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Coyote StageWorks is starting its 11th season with a terrific production of Lucas Hnath’s A Doll’s House, Part 2.

Founding artistic director Chuck Yates and his production team are thrilled to have found a new home at the Palm Springs Cultural Center (formerly the Camelot Theatres). The venue is a great fit, providing a cozier, more-intimate experience for the audience, as well as a lovely upstairs bar and lounge for after-show relaxation.

Yates’ choice of A Doll’s House, Part 2, as the season opener was a wise move. The story is set 15 years after Norwegian wife Nora Helmer walks out of her stifling marriage in Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 drama A Doll’s House. She has now returned, perhaps partly to soothe old emotional wounds, but she’s also on a personal mission: Now a successful writer of books urging other women to liberate themselves, Nora (Robin McAlpine) needs the help of Torvald (Don Amendolia), the husband she left behind. It turns out a judge has discovered she is still married to Torvald and is blackmailing her. Unless Torvald files the divorce papers (which he promised to do when Nora first left), she could lose her both her fortune and her professional reputation.

Also in the mix are the nanny and housekeeper, Anne Marie (Barbara Gruen), and Nora’s now-adult daughter, Emmy (Lizzie Schmelling).

The performances are first-rate across the board. McAlpine is excellent in the pivotal role of Nora. Full of confidence and bravado now that she has found creative and financial success as an author, Nora is a totally different person than she was when she departed 15 years earlier. McAlpine makes Nora’s sense of accomplishment and her twinges of guilt over putting herself first—at a time when most women did not do so—feel quite real.

As Torvald, Amendolia is fabulous. The wound from Nora’s leaving him is so deep that he can’t even look at her upon her return. His anger and pain are raw: “I loved you and you threw it way!” he bellows.

Schmelling’s performance as Emmy is riveting. Quietly seething with fury at the woman who abandoned her as a young child, Emmy has built up a wall around her heart—and has no intention of letting her mother in. After learning of her daughter’s engagement, Nora warns her of the perils of marriage. Emmy counters, “I WANT to be held and possessed.”

Equally as good is Gruen as nanny/housekeeper Anne Marie. Much of the burden of keeping the family together and sane after Nora walked out fell on her. Listening to Nora rattle on about her glamorous life, filled with lovers and book deals, becomes too much for Anne Marie: “You should say thank you for raising your kids!”

Kudos to Yates for great casting, and for masterfully guiding his ensemble through the story.

Thomas Valach’s set is perfect. After moving into their new home, Yates and company took out two front rows of seats, and knocked out a back wall in one of the movie theaters to accommodate dressing rooms. It makes for a wonderful, intimate theater experience.

Frank Cazares’ costumes are spot on, and the lighting and modern music scattered throughout the show are a nice touch. The juxtaposition of period costumes with modern-day props and language works well here, as when Anne Marie enters in a long dress, apron and snood … while wielding a Dustbuster. The smattering of profanity is also effective. When, during a tense argument with his estranged wife, Torvald blurts out, “Fuck you, Nora!” it seems at first jarring, but then wholly appropriate.

As with all theatrical productions, the story affects each viewer differently. One older man told me he did not like the Nora character; she reminded him of Meryl Streep’s character in Kramer vs. Kramer, a woman who coldly abandoned her family and then had the gall to return. As a woman who was once married to a controlling, overbearing man who was threatened by my longing for liberation and creative fulfillment, I had a contradictory viewpoint: The deep frustration and soul pain of being with a partner who refuses to allow you to become the person you were meant to be is excruciating. I suspect many women will see themselves in Nora. Though things have changed a great deal since 1879, females in our society still struggle daily for equality and respect.

I totally understood Nora’s desire to flee a stifling marriage, but the issue of the children is more complicated. Does personal fulfillment always come first, even if you hurt others deeply in the process? How long and how hard should one “work at” a troubled marriage?

These are the big questions audience members will be wrestling with long after they see A Doll’s House, Part 2. Isn’t that what good theater is all about?

Congrats, Coyote StageWorks and Chuck Yates on your new home and a superb season-opening production. Bravo!

A Doll’s House, Part 2, a production of Coyote StageWorks, is performed at various times Wednesday through Sunday, through Sunday, Feb. 16, at the Palm Springs Cultural Center, 2300 E. Baristo Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $50; tickets to the Valentine’s Day show with a champagne reception afterward are $75. The show runs 90 minutes with no intermission. For tickets or information, call 760-318-0024, or visit www.coyotestageworks.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

We’ve reached the end of the season at most of the valley’s theater companies—sob! But what a year it’s been, and what a great way to end it: with Good People, at Coachella Valley Repertory.

