The Listening Place’s trials and triumphs

By Philip Pearce

LET’S HEAR IT FOR THE LISTENING PLACE, Monterey Peninsula’s popular readers’ theater company. They provided local audiences with a fast, funny and entertaining version of Mary Chase’s Harvey at La Mirada Art gallery last weekend and managed it in the face of some daunting political skirmishes and financial challenges.

There’s been a fourteen year relationship between Listening Place producer Linda Hancock and the Monterey Museum of Art. Over those years, Hancock and fellow founders Marlie Avant and Iby Murphy have built up an impressive enough senior fan base to provide the art gallery over two performance weekends with a healthy crowd of extra visitors at $10 apiece and free admission for gallery members. The all volunteer readers’ theater company gained a rent-free venue, and a well-advertised donations basket at the door sometimes covered Listening Place expenses like royalties and refreshments. It looked like a continuing plus for both local art and local theater. But look again.

If you’ve been awake, you’ll know full well that print news, symphonic music, visual arts and theatrical performances are all battling the crippling effects of cable news, YouTube home viewing and Netflix streaming service.

The Salinas Californian, no longer a local print daily, has had to abandon its Salinas office, which used to provide a well-equipped performance space for Listening Place Saturday matinees. A new high-profit management approach at the Steinbeck Center decrees that they will no longer provide performance space for Listening Place shows. The Monterey Museum of Art says gallery deficits and overhead mean even full members must pay up for shows by Listening Place, which in turn must pay rent for use and maintenance of museum space.

Not a happy picture. But nearby Monterey Peninsula College theatre has shown a feisty optimism in spite of  cruel financial cuts and a kit of anti-arts bureaucracy from Sacramento. A notable example was Gary Bolen’s brilliant  one-man show last December of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol as an MPC Performing Arts benefit.

Listening Place, at least for the moment, moves on with bright products like Harvey and a version of Arsenic and Old Lace this coming May to be directed by Maryann Rousseau. 

And the cast of Harvey included some new top local acting talents along with regular company performers. Jeffrey T Heyer (pictured) reprised his excellent Western Stage performance in the classic American acting role of Elwood P Dowd (“Let me offer you one of my cards”) still accompanied, after all these years by his amiable six-foot rabbit Harvey. Susan Keenan was fidgety and funny as Dowd’s distracted social climbing sister Veta. There were Listening Place regulars on hand like Richard Boynton juggling farce and love-interest as a junior grade psychiatrist at a local insane asylum. The ever-resourceful Bob Colter did irate wonders as a snorting small town judge and doubled hilariously in high couture feathered hat and diamond earrings as a shrill Southern California matron. Western Stage favorite Kathy Cunningham (nee Cusson) was a ditsy delight as Boynton’s pretty nurse assistant. Listening Place newcomer Brittney Buffo couldn’t help being a bit too good looking as Dowd’s not very marriageable worrywart daughter Myrtle Mae. Then there was the versatile Carl Twisselman, all chewing gum-cynicism as a guy who drives and grapples with rebellious patients for the psychiatric clinic. Cindy Womack and Nancy Bernhard took turns at the two matinees in the dual roles of a taxi driver and of the confused but accommodating wife of the asylum’s chief medical officer, played with explosive hilarity first by Scott Harrison and then by D Scott McQuiston when Harrison was taken ill between performances.

Although last Sunday’s performance overlapped with the Super Bowl kick-off it still attracted a near full house. And it all happened at the La Mirada second gallery, which is better lit, and has much better acoustics than the big echoing hall at the Museum’s main branch on Pacific Street.  

And when I last looked a lot of senior spectators seemed to be dropping big bills into the donations basket.


The Other Place

By Philip Pearce

THE LEADING CHARACTER in Sharr White’s stage drama The Other Place spends the play telling us her own story.

When a playwright adopts that technique, an audience knows everything that happens will have the emotional immediacy of first hand testimony from the mouth of an eye witness. But it’s also going to be filtered through the mind and will and psyche of the character who’s doing the talking. It’s no longer just a question of “What happened next?” but of “How much of what you’re telling me can I believe?”

The potentially unreliable narrator has been a plotting device storytellers from Charles Dickens to Alfred Hitchcock have sprung on readers and audiences for centuries. The Other Place, which just opened a four-week run at the Colligan Theater in Santa Cruz, offers a compelling new exercise in the game of Judge the Narrator.

When we meet Julie James in a finely nuanced portrayal of the frighteningly self- assured neurologist Juliana Smithson, there’s no clear reason to doubt anything she tells us and others about herself. Aged 52, she has stoically endured ten years of unsuccessful effort to find a runaway teen-aged daughter named Laurel. We learn that her oncologist husband is sleeping around, so she is suing him for divorce. She reveals that she has recently undergone a mysterious “incident” while in the Virgin Islands pitching a new anti-dementia miracle drug manufactured by the pharmaceutical firm she works for.

Her opening narration shifts to the slide projections and lecture that led up to her “incident.” It’s a brisk, clear, witty and well-researched presentation. At least until Juliana becomes aware of a blonde girl in a yellow bikini inappropriately seated in the middle of an otherwise all-male audience of medics.

As the presentation continues, the yellow bikini girl becomes more and more of a distracting obsession. And there are disturbing cuts from the conference platform to Juliana’s conversations with other characters like her husband Ian, played sharp and troubled by Shaun Carroll. Bits of Juliana’s self-portrait begin to chip away like pieces of a crumbling mosaic. Why does Ian doubt that his wife has really started receiving phone calls from the long lost Laurel? Is a tense, unsatisfactory telephone battle with Laurel’s confused boyfriend Richard a real event or a hallucination? Why is a Boston doctor (Audrey Rumsby) suspicious when Juliana insists that her “incident” was a symptom of brain cancer? What are we to make of the belief that all her confusion and conflict will be settled by a reconciliation with Laurel at The Other Place, a Cape Cod cottage they all once shared as a happy family?

Step by step, White’s script presents intriguing and surprising answers to central plot questions. Inevitably, I suppose, that’s a more vivid and arresting process than Juliana’s eventual discovery that “I need help, don’t I?” It happens at The Other Place and with an unnamed woman (also effectively played by the versatile Audrey Rumsby) as the beaten Juliana finally acknowledges she is not the missing daughter. The two of them find strength from their disparate emotional challenges and form a tentative friendship that is touching and believable.

But, unlike the powerful and beautifully acted material that has gone before, it’s also pretty predictable.   

The production continues weekends at the Colligan through February 16th.

Photographs by Steve DiBartolomeo