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01 Jul 2013

Review: Despite Some Voice Issues, the Script Shines Through in the Hi-Desert Cultural Center's 'Great Pecan'

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Velma Demaray (as Velma Rottweiler) and Michaela Chambers (as Priscilla Rottweiler) in Home of the Great Pecan, Velma Demaray (as Velma Rottweiler) and Michaela Chambers (as Priscilla Rottweiler) in Home of the Great Pecan,

Pecans! Who doesn’t love ‘em?

Playwright Stephen Bittrich, on a chatty program page, admits to being born in a pecan environment: Seguin, Texas, the setting for his two-act Home of the Great Pecan, now being performed in Joshua Tree. The Hi-Desert Cultural Center is hosting the play through Saturday, July 13.

The publicity hints at UFO sightings and other weirdness, and, of course, the play takes place in the South, whence come pecans. The play echoes Sordid Lives, Trailer Trash, and other wildly colorful spoofs of the South’s characters … in the 1980s, no less. Was there ever another time like that?

Huge kudos to director Wendy Cohen for even attempting this show—the cast contains 15 actors. Casting this, in a small town? I can’t even imagine the logistics of scheduling rehearsals, let alone wrangling such a mob. And the show is in a “black box” setting! The theater seats about 90 people (with preferred seating in the first two rows, which usually sells out) and is cozily edged in thick black curtains on three sides, surrounding the raked seating and facing an almost-bare stage with a giant screen upstage. The screen cleverly provides instant backgrounds of everything from a beauty parlor, to a starry outdoor country night, to a bathroom where a beauty contestant pitches hysterics and attempts hunger strikes. The actual physical scenery is conveniently minimized, making the quick setting changes a snap.

I kept thinking: Charming. From the warm greetings at the door from Anne and Carol, to the friendly audience welcome by center president Jarrod Radnich before the show, to the delightful servings of actual pecans at the intermission (plus gratis nonalcoholic refreshments in the lobby throughout), the theater exudes comfort and ease. The chairs relax you; the country-Western mood music makes you smile and tap your toes; the audience chats and hugs. The play is rated PG-13. Pleasant.

The basic plot swirls around the mysterious theft of the Great Pecan, a huge and heavy statue honoring the nut. The crime occurs on the cusp of Seguin's annual celebration and pecan harvest. We are treated to a look inside the minds of a homicidal bride, a sheriff who sleeps in his office, the town’s only gay guy (who almost steals the show), a Baptist preacher with more sins than his entire congregation, a Yankee juvenile delinquent, and on and on. And, of course, UFOs! Could it get any more strange?

It’s really all about the friendships, relationships, the community—and everyone’s emotional investments in each other.

So, the cast: They were surprisingly well fitted to their physical types, which include several decades of age difference, with the exception of Kathleen Anderson, whose great smile and pretty face were wasted unconvincingly on her playing a teenage boy. The women—Velma Demaray, Marge Doyle, Toni Molano, Becky Renish, Anja Homburg and especially Lorraine Williamson as “Rosy,” and Michaela Chambers as “Priscilla Rotweiler” (don’t tell me you don’t love that name)—were very believable in their casting. The men—Scott Cutler, Dave Jessup, Tim Kelly, Dennis Priest, Karl Weimer and especially Richie Sande—all bore good physical resemblances to their characters. Jack Kennedy contributes “The Voice of Johnny Johns,” the radio announcer, and is well-cast because of his fine voice.

Most of the cast could benefit from vocal training. Last syllables of words were dropped; some actors never mustered the volume to be heard by the entire room; accents were wildly varied. Too often in regional theater, voice is the last consideration. What a shame, because voice problems compromise the audience’s understanding of the play. And we have to smack the wrists of those who bobbled their lines—but give stars to the actors who kindly jumped in to save each other's bacon.

Yeah, there were a few debatable directorial choices, but in the end, that script shines through, thanks to plenty of laugh lines, bizarre predicaments and wild characters. You can learn more about the playwright at www.stephenbittrich.com.

It’s a one-hour drive from nearly anywhere in our Low Desert to get to Joshua Tree, but it’ll be at least 10 degrees cooler there! After all, it is the Home of the Great Pecan.

The Home of the Great Pecan takes place at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday, through Saturday, July 13, with an additional matinee at 2 p.m., Sunday, July 7. The show is performed at the Hi-Desert Cultural Center, 61231 Highway 62, in Joshua Tree. Tickets are $15 or $20. For tickets or more information, call (760) 366-3777, or visit www.hidesertculturalcenter.com.

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