The setup: Many of the best off-Broadway theaters are clubs of a kind: like-minded artists who've come together to form a company that produces the kind of work they value, to joyfully challenge their skills, to share the results with audiences in a meaningful way. If you've spent years doing and/or watching theater in the Phoenix area, it's natural to be suspicious of any arts enterprise that people purchase memberships or pay dues or fees to participate in (especially if you've been a child actor or stage parent), but exploitation is not the nature of Theatre Artists Studio -- it's more New York-style in its mission and operations -- and its members' devotion is what makes the shows so darn good. The directors cast the member actors quite a bit; that's part of the point. But the company also works routinely with theater artists who aren't members, and the cross-pollination is good for everybody.
The Studio also brings us interesting plays we don't get to see often, and its current offering, And Miss Reardon Drinks a Little, presented here as a longish one-act, is the second best-known play by Paul Zindel, who won a Pulitzer for The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds. The man sure could write a quirky, memorable title. Zindel, raised by hardworking women after his father left the family, also had a firm grasp on the pain, humor, and absurdity of female-led families (and human behavior in general) and the way that intimate, complex conflicts play out.
See also: Theatre Artists Studio's Mary's Wedding in Scottsdale Is Not Just a "Girlfriend in Canada" Joke
The execution: Judy Rollings has collected and rehearsed a dynamite cast to play the three Reardon sisters, who grew up pathologically close to one another and their recently deceased abandoned, repressive mother, and the remaining characters: neighbors in the Staten Island apartment building that's the play's claustrophobic setting and co-workers in the local school system that employs just about everyone on stage and raises the stakes of the events. Debra Rich and Maureen Dias (Maple and Vine) play the older two sisters, Dee Rich portrays Anna Reardon, Judy Lebeau is Fleur Stein, a "guidance teacher" who also lives in the building, and Walt Pedano (August: Osage County, Sons of the Prophet) is her husband, Bob. In smaller but still vital roles are local writer/performer/director Dolores D'Amore Goldsmith and Metropolitan Arts Institute student Taylor Raine Updegraff, who I must disclose is a friend of mine.
Basics of the story: The three sisters all became public school teachers at a time when education was one of the few socially approved career fields for women. (The play was written in the late 1960s, and this production is set, with lovely details of costume and staging, in the '70s.) Ceil (Debra Rich) has become a superintendent, married, and moved out of the family home. Anna has had what used to be called a "nervous breakdown" after a trip to Europe with Catherine (Dias) the previous summer, and she's also under suspicion after one of her male high-school chemistry students accused her of abuse, so she's holed up in the apartment with Catherine.
The oppressive feeling that your family members want something from you, sometimes something that might not be in your best interest, is depicted excellently by the script and by Debra Rich's performance as domineering Ceil, who's concerned about the security of her own career. On the other hand, Catherine might be a bit less concerned than is appropriate about Anna's behavior and her own alcohol abuse.
Despite her routine sipping of Manhattans, Catherine's saddled with gorgeous, self-consciously erudite hyperverbalism courtesy of Zindel's dialogue. Dias makes her at once confident (at least on the surface), charming, wickedly funny, and only a little (and appropriately) annoying.
Dee Rich plays the difficult "crazy part" so matter-of-factly that she graciously cedes the significance of Catherine's role as immediate catalyst to the antics of her "normal" castmates. Padding about the set in a pale bathrobe, she paradoxically uses her misery and obsession to remind us how simple and fun life can be.
Lebeau, whose work I now want to see much more of, assays the role that won Estelle Parsons a Best Supporting Actress Tony. Fleur is a multifaceted, intelligent woman who's deeply insecure. It's almost impossible to tell whether she is genuinely in over her head, both professionally and in her marriage, or whether she has determinedly drowned herself. Lebeau's appearance, emotional range, and layered relationships with the others onstage are a fully artistically functional joy to behold.
As Fleur's husband, Bob, Pedano has one of the best exit speeches in American drama, but each moment up until then is a little building block that contributes to a character whose outburst seems as natural as a developing storm. He's also an impressively chameleon-like actor -- I hadn't even remembered that he was in August: Osage County (and geez, that was just January) until I read his program bio. Bob's not an inherently bad guy, but like many of the people in the apartment on this particular evening, he isn't helping, either.
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The verdict: This play's very funny in a slightly horrifying way, just a little weird (sometimes it seems that food is simply everywhere, for example), clever, strongly presented, and refreshingly devoid of this century's perversions while remaining relevant to American life today. It's understandable if it makes you want to drink a little, yourself, afterward, but please don't drive.
And Miss Reardon Drinks a Little continues through Sunday, April 27, at 4848 E. Cactus Rd, #406, in Scottsdale. Tickets range from $10 to $20; purchase them here or call 602-765-0120.