A Season of Variety

by Philip K. Jason

ACCORDING TO NAPLES PLAYERS artistic director Dallas Dunnagan, a strong theatrical season requires variety and balance. After working with volunteer committee members and going through 30 or 40 possible choices, the selection process strives to come up with the best possible mix. A drama, a thriller, a classic Broadway musical – you get the idea. Variety is something for everyone.

Balance means setting against one another plays with large casts, plays in which only a small number of characters interact, one-set plays, and lavish productions. It means effective use of the performers’ skills and the talents of the backstage crew. It means deciding what will work best in the larger Blackburn Hall and what is appropriate for the more intimate Tobye Studio.

The 2011-12 season at the Sugden Theater in downtown Naples is itself a work of art with regard to variety and balance. The Blackburn Hall productions began with ‘Always... Patsy Cline,’ Ted Swindley’s brilliant combination of biography and Cline’s music that ran in October.

Next up is Stephen Dietz’s award-winning thriller ‘Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure’ (November 23-December 17). Dietz is one of America’s most produced playwrights, though his plays draw audiences mostly to regional theaters. While winding down his illustrious career, Holmes is tempted by a case he can’t refuse: the blackmail of a king and the involvement of a famous opera singer. Assisted as expected by Watson, Holmes finds himself once again in conflict with his nemesis, Professor Moriarity. “Any surprises?” I asked Ms. Dunnagan? “It’s a very modern production,” she replied, “updated, with very theatrical staging.”

A satirical take on show business, Ron Hutchinson’s ‘Moonlight & Magnolias’ (January 11-February 4) takes us back to 1939. While the world hurtles toward war, three geniuses are racing to complete the screenplay for ‘Gone with the Wind.’ Producer David O. Selznick, script doctor Ben Hecht, and replacement director Victor Fleming work frantically to meet a deadline and shrink an overblown screenplay. It’s a Marx Brothers type of farce with the claustrophobic frenzy of three men in a locked room.

A Broadway classic, ‘Hello Dolly’ (February 29-March 31), is a highlight of the Blackburn Hall season. Matchmaker Dolly Gallagher Levi is charged with finding a wife for a rich miser. The contrast of city and suburbs (New York and Yonkers) plays a part in this turn-of-the-century story that is notable for such hit tunes as “Put on Your Sunday Clothes,” “It Only Takes a Moment,” and, of course, the title song.

Rounding out the large theater’s arc is Robert Harling’s comedy-drama ‘Steel Magnolias’ (April 18-May 12). For those who have seen the highly successful film based on the play, the compressed nature of the original theater piece will be a surprising experience – a highly pleasant one. The single set of Truvy’s beauty salon makes a perfect arena for the interaction of six characters who have in common the blend of strength and delicacy indicated by the title.

When I asked Dallas Dunnagan if she had aimed at a Southern motif in her selections, she denied the possibility. Although ‘Moonlight and Magnolias’ is much less about ‘Gone with the Wind’ and the 19th century South than it is about Hollywood just before World War II and ‘Always...Patsy Cline’ focuses on Cline’s relationship with Louise Seger, a fan from Houston who became a friend and lifelong correspondent – those Cline country classics are there. In addition, playwright Swindley has been called ‘a Southern gentleman of the theater.’ ‘Steel Magnolias?’ Well, I do declare.

In the Tobye Studio, the season is underway with a lesser-known A. R. Gurney play, ‘Later Life’ (thru November 19). Like many of this popular author’s dramas, this one takes a witty glance at middle age among the upper class. Perhaps that’s why his work appeals to Naples audiences. A fiftyish fellow, recently divorced, encounters a woman at a party. She recalls a brief fling they had half a lifetime ago, and she is interested in renewing the relationship. While the woman is looking for change, the protagonist is hesitant, perhaps too set in his ways. Other party-goers constantly interrupt the principals in a brisk play notable for its strong characterizations and its mix of warmth and wit.

Next in the Tobye is John Patrick Shanley’s highly regarded drama ‘Doubt: A Parable’ (February 1-25). Tony Award, Pulitzer Prize, Drama Desk Award. Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn clash when she learns from Sister James that the priest met privately with Donald Muller, St. Nicholas’ first African-American student. Something leads her to believe that a serious wrongdoing occurred. Gossip? Maybe. One thing is certain: it’s a mystery.
The Tobye season concludes with perhaps its edgiest play – ‘A Picasso’ (March 21-April 14), by Jeffrey Hatcher, a playwright familiar to Sugden audiences. It’s known that Picasso was often interrogated by the Nazis during the occupation of Paris. Hatcher reinvents history with a single interrogation by a female art historian who has been forced to take on new duties in the Nazi ministry of culture. One-liners fly back and forth in this lively two-character play that has to do with confiscated masterpieces. •

from the November-December 2011 issue

Artistic Director Dallas
Dunnagan describes The
Naples Players’ production
of ‘Sherlock Holmes:
The Final Adventure’ as
“very modern, updated, with
very theatrical staging.”
A.R. Gurney’s ‘Later in Life’ is in the
Tobye Studio thru November 19.
The Naples Players
Sugden Community Theater
701 5th Avenue South
downtown Naples