Circle of friends

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^ Posted May. 3

Comedy inspires improvised back story, human interest

By Josette Keelor -- jkeelor@nvdaily.com

On a recent rainy evening in Winchester, the cast of Winchester Little Theatre's "The Porch" gather to rehearse lines they've been running for several weeks, leading up to their opening night next Friday.

Greeting each other like old friends in the lobby of the train station theater, they seem very much like their characters -- longtime friends who spend a Labor Day afternoon reminiscing on a porch.

"It's about friendships. I think these three women are engaging because they're friends," says Director Sarah Gomez.

The play has its dramatic moments, but it's very much a comedy, Gomez says; however, she warns that it offers adult themes and may not be appropriate for children.

Written by Jack Neary, a friend of Gomez' from Massachusetts, the play is one of many the theater has performed already, though only his children's plays.

"We had not done any of his grown up plays," Gomez says. "We're really excited to do this. He's a great, great guy."

The play offers something few others do, Gomez says: The chance to cast older actors.
"There aren't many plays that focus on a cast over 50, 60," she says.

Of the cast, Sally Anderson, who plays Marjorie, is first to settle into an armchair in the lobby, but it isn't long before Chris Frear joins her, followed by Randy Moulton and Bob Wade. The conversation turns to shared experiences in the theater and studying their roles.

"It has an incredibly strong human interest, people will laugh, they will sympathize," Anderson says.

"There's such warm characters," she says. "These are solid friends, solid marriages. Something that a lot of plays don't have these days."

"Yes," says Frear, who plays Alma, "I think there's a real comfort between the friends."

But, as in any good comedy, there's also friction, and Anderson says, "The contentiousness shows the deep relationships that are there."

Set on the porch of Alma's house, the play centers around Frear's character inviting over her friends on Labor Day for the first party she's thrown in years.

"Alma, I think her entire universe really is her neighborhood," Frear says. A widow, Alma is the only character in the play not married.

Jude Wynne, who plays Gert, arrives at the theater as the rain outside swells to a downpour.

"Direct from Dulles, I am here," she says, shaking water onto the floor. "The show must go on."

She's welcomed into the fold, and the conversation continues.

The actors get along like old friends, but unlike their characters they do not share a history.

Anderson is a regular at WLT, but Wade has not appeared on the local stage in several years, and Frear never has.

"The thing for me," Frear says, with emotion, "[is] that I'm just tickled to do this because it has been 37 years since I've been onstage. The last time I was onstage was in college."

A theater major, the Loudoun County resident says she never pursued theater as a career, but she would have joined up at WLT years ago if she had known it was here.

Recently learning of the theater, she immediately ordered a script for "The Porch."

After rehearsals began, Gomez invited the cast over to her place for dinner.

"And we had to arrive in character and stay in character the whole time," Frear says. "It was a hoot."

Wynne agrees, "I've never done anything like that before. It was all improvisation. ... She's fun to play, there's no question about that."

Not everyone was excited for dinner, though.

"I went very reluctantly," Anderson says. "I was screaming all the way."

She's an old hand at acting, she says, and she didn't think improvisation was necessary.

"I'm somebody whose done theater for years," she says. A native of England, she's been in the U.S. for 30 years and in Winchester for 12.

A theater teacher at Shenandoah University, Anderson has performed in many shows at WLT.

"I've directed, acted, I'm the media person here," she says. "So my life is full of drama."

She'd never done anything like the character development dinner at Gomez's house, and she and Moulton felt the same way about it.

"We would rather have acted and rehearsed," she says.

But they relent they had a good time.

"Not many directors have acted for a background," says Moulton, who plays Pat. "I think it's good. It gives you a little insight."

"Sarah Gomez is a terrific director," Wynne says. "I would be in any play she does."

Wade calls his character Leo "a tough guy," but the others don't agree.

"He's a marshmallow, come on," says Anderson.

"He's edgy," Wade counters, "and he's got to put up with a lot from these women."

But after Frear chips in her opinion, Anderson says, "Neither of us are married to him, by the way."

According to Wade, "Gert is the long-suffering wife of yours truly."

"Emphasis on long," Wynne says from the seat beside him.

"She's had a hard time, a hard life," Wynne says. "She's developed a crustiness and now that she's of a certain age, she doesn't hesitate to say ... everything that's on her mind."

Anderson agrees, "She loves to interfere in other people's lives."

"Okay," Wynne says, "are you going to tell people what Gert is like?"

But it's Frear who replies, "Your opinion is always right."

"Well thank you," Wynne says, "and we're supposed to be friends forever?"

Wade says his character is good friends with Marjorie's husband Pat.

"His buddy here is helping him see through," Wade says. "He's the calming influence a bit to Leo, at least he tries."

According to Anderson, Pat "prefers not to ruffle feathers."

"Again," she says, "he's a foil very much for Leo."

Anderson believes the play will reach audiences, "and I don't think just for an older generation. I think it will be enjoyable and it will be refreshing for younger generations as well."

Gomez agrees.

"I think they'll be able to relate to the people in this play."

"The Porch" will begin at Winchester Little Theatre next Friday and run through May 26. Performances are at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and at 2 p.m. on Sunday. For more information, call 665-3331.


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