What is it about a matinee performance that makes the experience so much more pleasant? Everyone seems at ease. There is less risk because the day doesn’t end with the show. What, then, do you make of a company that is setting out to only produce matinees? Risk averse, One-Thirty Productions (named after their chosen curtain time) is devoted to the art of the early afternoon. As such they’ve chosen a perfect vehicle: the world premier Well-Travelled, But Not Well-Known by Ellsworth Schave. It’s an ode to summer stock theater, mom and apple pie. A safer afternoon in the theater can’t be found. Unfortunately, un-threatening may mean un-thrilling as well.
Ellsworth Schave has loosened the reigns on this plot that’s preoccupied with plays and the writing, acting and producing thereof. Similarly to another play in town right now, [title of show], this play writes itself as it goes along. This one isn’t as self-referential as that one, but just as self-reverential. You see, momma’s boy without his momma, Thurman (Ted Wold), hires wet behind the ears, Chip (Jason Kennedy), to write a show about his long lost mother for his summer stock theater. This is explained to us by Chip at the beginning. There isn’t so much as a main character as much as a missing one: Thurman’s mother. Much of the play is conjecture about who she was or where she went and why. Hired to play her in the play within this play is the eponymous “well-travelled, but not well-known” Ziller (Morganna Shaw) whom Thurman saw perform in the big city. Her arrival in this sleepy town stokes the romantic interest of the director, Henry (John Venable). Adding color, commentary and complications to the goings on is Thurman’s father, Hiram (Larry Randolph). Arriving randomly and serendipitously is Ziller’s mother, (Gene Raye Price) who happened to have career as a low-rent Annie Oakley sharp-shooter which may or may not be germane.
The plot is pronounced as well as performed at every turn. Characters break character and the fourth wall to warn us what is going to happen or has happened or anything else they would like to share. Like a sudden audition monologue, an actress may take stage and indulge in a moment of memory. It is a lot like playing make believe with a four year old. It’s not about getting anywhere with the story, it is about refining any feeling from tea party gentility to knight’s triumph. When you are in make believe land, there’s no reason a moment can’t be repeated for pleasure’s sake. All the playwright has done is to apply those rules to his script, and lucky for him this company serves up those moments expertly. The actors handily inhabit the shifting scenarios’ with abandon. The audience enjoyed this pleasantness to the point of entirely ignoring the plodding pace and preposterous plot. It’s about as spine-tingling as a memory-lane mosey and as stimulating as recreational art –the appreciation coming from the vicarious thrill of the artist’s enjoyment. These actors held forth playing mood over motive and the audience was entirely whelmed.
No matter how hard I try, I can’t get over the calm and pleasant feeling this show achieved. Despite its cartoonish characters, hokey dialogue and a jerky plot, the experience is one of serene satisfaction, a thoroughly unthreatening delight. If you miss Carol Burnett sketches and like painter Thomas Kinkaid, then this play is for you. If One-Thirty Productions is not careful, they’re gonna give theater a good name.