Have you seen the new CVRep Playhouse in Cathedral City? This is the second production here, and right away, you have to love the steeply raked levels of seating so that no head, no matter how tall, can blot out your view of the stage. Huzzah! And they serve coffee at the snack bar! Can it get better than this?

Well, actually yes. I hate to give this away, but nothing could dampen the surprise that awaits you when you see the scenery: The amazing Jimmy Cuomo, CVRep’s resident set designer, nearly steals the show. Wait until you see what he does with this high-tech new stage! The open set that greets the audience is a grotty and depressing back alley in South Boston’s lower end, with one lonely plain chair on the stage. Some jaw-dropping theater magic is in store for you thanks to Cuomo. It gave us goose bumps.

The playwright of Good People is David Lindsay-Abaire, a Pulitzer Prize-winner. When this play opened on Broadway, it garnered all kinds of awards, including two Tony nominations. If his name seems familiar, it’s because he penned Rabbit Hole (which was given a riveting production by Dezart Performs in January 2018), and you might remember him as author and lyricist for Shrek the Musical. You are in good hands here.

The show’s guest director, Michael Matthews, has brilliantly aimed this script directly at your brain pan. Its gritty reality is played out, giving the audience a being-there feeling that never wavers. The dialogue is cleverly “telescoped” so that Matthews’ actors appear truly spontaneous, and it gives the show a spirit of breathless anticipation. There isn’t a great deal of movement onstage, but it is accomplished logically (except twice when an actor moved on someone else’s line … distracting, but not important.)

Remember the seedy back alley we mentioned? Our protagonist, Margaret, magnificently and utterly believably portrayed by Reamy Hall, is marched out the back of the dollar store where she toils, by manager Stevie, perfectly underplayed by Erik Odom, for a talking-to about her work performance. It does not go well. In the next scene, in a cramped kitchen with two friends—the cynical Dottie, unforgettably played by Barbara Gruen, and the fiery gossip Jean, delightfully played by Candi Milo—Margie bemoans her lot. We learn about the women’s relationships with their families, the neighbors and each other. We learn about their values like “Southie Pride,” the local spirit in so many places—here with a special defiance attached to it. We see some flashes of the infamous Irish temper. We learn about their lives in “the projects,” and attempts to escape—with various results.

How much does it matter where you come from? So many desert residents cheerfully admit to “re-inventing” themselves upon arrival here, without a trace of embarrassment about it. But back in Southie, it apparently matters a great deal. Those who do well are jeered at as being “lace-curtain Irish.” Those who never make it away from their ghetto will forever play desperate mind games of “What if?” How much does our environment really shape us?

But we also discover that, in looking back, two people can selectively remember the same incident very differently. Michael Matthys gives us a deliciously multi-layered performance as Mikey Dillon, who, through hard work and some luck, makes it out of the neighborhood. Now an upscale and successful doctor, he is married to his privileged, elegant and sophisticated wife, an African-American woman named Kate, played by the smoothly stunning Nadege August. When they find themselves confronted with Mike’s past by Margie, their attitudes about it show how memory can be affected by time. Kate, with her combination of high-society finishing-school grace—plus her phenomenal figure in a skin-tight knit, and her wicked eagerness to sneak into the wild side—is one of the most complex characters on any stage, and August shrewdly plays every card in her hand to create this fascinating role.

The play’s theme slowly emerges: the eternal conflict between truth and rationalization. How far can your moral compass wobble before you are no longer a good person? Can blaming someone else justify your actions? Are your choices the right ones? How far will you bend your morality to change someone else’s life? Whom do you “owe,” and how much? Whew …

Study the biographies of the actors (and staff!) in the hefty program. The full bios detail where you may have glimpsed these terrific performers elsewhere, in movies or on TV. These experienced pros know how to sweep you into their world. They will drag you through a bumpy mix of thoughts and emotions … and they’ll bring you to your feet at the end of the show.

This theater’s matchless brain trust, led by artistic director Ron Celona, has assembled a formidable staff. Kudos to lighting designer Moira Wilkie Whitaker, production stage manager Marcedes L. Clanton, sound designer Rebecca Kessin, sound engineer/audio technician Karlene Roller, costume designer Chandler Smith, hair/makeup artist Lynda Shaeps, and prop master Doug Morris. Flawless work!

Good People is performed at 7:30 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, May 19, the CVRep Playhouse in Cathedral City, 68510 E. Palm Canyon Drive. (There is no show Tuesday, May 7.) Tickets are $53. For tickets or more information, call 760-296-2966, or visit www.cvrep.org.

Published in Theater and Dance