiberty sisters; with their parents dead, the siblings join in the cooking as a way to re-engage in the holidays. Even though we sense the outcome of this tale, it is no less moving and powerful.

Giulio Perrone’s plain, white set of moving cubicles is unremarkable, but they serve as blank pages on which Laura Hazlett’s texture-rich and colorful costumes and hats are handsomely lit by Jim Cave. As if it’s not rewarding enough to have been introduced to a lesser-known American writer, Word for Word reinforces the persuasive and stimulating results that arise from delicious storytelling – as delicious as that Thanksgiving meal I wish I were part of.

photos by Jessica Palopoli

In Friendship: Stories by Zona Gale
Word for Word Performing Arts Company
at Z Below, Z Space’s new second venue, 470 Florida St.
scheduled to end on September 13, 2013
for tickets, call 866.811.4111 or visit http://www.zspace.org

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